Please, please, please let me get what I want…

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I have no reason to deny that I am who I am and where I am now because of food sensitivities. Or rather a disorder whose symptoms are lessened if I abstain from:

coffee      sugar     wheat     dairy     anger

My life has been full of highs and lows living with psoriasis, an auto-immune disorder that causes the skin cells to replicate and shed every 4 days as opposed to the normal 30. As it is mainly cosmetic, save for the 30% or so who develop psoratic arthritis, which is horribly debillitating, it’s priority in the medical community is rather low. Mostly it causes terrible depression and isolation in its sufferers, something with which I am very familiar.

After years of research on food and illness, I decided to do an experiment. I walked into my dermatologists office and told him I would no longer seek his services to control my symptoms, that I would do so through diet. He actually laughed in my face.

Six months later, and with a Homeopath to treat me, and try to con me into thinking I was sensitive to 20 other natural, healthy things, my skin was clear and I felt great.

After 22 years of trying to hide my skin from the world, applying makeup where makeup normally doesn’t belong, wearing pantyhose under my shorts so I could feel like a normal kid in the summer, no more lying still in my bed in agony because my skin felt as though it was on fire and not moving was my only relief, no more doctors to hold me down while 10 needles are injected into my legs and arms.

I never went back to my doctor, but I did go back on my lifestyle change. I taught myself to bake at 24 after eating the gluten-free products available back in 2006 — everything on the shelves was revolting, local bakeries served goods too closely related to styrofoam. A handful of people back then had written excellent volumes on the subject, but the market had yet to be filled with the options available today. Having an allergy back then was not yet chic, it was unpalatable.

The books that I especially appreciated, in particular Ariana Bundy’s Sweet Alternative, whose cabernet sauvignon recipe I use to this day unadulterated, had a common thread; these pastry women had gone to Le Cordon Blue. So I said to myself, “I’ll go, learn the classics, then continue on my path to become an even better allergen-friendly baker.”

HAHAHAHAHA.

Yeah right. Instead I was taught the old-world mentality on food, something we on this side of the pond forgot quickly when our landmass and growing population lead to factories and well-travelled foods. Gorging on food is bad, but eating only for sustenence is to deny the body of pleasure.

Eat well, in balance, and only until satisfied.

Over the years I tried to go back to my wheat-free life, as my body didn’t like being back on the sugar/gluten/butter bandwagon, but moderation meant that instead of looking like a lizard queen and being asked if I was a burn victim, it was really just more of a nuisance, something that bothered me but few others noticed.  Did this have to do with growing up on margarine and switching to butter? From factory brown bread to homemade white?

Still feeling as though I was a hypocrite, I tried to stop. A fellow chef scoffed, arguing the inauthenticity of a chef who refuses to eat that which she makes. Fair enough, I’d give up wearing skirts and shorts to guarantee the quality of my food — I never send out food I haven’t tasted.

England was a breath of fresh air. They don’t bother to consider nut-free, gluten-free, dairy-free options because no one is interested. While there I probably came across a nut allergy three times and one gluten free, one dairy allergy. No one was on special diets claiming they were eating only as cavemen (but my question is, why go to restaurants? Restaurants weren’t yet invented in a the paleolithic time), people went so far as to ask for their steak cooked a certain way, as you do, and request pouring cream with their puddings (desserts).

Calgary, a sobering slap in the face, reminding me I’m back in the new world, where everyone is special and everyone needs to have what everyone else has, but catered to them. I don’t want to sound like a whiney chef, bemoaning the destruction of my ‘art’ when people ask that I peel the sponge off the bottom of mousse to make it glutard friendly. Keep in mind I did live like that for years. Except when I went to restaurants, I would have never considered asking that a special meal be made for me. I never viewed my dietary needs as someone else’s problem, opting to have ingredients held back if possible (no cheese on the salad, please) or take it off myself. In fact, I tried to frequent places that catered to my diet of No-Fun-Food, and maybe splurged for special occasions. Or I stayed home and made something I knew would be safe and delicious.

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Now I struggle to write menus that take everyone into consideration. Trained specifically in French pastry style, a country that believes (rightfully so) that nuts should go into most things for flavour and a light texture, in frustration I must replace delicate, beautiful almond-based sponges for the less-special ladyfinger in things like Opera or mousse cakes to avoid having too many nuts on the menu.

And trying to come up with something authentic, that comes from the heart, a traditional dessert made modern that is gluten-free is frustrating to say the least. French cakes can easily have the wheat swapped for gluten-free flours, which is great, but these flours are hard to find on their own in moderate quantities, and the blends are needlessly expensive as the fad of being ‘sensitive to gluten’ is the perfect money gouge.

I can’t even go near dairy free at this stage. We are too small to offer soy-based desserts for the three people a week who come in and can’t have cream.

We have however catered to vegan’s and will totally accommodate people with allergies. This is of course when things become hilarious.

CHEFS ARE TRAINED TO TREAT “ALLERGIES” AS ALLERGIES.

So when you go into a restaurant and you say you are allergic to something, we will HOLD UP THE ENTIRE RESTAURANT to wash down all the surfaces, pull out fresh mise from the fridge, and take all necessary precautions to keep transfers to a minimum for your safety. This means everyone else in the restaurant will have to wait so we can cater to YOU. When we find out you just don’t like something or have a light sensitivity like you get gassy when you eat real food as opposed to heavily processed food, it irritates us. It is an abuse of the word ‘Allergy’. We automatically send salad to “Celiac” sufferers who abuse this word — the number of people who insist on having french fries from a fryer filled with gluten from dredged foods is outstanding. True celiacs could never opt for french fries, but if you call allergy we will treat you with the attention you desire.

We hosted an all vegan dinner for twenty because the birthday girl was vegan. You can imagine how unimpressed half her “friends” were with the animal-free food, despite how delicious is was. My coconut, lemongrass, thai chili, and cilantro rice pudding went mostly untouched.

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Recently we had a client in with an xmas party who was “vegan — strict, raw only”.

I LOVE A CHALLANGE. I sent our token vegan server to the local hippie-dippy shop for the ingredients of a raw, vegan cheesecake, a recipe I’d acquired from a cook at a fine dining vegan resto in Ottawa. I made some significant substitutions to the recipe to make it seasonal and perfectly safe for someone on such a strict diet.

But when she arrived we realized that…she just limits her diet, possibly due to a nervous disorder. I am no doctor, but I do suffer from stomach and digestive difficulties, especially when I am anxious. An elderly lady who claims allergies to “citrus and anything sweet” in addition to meat, dairy, eggs, acid, alcohol, flavour.

We sent her the four courses as we’d designed them. She ate the soup happily, but turned her nose up at tofu and her salad.

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Her server returned with the dessert plate to say “well, she did try it…”

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Four hours labor, almost $40 to buy the ingredients… And people wonder why chefs have a short fuse.

What can I say? This is a source of daily frustration. We live in a society that deems the customer always right, but is it right to demand something not on the menu? Why do I think it’s okay with cocktails or coffee shops (One flat white, please), but not in restaurants? We are trained with black-box exercises and allergy-friendly drills in school to concoct food on-the-fly, and yet we continue to take it personally that people can’t trust our original dishes, dishes we agonize over perfecting. Maybe we don’t like being lied to? Of course we get upset when we make you a special meal without pepper because you call ‘allergy!’ and then the server catches you eating off your husbands pepper-finished plate.

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But put aside personal feelings of the chef, in the end it is our job to make food people want to eat, but how on earth did we go from baking our own bread at home, making our own everything with a handful of ingredients, savouring foods only in season and buying extra to extend their shelf-life with time-tested preservation techniques, to relying on foods that were packaged months earlier, injected with gasses and preservatives to extend their lives, to happily eating things whose names we cannot pronounce, to eat bread that has 11 ingredients, one of which is added sugar? And how did we lose that ability to truly let go of everything, all our worries, to just enjoy well-made food?

This recipe truly does go against everything I believe in, and yet it doesn’t; I cannot get into the horrors of industrial agriculture, so I do applaud the true vegans who refrain from animal by-products for ethical and environmental reasons. They too deserve to enjoy a dessert every now and then. I’ve named this for Ondrej (english: Andrew), the token vegan server who happily and sometimes unhappily brings me a flat white or two every day.

Ondrej’s Raw Citrus Cheesecake

120g raw almonds, soaked 8 hours

30g shredded coconut

35g Agave Nectar

Zest of one lime

1 tbsp sesame seeds

Good pinch salt

Combine in a food processor and pulse until the almonds are a relatively fine texture, but keep it a bit chunky as the base will provide a good deal of textural contrast to the smooth filling.

Press this mixture into your chosen vessel, you can make individual ones in mason jars, as it’s quite chic to do so now, or in ring moulds if you have some, or a cheesecake pan.  Freeze.

200g Cashews, soaked 2 hours

100g Lemon Juice

50g Lime juice

50g Water

160g Coconut Oil

150g Agave Nectar

pinch kosher salt

Combine everything in a blender and puree until smooth. Pass through a strainer, pour into mould. Freeze.

Use a hand torch or hot water bath to unmould the cake.

To finish, cut supremes of grapefruit and orange and place them on the cakes, then sprinkle with black sesame seed. I steeped agave nectar with saffron and a few drops of Yuzu juice (you can use lemon as yuzu is harder to find) and drizzled it in before serving. Pansies or any edible flower would work as a garnish.

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