Thursday, 20 March 2014

Feast: Toronto's Newest Specialty Food Boutique to Open Spring 2014

What if you knew there was a place to find delicious food that has been tailored around your food sensitivities? Would you be delighted to know that a spot is opening in Toronto this year literally catering to those of use that are the sensitive types? Read on, your dreams are about to come true.

We all know the drill: You're heading out for dinner with friends and they've picked the place. Resigning yourself to the insalate side of the menu you scour for potential problems. Eventually, so as not to cause a fuss when the orders are collected, you decide. "It's ok," you think, "I'll just get the dressing on the side." By the end of the night you've maxed out your sensitivities on a second glass of wine, too much cheese, those couple of slices of bread, and you're all too aware that the next few days, let alone the rest of the night, aren't going to be good.

Or perhaps you've spent too much time feeling blah after a meal and you've decided that your clean eating is here to stay. You're on a solid stretch of not breaking into that unopened box of crackers in the back of the cupboard, and you think, "I wish this wasn't so hard. Man, I'd really like a doughnut."

Having a tasty gluten-free, dairy-free, wheat-free, nut-free, sugar-free meal (or snack, or dessert) is easier than ever, especially in a big city surrounded by others with the same concerns, but it can still be quite tricky. Not everything that is raw or vegan or lacking in wheat and other aggravators is tasty.

Feast, a gourmet food store overlooking Trinity Bellwoods Park is set to make life easier for us allergic and sensitive types. The gluten-free and top 8 allergen-free kitchen will offer ready-to-go food and pantry staples as well as stock food by other artisans and companies committed to creating delicious and safe options.

I chatted with co-owner Wendy Zeh, half of the husband and wife duo set to open this restricted-foodie-lovers oasis this spring about what brought on the venture, a bad baguette, and how healthy Toronto really is. 

I understand you are a nurse, and your husband Neil is a chef and you both have food allergies or sensitivities. What is the story there, did you discover your dietary concerns at the same time and what did you do about it?

It all started innocently enough a few years back when Neil started having allergic reactions to fish. Having one person in a household with a fish allergy was tricky, but it wasn’t impossible, and didn’t really alter our lives that much. Fast forward to 2 years ago, when Neil’s allergy list was becoming so lengthy that we had cards printed because we could no longer rattle them all off from memory. Add to that gluten and dairy intolerances which surfaced for us at the same time, and suddenly food became a critical challenge for us. Anyone with a food allergy or intolerance will understand that the journey can be discouraging, intimidating, tiring and frustrating. We had to re-educate ourselves and our friends and family about food and food allergies. We had to learn where we could eat, where we could shop, and we had to learn new cooking techniques.

What was the moment that made you realize that you wanted to open a place for people with food sensitivities?

It was 2 years ago, in those fragile learning curve days where one disastrous homemade millet baguette and one awful frozen apple pie were the straws that just broke the camel’s back. We had purchased every allergy-friendly cookbook on the market – even ordering them from Australia and the UK. We had 18 gluten-free flours in our pantry, and when we found the millet baguette recipe, we discovered that we didn’t have millet flour. We had to phone 3 stores to find it. We followed the recipe exactly, and ended up with a hard bitter lump that we had to throw in the bin. Despite countless efforts, we had not yet perfected allergen-free pastry either, so we were still at the mercy of prepared food products. We spent $18 on a frozen apple pie, and the taste and texture was so foul that neither of us could eat more than 1 bite. It also ended up in the bin. At that point I just looked at Neil and said “if it’s this hard for us to find amazing food, what on earth is it like for other people with food allergies and sensitivities??” And that’s when we decided that we were going to figure it out – not just for ourselves, but for others too.

Toronto tends to be seen as less of a "healthy place" than Vancouver. What do you think of the health market here in the city?

I like to think of Toronto as a healthy place. We are fortunate to have organic farmers, and food artisans and chefs who are focused on offering healthy and flavourful food. I think there has been real growth in this area in the last few years, and we are excited to be a part of it. Toronto hosts a yearly Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) trade show, which we attended last year. This is Canada’s largest trade association dedicated to natural health and organic products, and we are going to be carrying some of these products in our store.

Anything to add?

I’d like to tell you a little bit more about what makes us special. Being eco-friendly is important to us, and a consideration in all that we do; from sourcing out organic, non-GMO, and local ingredients, working with local food artisans, using eco-friendly cleaning products, and using sustainably harvested compostable packaging. Our store will be a clean, green, beautifully designed space. Our design team is focused on eco-friendly, sustainable design, and our architect is LEED accredited. 

The taste and the safety of our food is also important to us, and we don’t compromise on this. We go to painstaking lengths to ensure that the food we sell tastes fabulous as well as meets our allergy profile. How do we ensure that food tastes fabulous? We personally taste test everything that we sell, and also use taste testers with and without dietary restrictions to ensure that it is loved equally by all. How do we ensure its safe? By contacting distributors and manufacturers of ingredients that we use and products that we carry, and probing them about manufacturing processes and cross contamination risks.

Can I also add a shout-out to the many amazing people who have been supporting us and working with us to make this all happen!

Thank you Wendy!

Feast will open later this Spring.
Find Feast on Twitter and follow on Instagram.

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