It's no secret that allergies have been in the news quite a lot lately. From who should be found responsible in the case of a Quebec restaurant serving a man a meal that sent him into a coma, to the the sky-high price of Epi Pens in the United States. So what a great time to highlight something positive that's going on in the food allergy world.
Toronto caterers Daniel and Marie Holloway of Urban Acorn Catering are serving up meals tailored to their every guest's need with particular attention paid to food allergies, veganism, and other dietary restrictions (they refer to their business as flexitarian). So much so that they've become the go-to caterers in Toronto for this type of thing.
One of their mandates is sustainability. Now named one of Blog TO's Top 10 Best Caterers, Marie and Daniel's business has evolved from small-scale side project to catering company, fine food store, and unofficial hub for local entrepreneurs. They value sustainability and fair trade, paying their staff fair wages, giving opportunities to local vendors and producers, and working to eliminate food waste. Having both a catering company and store allows them to do that efficiently, and as they said it's not only better for the environment but benefits them financially.
Part of being a sustainable business is forming strong social partnerships. A local baker uses their space for cooking classes and in exchange provides cookies for their store. They have agreements with local restaurants to take their unused produce or other items that would otherwise become "waste" and make them into soups, sauces, crostini, etc.
Their inspiration for doing this stemmed from their visit to the Green Living Show a couple years ago, where they became immersed in the farm-to-table movement. Because their store is just around the corner from their kitchen it also serves as an extra pantry which allows them to accommodate last minute switch-ups or requests from clients. They stock fine foods and house-made goods, and interesting products like delicious vegan cheeses, or made-to-order charcuterie boards.
In regards to food allergies, every client has a restriction or allergy, they told me. There's always someone to accommodate, whether it's a preference like veganism, or a restriction like anaphylaxis. Marie and Daniel consider every detail to ensure the safety and comfort of their guests. As Daniel pointed out, it's often the smallest details that chefs forget which ends up causing cross-contamination. Frying oil, for example, is refreshed every time it comes into contact with an allergen.
The biggest challenge to avoiding cross-contamination is generally the venue. It's not uncommon for them to be prepping and plating dishes in small kitchens or unconventional places like a farmer's field where the facilities are not ideal for keeping ingredients separate. For example there may only be one oven that has to be used for many things.
Daniel told me that organization is the best way to stay safe once on site. He'll assign kitchen staff each to work only on certain dishes so that the "contaminated" ingredients stay away from the "safe" ones. Marie will bring in platters for the allergy-friendly appetizers that are physically different from the ones used for the rest of the apps. That way there's less chance of confusing dishes and it helps guests identify what's safe for them. Certain servers will be assigned to only handle the allergy-friendly foods for the evening for consistency.
They always make a point of touching base with any guests who have allergies so that they can feel comfortable and safe. They recently catered a wedding where 4 people out of 61 had food allergies, and were able to create safe, delicious food for each one. When serving foods buffet-style Marie ensures that anything containing allergens is clearly labelled to keep guests informed. She explained that family-style is the most challenging serving style because it allows for so much cross-contact with the sharing of utensils.
No matter how severe or mild an allergy is, Marie and Daniel always treat it very seriously. Sometimes allergies are communicated right away as high priority needs and the menu is built around them. Other times they are communicated as an afterthought when the RSVP cards start coming in. Either way, they make sure those guests are treated well.
Daniel recounted a past client who had allergies to raw veggies, nuts, basil, seafood, pineapple, papaya, gluten, and eggs. There were a lot of obstacles to overcome in designing the menu for her event. Instead of focussing on what she couldn't have, Daniel asked her what her favorite things to eat were and then created a menu inspired by her tastes.
Marie, Daniel, and their staff did a training course with Dine Aware to become more knowledgeable about how to handle food allergies. We were discussing how lately I seem to eat out less and less because while there are many people who are supportive and willing to accommodate my allergies, there are also a lot of people who are not.
Marie and Daniel feel that when someone brings you a challenge, whether it's making a vegan haggas samosa, or creating a peanut-free menu, you can either feel defeated and avoid it, or take it head on. They feel that at a wedding especially, that's the first meal you have as a united family and the last thing you want is to alienate someone.
If you don't have food there for someone just because they have allergies it shows that you didn't consider them, and that's not a very good start. As caterers the Urban Acorn team is part of that first meal, which is why they always strive to make it the very best.
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