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Chicago's Balanced Kitchen Restaurant offers a vegan, gluten-free, sustainable dining experience.

Local restaurants whip up allergy-friendly fare

by Laura Schocker and Julia Dilday
Dec 10, 2008


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No gluten? No problem at Rose's Wheat Free Bakery and Cafe in Evanston.


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Customers can choose gluten-free, dairy-free and nut-free options, among others, from Rose's dine-in and to-go menus.


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Sweet Cakes Bakery offers whole categories of treats, like cookies and scones, that are egg-and dairy-free.


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Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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Sweet Cakes is located in the Ukranian Village neighborhood of Chicago.


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Throughout the past year, Bistro 110 hosted an allergy-friendly dinner series.  Each night had a theme: gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free and shellfish-free. 


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Chef Dominique Tougne said he hopes to make dining out easier for families with food allergies.


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Karyn's Fresh Corner Cafe and Karyn's Cooked in Chicago have full vegan menus.

The skinny on vegan and raw cuisine

The kitchens at Karyn Calabrese’s Chicago restaurants serve up traditional favorites, from a burger with cheese to a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.

But even if the menu choices sound familiar, for some, the ingredients may not.

Karyn’s Fresh Corner Cafe and Karyn’s Cooked are strictly vegan, meaning they don’t offer any offer meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or dairy. Tofu substitutes for beef in the burger; eggplant takes the place of bacon in the sandwich.

“It’s so important for the visuals of the food to look like what people are used to eating," Calabrese said. “I’m consistently told how wonderful it is.”

While the recent increase in allergies has forced some people to eliminate foods for medical reasons, others have done so as a conscious lifestyle choice.

“You definitely look and feel more vibrant,” Calabrese said of her diet. “You almost feel it immediately.”

And Calabrese isn’t alone. More than 7 million Americans follow a vegetarian diet, according to a 2008 study from Vegetarian Times. One million of those are vegans.

Calabrese, 61, became a vegan herself nearly four decades ago and has been on an all-raw diet almost as long, meaning she doesn’t eat food that has been cooked over 118 degrees.

“I came to that because everybody in my family died overweight and young,” she said. “The longevity gene was not in my pool.”

The diet and lifestyle changes seem to have reversed family trends for Calabrese—she said she hasn't been sick in 38 years and people tend to think she’s in her early 40s.

As vegetarian and vegan diets have become more popular over the past decade, she said finding food options is “a thousand percent easier” than it used to be. And for her, the changes are about taking a whole body approach. Karyn’s Inner Beauty Circle offers spa and wellness services and Calabrese runs information sessions several times a month for people looking to make diet or lifestyle adjustments.

For those not ready to make the jump to a meat-free diet, Calabrese suggests starting with small changes.

“Every meal doesn’t have to have meat,” she said. “It’s so difficult on your system.”

But sometimes the stigma of vegan food concerns people who worry about giving up their favorite flavors.
“They think it’s boring and tasteless,” she said.

Calabrese said it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Just give my restaurant a try.”

Four years ago, Suzanne Friedland’s son Coby gave up M&Ms.

Coby, now 8, suffered a severe allergic reaction after eating a peanut butter cookie in 2004. Subsequent diagnoses of peanut, tree nut, egg and fish allergies sparked a lifetime of vigilant diet changes. Even trace amounts of allergens can be enough to kill him. Cough drops with almond flavoring, cookies with nuts and even one of his favorites—M&Ms—had to go.

For Friedland, the first step was a major house cleaning, deciphering each food label and scouring every ingredient list on the hunt for hidden allergens. But the mother of three knew she couldn’t keep her son under house arrest in their allergy-free kitchen in Deerfield forever.

“My husband and I made a decision really early on that we didn’t want to have the ‘boy who lives in the bubble,’” said Friedland, who co-founded the Food Allergy Initiative Chicago last year. “We have to balance between living a life and taking some calculated risks.”

Some of those risks may now be a bit easier for Friedland’s family, and other allergic Chicagoans, to take. Responding to the skyrocketing number of people with known food allergies, local restaurants have been adapting to meet the needs of these customers.
Recent studies have found that between 1 and 4 percent of adults and 4 to 8 percent of children in the United States have food allergies, said Dr. Xiaobin Wang, professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

And the numbers are on the rise. Last year, three million children had a reported food allergy, an 18 percent increase over the past 10 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers have yet to pin down a reason for this increase, but Wang is hoping to change that, as a principal investigator for a new food allergy study headed by Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Eight foods account for 95 percent of food allergies, Wang said, listing peanuts, eggs and milk among the most common triggers.

“Normally food is supposed to be something you enjoy for your nutrition,” said Wang, who is also the director of the Smith Child Health Research Program at Children’s Memorial.

Not so for someone with allergies, she cautioned.

Mild symptoms can range from skin rashes to itchiness, Wang said, while a severe case may cause a drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness, asthma attacks or even death. In the United States, food allergies spur 30,000 emergency room visits, 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths each year, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

With the potentially fatal consequences, any place where food is served—from the home kitchen to the school cafeteria to the everyday restaurant—can become a minefield of deadly allergens.

And now local restaurants are stepping up to keep eating out an option for everyone, regardless of diet restrictions.

“There’s nothing worse when you have a food allergy than feeling like you’re special and not for a good reason,” said Betty Smith, co-owner of Sweet Cakes Bakery in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood in Chicago.

Smith, a long-time vegetarian, suffers from egg and dairy allergies, while her mother, sister and aunt are allergic to most types of grains, including wheat, corn and barley.

“We eat at home pretty much exclusively,” she said. “We’ve always found it difficult to eat together places.”

When they did find a restaurant to cater to some of their allergies, one of them would often have to settle for a salad. Some places weren’t interested in accommodating them at all.

“I got tired of it,” Smith said of the decision to open an allergy-friendly bakery with her father, Vernon, in June 2007. “The idea is that no one should have to feel restricted by their diet, whether it is by choice or by allergy when they go out, especially with your family or your friends.”

Smith, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, offers whole categories of dairy-free products, from coffee cakes and muffins to scones and cupcakes, appealing to those who are allergic or vegan. She also bakes a flourless cake for people who need to steer clear of wheat and clearly labels products containing nuts. 

 “The goal is to make the best food that we can without limiting people,” Smith said.

Maximizing taste and accessibility for people with allergies is also the priority for Rose’s Wheat Free Bakery & Cafe in Evanston, where the menu is entirely free of wheat, gluten, peanuts, corn syrup, casein and trans-fat. Foods without dairy, eggs and nuts are always available to diners eating in or taking out at Rose's.

Rose O’Carroll opened the bakery and cafe a year ago to make life simpler—and just as tasty—for people with food allergies. She has had a gluten intolerance for the past four years and her mother and daughter have been diagnosed with celiac disease, an inherited condition where gluten attacks the small intestine. Her twin teenagers are also sensitive to gluten.

Rose’s brings regulars, who travel from as far as Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana, as well as newly diagnosed people, who are looking for allergy-free food, and even advice about living with a food allergy.

“(Customers) are definitely coming in looking for some help and understanding about what’s going on with them,” O’Carroll said.

“I had one older woman, she was 80 years old and she brought her family in for brunch,” she said of a customer who had been diagnosed with celiac disease 40 years ago. “She was just so happy to be able to eat with her family without any issue.”

The woman cried with gratitude at the register.

For some, though, it’s not always realistic to eat at a restaurant dedicated to people with specific food allergies. Friedland and her son, for instance, visited a major chain on a Florida vacation two years ago. The manager told the family he couldn’t accommodate the allergies, which was especially difficult for her young son to take.

“Here he was, with big eyes looking at this man, wanting to eat in a restaurant,” Friedland said. But he couldn’t.

And it’s not just niche restaurants that are catching on to the growing food allergy population.

The Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group, with more than 30 restaraunts in the Chicago area, has started to incorporate gluten-free menus at some of its locations, said Carrol Symank, vice president of food safety for the company.

Their Wildfire chain, which has five restaurants in the area, has had gluten-free options for the past few years, offering everything from appetizers to entrees to desserts.

And now, their Mon Ami Gabi restaurant, which has locations in Lincoln Park and Oak Brook, is in the final stages of launching a gluten-free menu, Symank said. All of the Lettuce Entertain You properties, which include Maggiano’s Little Italy, Ben Pao and Everest, have a specific policy to accommodate as many different allergies as possible, with steps built in to avoid cross-contamination.

“Many people have family members and friends who have food allergies,” Symank said. “We want them all to be comfortable when they come out to our restaurants.”

Finding a restaurant that makes food allergy safety a priority is priceless, Friedland said.

“Once you find a place that you’re comfortable with you go back and back and back again,” she said. “You have to make sure that whoever is serving you and helping you is totally on board.”

And sometimes the people who understand food allergies best are those who know what it’s like first-hand. Dominque Tougne is one of them.

Tougne, executive chef of Bistro 110 in Chicago, said that as a member of the food industry, food allergies have always been a priority. But the matter became a personal one when his son was diagnosed with severe allergies, including peanuts, tree nuts and sesame. His daughter is also allergic to eggs.

“I just decided not to be passive but to be somebody that can make a difference on peoples lives by trying to implement a system in the restaurant,” Tougne said.

A local physician now comes in once a year to update the staff about how to avoid a food allergy reaction and what to do if one does occur. Tougne suggests that customers alert the restaurant when they make their reservations or when they first arrive.

“When you know that the place is really attentive and you know you can go because it’s safe for your kids, or it’s safer for your kids, of course that’s going to be the first choice when you go out with your family,” he said of the restaurant’s reputation around the Chicago area.

The bistro always has at least one or two food allergy requests each day, with the most common being gluten intolerance. Once the customer places the order, the waiter will check with the kitchen and manager to make sure that the item can be prepared without the allergen.

The staff then uses latex-free gloves and clean, sanitized utensils and cooking surfaces to prepare the food. As soon as it’s ready, the chef or waiter brings the food to the table, even if the rest of the food isn’t finished, to avoid any chance for contamination.

“We will never be 100 percent safe,” Tougne said, but Bistro 110 takes every precaution to avoid a problem. “We are not perfect, but we’re extremely attentive.”

This past year, the bistro hosted a special four-night allergy series, which provided a set three-course menu; each night had a theme, without gluten, shellfish, dairy or nuts.

“I want those people to have the best experience and the best food they ever had.  I want them to know that eating normally, even when you have those kinds of problems, is possible,” Tougne said. “You’ve got to be able to do that in your house, but you should also be able to find it in certain restaurants.”

And Tougne said he hopes other restaurants will follow his lead.

“I don’t believe that today, somebody who is serious about food service can ignore the problem,” Tougne said. “It’s the matter of a difference between life and death.”