According to Heath Canada, some seven percent of Canadians self-report having food allergies (the physician-diagnosed number is a little lower, between three and four percent). Awareness of most of those allergens emerges during childhood, but some don’t fully manifest until adulthood, meaning your immune system suddenly mistakes certain, often delicious ingredients as harmful rather than helpful. It causes undue frustrations for those affected, but it poses a particularly unique burden on those who, at that age, find themselves working professionally in kitchens: chefs who are suddenly besieged by food allergies, some of them extremely debilitating or dangerous. These are problems that simply appear one day, taking once-trusted, beloved ingredients off the table for good.
“I was sick for a long time, couldn’t figure out what it was,” chef Eric Hanson explains, sitting in a café off Whyte Avenue. “Sick for almost a year. Different hospitals, different doctors, everyone trying to figure out what was happening with my body. And the bitter irony was not realizing it was a food allergy the whole time.”
Hanson—who presently works at the Bothy, but has cooked in acclaimed kitchens all across the world, from Australia to South Africa to England, and co-founded the popular Edmonton Food Fight series—discovered the source of his illness by fluke. While travelling through Spain, he was sick (yet again); the hospital in Barcelona thought he might need surgery. The surgeon, coincidentally, was a friend of a friend.
“The whole service of the hospital changed,” Hanson recalls. “He sat down and went, ‘OK, we’ll figure out what’s wrong with you.'”
Hanson had never considered a food allergy, but after the doctor suggested it, the connections drew into sudden, sharp focus.
“I went out and had a bite of a Subway sandwich and was in brutal pain three bites later, and then later that night had a bite of plain pizza, and then did the math,” he says. “And then cursed the sky, going ‘Noooo!’
“I’m a guy who touted a pasta-roller as my carry-on,” he continues. “I loved making fresh pasta. Italian grandma. That was a big part of my life. … All pasta had to come off the repertoire. And I hated cooking for the next year. I was bitter, and every recipe I’d go to cook that I knew how to cook, I’m like, this doesn’t taste right. You know what it needs? Some gluten!”
Hanson’s culinary woes only grew from there: a few years later, after doing a 400-ingredient food allergen test, lactose (and all milk products and proteins), eggs, some types of onions and oysters got added to the don’t-eat list. (And his fiancé has a nut allergy, in case you thought the culinary gods hadn’t been cruel enough). Since then, Hanson’s experienced the difficulty of managing allergies first-hand, especially when travelling: from nine-and-a-half hour flights with nothing he could eat, to doing everything right—learning to explain his allergies in a different language, warning a kitchen, being assured it would be dealt with, and then biting into a meal to discovr a familiar, sick sensation waiting for him..
But after a mourning period, Hanson came around to trying to work within his new limitations, and turn his weakness into a strength.
“I needed to be able to keep cooking,” he says. “And I needed to feel good about it, and I needed to be healthy again.”
Even in less-than-ideal working environments, he’s found a few ways to avoid putting himself in danger of a reaction.
“Now, I taste the food once, and I’ll go off smell,” he says, of cooking with gluten, post-allergy. “I’ll smell that dish, and then I know that’s how it has to smell next time—I won’t taste them. My friends didn’t believe me until [they saw], but I can tell when pasta’s done cooking—gluten pasta—by the smell, instead of by [tasting] it. If you do it enough, you can smell the gluten.”
Chef Heather Dosman has a somewhat different story. Testing an egg sauce inexplicably sent her heaving one day, but unlike Hanson, she had some sense this might be coming.
“I have a twin sister, and she also has an egg allergy, but she developed hers earlier,” Dosman says, over the phone from Vancouver. “I had, I guess, an idea that [I] was probably going to eventually [get] that.”
In Edmonton, Dosman’s worked at Culina in the Muttart and the Three Boars Eatery; now living out in Vancouver, she’s cooked in kitchens like veggie-only the Acorn, and currently does freelance and pop-up work.
Once Dosman identified eggs as an allergen, working around them didn’t prove too difficult. She can still work with eggs; her allergy has no negative effects for handling them or having them in the kitchen. Only ingesting them triggers a reaction.
“Luckily for me, cooking eggs is kind of a thing that—as long as you know the techniques on how to do it—you can do it pretty easily without having to taste it,” she says. “And then I would just get my co-workers to taste things that I needed them to for seasoning.”
Chiefly, the allergy determines the sorts of places she applies to work. Allergies have proven more of an issue with her partner, Dosman notes: also a chef, but burdened with a tricker-to-navigate nut allergy.
“He works in an Italian restaurant, and I think he chose that style of cooking because it’s largely nut-free,” she says. “Whereas when we were looking at applying for jobs, he couldn’t really work at the Acorn, because it’s a vegetarian restaurant and there’s a lot of really nut-based dishes.”
Still, it’s not all culinary gloom and doom. Dosman actually sees the situation as improving, generally: current societal trends have people trying to be more health conscious in general, which means menus with some form of ingredient-limitation or another are increasingly the norm.
“I think maybe people are starting to pay more attention to what they’re eating, and not just following convenience trends,” she says. “Most of my freelance stuff is for specialty diets. So it creates a lot of opportunity, but you have to be a lot more knowledgeable as a chef about what is going into your ingredients or into your recipes, and contamination issues, too.
“You kind of have to choose where you’re working, or who you’re working for,” she continues. “Some chefs are little more flexible about things like that than others would be.”
For his part, Hanson’s now working to create quality gluten-free food that side-steps its stigma.
Shifting public opinion on that matter’s been tricky, though: most people’s experience with gluten-free cooking is paying more for something that doesn’t taste as good, meaning that advertising a dish under that banner—even if it is gluten-free—doesn’t always make for a hot sell.
“At a restaurant I cooked at downtown for years, I didn’t tell anybody [that the food was gluten free],” he smiles. “And it worked! I don’t know if we’re ready to say full-on gluten-free and not run away from it. I don’t know if Edmonton’s ready yet.”
Hanson’s allergies are part of his pitch to prospective kitchens these days: he can cater to a niche audience in a way they’ll come to trust as quality, rather than obligation. As such, he’s working with a number of kitchens around town to try and design gluten-free menus that aren’t just placating, but delicious.
“The upside is, as a chef, if someone comes in with a gluten allergy, I can give them that assurance: No, no—I’m going to take good care of you,” he says. “I know.”
As for Dosman, she muses that her profession might actually be an ideal one for having an allergy. Already knowing her way around a kitchen and possessing a culinary skill-set—of working with a variety of ingredients, and catering to specific styles—means the need to adapt a menu or diet isn’t a difficult concept to grasp and enact.
“I think being a cook and having an allergy is kind of an advantage in comparison with someone who doesn’t know how to cook a lot of different food, because you can figure out ways around everything,” she says. “Because that’s kind of what your job is, and you have that experience. Whereas a lot of people I know, who never really learned how to cook, would really struggle with adapting their eating habits and cooking style. We don’t have too many problems.
“It’s more when we go out to restaurants,” she adds with a laugh. “People hate us.”