Neil Lomas is a professionally-trained chef from the UK, now living in Toronto. He had no food allergies growing up. One night when he was in his 20s, he had a major food allergy reaction — which was soon diagnosed as a fish allergy. Within a few years, he had also developed allergies to shellfish, nuts, peanuts, basil, cinnamon, kiwi and mushrooms, as well as several food sensitivities.
“All of that in a short time span was quite life changing,” he says. “I had a difficult time cooking as a professional chef because of my inability to taste-test most of the things I was cooking.”
Faced with these new challenges, Neil and his wife Wendy Zeh got creative. They came up with the idea of opening an allergy-friendly fine food store, where customers could buy takeout items and prepared meals, all free of 8 top allergens. For two years, they did their research and carefully sourced ingredients, taste-testing hundreds of products and creating recipes. Wendy, a Registered Nurse, describes the process: “I had food intolerances as well, so we knew how to cook free of Neil’s allergens as well as dairy, gluten and soy. From there it was about creating the best-tasting recipes.”
“We basically decided to fill a gap in the market,” explains Neil. “It also made it possible for me to enjoy working as a chef again.”
In early 2014, their dream came true and they opened FEAST on Queen Street West in Toronto.
Like many restaurateurs, Wendy and Neil are in the store from early morning till nighttime and are a hands-on part of everything. They take extra care to verify ingredients and products to mitigate cross-contamination, favouring manufacturers who use dedicated facilities and have allergen management plans. They train staff using the Allergen Training Basics for the Foodservice and Food Retail Industry program (developed by TrainCan Inc. and Food Allergy Canada). All staff are required to write an exam and receive a certificate of completion. They also subscribe to Food Allergy Canada’s Allergy Information Service, which reports on Canadian Food Inspection Agency allergen-related food recalls and other alerts.
Spend any time at FEAST and it’s clear the space has a personal feel. Neil is often called out of the kitchen to meet customers to talk about food allergies, and to share stories. “I have a hat that I wear in the kitchen that has a squirrel on it and it says ‘no nuts’,” says Neil. “Kids with food allergies are often very cautious about trying out new food, but being able to identify with them on their level really helps put them at ease.”
Wendy agrees. “We exchange stories with customers, and we understand each other. The reason they’re here is the same reason we started our business.”
Subscribe to Food Allergy Canada’s Allergy Information ServiceTags: Dining, Eating out, Feast