How Can You Cook More Mindfully for People with Allergies?

January 12, 2017

In 2008, when Montreal restaurateur and chef Dominique Dion was 33, he was dealing with a sickness he couldn’t explain. It made him sluggish and tired, forcing him to visit doctors more times than he could count. Back then, he had a full-time job as a Vice President of a digital music company, and he was also finishing up his MBA. Soon, Dion learned he had celiac disease along with severe lactose intolerance. His doctors instructed him that he now needed to follow a strict, gluten-free diet.

Dion’s lifestyle changed drastically. He realized that he could no longer take the pleasure of going out to restaurants for granted. Dion joined the world’s swath of people who are handicapped by allergies when trying to eat out. He learned that the food service industry didn’t possess a solid, foundational knowledge base about the health risks that certain dishes posed to patrons who had compromised immune systems. Going out became a source of stress.

Photo by Dominique Dion

Dion, MBA in tow, decided he wanted to solve the very problem he’d encountered in his own life. In 2008, he began Zero8, a Montreal-based restaurant that has crafted a menu for people allergic to the eight most widespread allergens: gluten, dairy, eggs, fish, soy, sesame, nuts, and peanuts. These are the people whom the food service industry often forgets, a lapse that Dion himself experienced firsthand as a result of his condition. Zero8 has recently made headlines stateside for the news that it’s trying to expand beyond Montreal and become a chain.

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“There is an obvious lack of knowledge and education surrounding food allergies and celiac disease,” Dion told me when we spoke earlier this week. He was talking about both the food service industry and, even more generally, the way people cook at home. “The trend is improving, but mistakes are still far too common, such as offering couscous to substitute a breaded appetizer. Both dishes can have the same consequences to someone with celiac disease.”

Photo by Dominique Dion

In fact, Dion has seen many restaurants offer nominally gluten-free and allergy-accommodating dishes without a holistic sense of their supply chain. This is why he’s become especially cognizant of how ingredients are manufactured, stored, prepared, distributed, cooked, assembled, and served.

As he became an expert in the domain of cooking for people with allergies, Dion has had to fight against an assumption that his food he serves must be more expensive or lacking in flavor. This misunderstanding dovetails with a general lack of knowledge people possess about cooking for people with allergies. “I’ve seen websites providing recipes that are supposedly allergen free, but won’t provide the proper guidance,” he said. “For instance, chicken broth is not an ingredient. It contains various ingredients. I know some chicken broths contain gluten, milk and possibly soy or other allergens. Grandma might not know that!”

In the past, Zero8 has run into financial trouble—it was forced to close down one location in 2013 due to a gnarly rent increase. By then, though, Dion had amassed a fervent group of fans in his clientele, and a number of them convinced him to crowdfund his way to a new location. This allowed him to reopen the restaurant in October 2015, and though the location is smaller than the original, he described business as steady. Now, Dion has decided he wants to open more locations across the country, first in Quebec, and then, perhaps, the world. He's hoping to crowdfund this process. He's motivated by the warm reception from his clientele, convincing him of this project's necessity.

“Almost every week a family comes in and tells us this is their first family outing,” he explained. “While some take risks going out to other restaurants, too many families are left in the dark with no options available to them.” Just recently, he told me me, he met a family took a 13-hour trip from Chicago to Montreal by car to visit Zero8. They wanted to bring their daughter, severely allergic to legumes, to Zero8 for her first restaurant experience. She'd never been able to eat at a restaurant before.

Cook for anyone with severe allergies? Know of any similar initiatives in your area? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


creamtea January 13, 2017
Although celiac disease, lactose intolerance and allergies are all serious medical conditions that require strict avoidance of specific ingredient(s), they are not at all the same thing; the first two, celiac disease and lactose intolerance are not allergies.
M January 12, 2017
Another headline that has absolutely nothing to do with the content inside.
La'Chia January 12, 2017
The title of this article is misleading. To me something titled, "How Can You Cook More Mindfully for People with Allergies?" implies that there will be tips on cooking for people with allergies. That is why I wanted to read the article. Instead this is a profile of a restaurant catering to people with allergies. It's an interesting topic but I wish the title would have reflected the true nature of the article.
rockymtnneighbor January 12, 2017
Agreed! So annoying. Total clickbait.
ErinM724 June 17, 2017
I agree, but really, it DOES tell you how to mindfully cook for people with allergies....just open a restaurant! ;)
mizerychik August 10, 2017
I agree, the title is incredibly misleading.

As an anaphylactic, the best way to cook mindfully for someone with allergies is to listen to them and believe what they say. And I'm not saying that to you or anybody specifically, but many allergic people comment again and again that they're treated as hypochondriacs or overly sensitive when they ask questions or provide a list of things that need to be checked. The one really good point in this article was about chicken stock - it's not a solitary ingredient. Lots of people don't think down to base ingredients like that when cooking for others, especially when using items that seem commonplace to them.

If you're serving a large meal to a mixed crowd of allergic/non-allergic people, serve the allergic people first, especially if it's a buffet. By the end of a meal, bits and ends of things end up getting dipped into each other, which turns into a stressful cross contamination situation. If you're putting butter out, unwrap a fresh stick instead of putting out the half used one in your fridge. Make sure your utensils are squeaky clean before starting to cook and use different ones for each dish. Don't repeatedly taste things with the same spoon (gross anyway, but I'm being honest about the way many people cook at home.) Food proteins can linger in your mouth for up to 4 hours, so for example, if you eat a peanut butter sandwich and then taste a spoon that you use to stir a pot of chicken soup, that soup is cross contaminated.

If this is out of line, please let me know :) Since you said you were looking for that out of the article, I wanted to offer what help I could.