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.
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.
“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.”
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.