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At the Chef’s Table: Embrace task to cook for customers with allergies

The rock shrimp with mango salsZealous uses tamari wheat-free soy sauce. (Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times)

The rock shrimp with mango salsa at Zealous uses tamari, a wheat-free soy sauce. (Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times)

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Updated: August 16, 2011 12:26AM

It happened 18 years ago, the first week I opened Zealous, but I remember the story like it was yesterday.

A woman came in for dinner armed with a page-long list of foods she couldn’t eat. The waiter took her order, walked into the kitchen and said, “There’s a woman here who has a few food allergies. No seeds, butter, mayo, beans, onions, raw fruits, raw vegetables, meat, pork and nothing spicy.”

Was this a joke? Surely this was a joke. I had to meet this high-maintenance customer more out of curiosity than anything else, so I headed out of the kitchen, introduced myself and sat down at her table, where she proceeded to share her story.

The woman suffered from Crohn’s disease, a disorder that causes inflammation of the digestive tract. Eating certain foods brought on tremendous pain. She talked about how much she enjoyed eating out, how she was previously married to a chef and accustomed to eating anything and everything, how devastated she was when she was diagnosed and how something as simple as enjoying her favorite foods was no longer an option.

I admit this woman caught me off-guard. Growing up in a house of adventurous eaters (my parents were part of a gourmet club back in the ’70s), my childhood was filled with dishes like sauteed octopus, pierogies, homemade pastas, Chinese moon cakes and veal sweetbreads. I couldn’t imagine a doctor telling me to stop eating anything, so to know that something as simple as a cream sauce or a fresh-baked dill roll was off-limits to this woman really moved me.

Many chefs would have considered this situation a huge inconvenience. Some might have refused to adapt any of their dishes. But I embraced it as a challenge. To provide an incredible meal with such limited ingredients was my own mini “Iron Chef” challenge, and surprisingly it took just a few changes to my menu to accommodate her needs.

Since she really wanted the Sesame Crusted Sea Bass with Red Coconut Curry Sauce, we altered the dish by grilling the fish and preparing a roasted pineapple vinaigrette with ginger poi. We also made a sweet potato soup, substituting soy milk for the cream and omitting the roasted pumpkin seeds. With fairly little effort, we were able to prepare a great meal that she loved.

She began eating at the restaurant so frequently that we laminated her list of allergies and hung it in the kitchen. She not only became a great customer, but a close friend.

This was my first experience cooking around dietary restrictions. Since then, we have served hundreds of customers who have required dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free and meat-free dishes, and I’ve learned that these limitations no longer mean you have to sacrifice flavor.

Consider substituting milk or cream with soy, almond or coconut milk. Meat dishes can be prepared with seitan or tempeh. Use vegetable stock when recipes ask for chicken or meat stock. Try agave syrup as a replacement for sugar. These ingredients are easily found at your grocery store; you no longer need to make a separate trip to a specialty foods store.

Our menu now includes many choices for customers with special dietary needs. We have a vegetarian version of both our five- and seven-course tasting menus. We use vegetable stock instead of chicken or meat stock in all of our meat-free dishes and incorporate agar agar, a gelatin substitute derived from algae, in our Savory Panna Cotta and other desserts.

On a recent weekend, a young couple joined us on their first date. He had researched restaurants with vegetarian options and selected Zealous to try and impress her with a five-course vegetarian tasting menu.

When he left, he mentioned he was a diehard meat-eater and said the vegetarian menu changed his outlook. He would definitely return — though probably not with the same date.

Michael Taus is the chef and owner of Zealous, 419 W. Superior.

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