FEAST: Comfort Food for All

FEAST

Those with food allergies and sensitivities finally have a place to relax and enjoy delicious comfort food made with love. FEAST which cleverly stands for “Fabulous Eats for the Allergic + Sensitive Types” opened its doors on June 26, 2014 at 881 Queen St. West in Toronto. Across from hipster hotspot Trinity-Bellwoods Park, FEAST offers something for everyone: from savoury Beefeater pocket pies and sweet Krispy Chocolates to energizing Cocoa Brew.

Co-owners Wendy and Neil have gone to great lengths to ensure that every item made in-house is free of the top allergens (gluten, wheat, dairy, soy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, fish and shellfish). As globetrotting foodies living with food allergies, ex-nurse Wendy and chef Neil appreciate the need for allergen-free food to also taste divine – and they certainly deliver. Their food is so good that a lot of their clientele actually have no food allergies or sensitivities!

There are two things that struck me when I first entered the store:

  1. The smell of freshly baked pocket pies fills the air. Yum! I tried a meat pie and ended up buying a box to take home!
  2. It’s a beautiful space! Smooth concrete walls accented by wood lend a very modern yet homey feel. This provides a great backdrop to the many foods which are carefully displayed including house-made spreads, salads, doughnuts, chocolates and pantry items… of course, all free of allergens.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Wendy and Neil who shared their story of FEAST.

INTERVIEW WITH WENDY & NEIL

A journey of food, allergies and joy

Q: FEAST stands for Fabulous Eats for Allergic and Sensitive Types. How did you come up with the fabulously long and clever name for the shop?

Wendy: At first, we got a bunch of friends over got fabulously drunk and threw out every name that came to us. We put them on paper and looked at them the next day, and said, no, we won’t name it Sparkle Pony. Then I was just walking down the street and thinking about words that have meant something for me and what we were trying to do, and FEAST just popped into my mind. I called my mom and told her “FEAST” and she said “FEAST it is!” I like acronyms, so I thought “what FEAST could possibly stand for: A for allergic” … and it just came from there. And I had to write it down quickly so I wouldn’t forget!

Q: FEAST is a haven for food lovers with allergies and sensitivities. Tell me about your personal experience with allergies.

Wendy: It started with Neil. Neil became allergic to fish and shellfish quite a few years ago, as an adult. He was already a chef at that time, he was working in the Cayman islands and It could have been over-exposure to that. We’re not sure. It was easy to work around, one person with some allergy issues. But then it started compouding. All of a sudden both of us became gluten intolerant, dairy intolerant, he started having allergies to nuts, peanuts… we had to start writing them down for him, and the list became so long. It progressed very quickly, within about a year we had nailed most of his food allergies.

Two years ago, we were at the point when his list was long, mine was starting to grow. The commonalities for us were no gluten, no dairy and soy, and he had the nuts, peanuts, fish and shellfish.When you’re lucky enough to find something that is gluten-free that tastes great, it usually has almond flour or is soy-based. It was a real struggle. (We thought) How do we feed ourselves? And we thought how do other people do this? How do people with kids do this? How exponentially difficult would this be for people in a household?

We’ve tasted the terrible food, we’ve had the frustration, and now we’ve done something to fix it for ourselves and hopefully help other people.

Q: Many people with severe food allergies tend to fear the “outside world” of food – they don’t go to most restaurants, they don’t trust what is prepared outside of their home, and they may not want to venture to try unfamiliar or exotic foods. How does FEAST help lay rest to those fears?

Wendy: We’ve done a lot of work to make sure that the food that we prepare, and that we curate in the store, is safe. So for every single ingredient we bring here, we contact the manufacturer or the owner of the company to check the manufacturing practices to make sure there is no cross-contamination with any of the 8 allergens we’re clear of. Some of them have certifications. Some of them just follow good manufacturing practices. And some of them are very detailed and clear when explaining what they go through, and how they test things. If we’re not comfortable with their answers, we just won’t carry it.

Everybody who works here has been through the Anaphylaxis Canada food allergy and certification program. We all have personal experience with food allergies and sensitivities. We know it’s a life and death issue and we take it seriously. We hope people will ask us when they have questions. We try to do the best we can to help people, to guide them.

We are both the teacher and the learner.

People come back and tell us how they use our products, like vegan butter melted on popcorn – we never thought of doing that! It’s a sense of community … we wanted it to feel great for people. The journey for food allergies and sensitivities is tough one, and we wanted this to be a very special place for people.

Q: Who designed this space?

Wendy: Green Tangerine Design designed our space. They are wonderful to work with. They are Hamilton-based and do a lot of work in Toronto. David Taylor created the FEAST brand.

Q: You have an enviable location on Queen West, right across the street from Trinity Bellwoods Park. How did you end up choosing this neighbourhood?

Wendy: This place was two years in the planning, and almost a year of it was looking for the right space. Queen West wasn’t the first on our list, but it was for the people who knew us. We were thinking King West, Summerhill, but people who knew us were like, no, Queen West. And we looked at properties every single weekend. We both worked full-time and we looked long and hard. And we said, maybe it is Queen West. And then we started looking in this area, and this one (at 881 Queen St. W) presented itself. We got here because of the people we worked with, which was just fantastic.

We are so lucky to have this location. It felt right.

The minute we found it, we felt we were meant to be here. Being right across from the (Trinity Bellwoods) park, we get lots of people taking out our food to picnics, or even to the Blue Jays games.

Q: Toronto is an amazing culinary hub, one of the best in North America. What are your fave restaurants and shops to get great food in this city?

Neil: My favourite restaurant when I wasn’t allergic to fish, was Tempo, when it was open. Currently, Carmen and Ursa. They are both very good at dealing with food intolerances and allergies.

(For stores) we had to shop at so many places. McEwan’s is a bit far for us. We like Whole Foods, Big Carrot – they all have their moments.

Q: Which restaurateurs or chefs do you look up to most?

Neil: Anthony Bourdain, Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, Thomas Keller, and Marco Pierre-White

Q: If you had to eat only one cuisine for the rest of your life, which cuisine would that be?

Both: French or Spanish. Definitely European.
Wendy: I love paella, and Neil makes the best paella.
Neil: Frog’s legs. I like the big fat ones. With bacon aioli. Mmm!

Q: What is your best-selling item?

Wendy: Pocket pies! We sell over 100 a day.

Q: What’s been the most surprising thing that’s happened since you opened the shop?

Liz (store manager): Just how overwhelmingly happy people have been. Everybody that comes in is full of joy. One thing that is really surprising is how many of our regular customers have no food intolerances at all. We have people come in daily, sometimes more than once a day. They can eat anything and they choose to eat here – which is incredible. So that means it’s tasty for everybody, not just those of us who suffer from intolerances. Little kids come in with eyes lit up, no food intolerances, they just love the Beefeater pies.

There are little kids jumping up and down who have never had a doughnut before because of their intolerances.

Q: Are there other shops like FEAST elsewhere?

Neil: As far as we know, we’re the only place like this anywhere. We’ve had people come from Tokyo and say “check this place out”. There’s nothing like this in London, nothing like this in Australia. We’ve had a lot of international tourists.

Wendy: Last year, I was in Australia and England, and there is nothing.

Neil: However, you have a German bread company that’s been known for (gluten-free bread) for 40 years. They are so advanced.

In Australia, any restaurant, any hotel, you can get gluten-free bread. Some of them are baking it fresh.

Q: Are there allergy differences by country? 

Neil: Definitely. I never had any food allergies before I came to North America. I was in the Caribbean before I came up here. I was living on a small island. Fish from the island was fine. (But) all the fish from Miami had a problem. The only problem I’ve had outside of North America was nuts, peanuts, and kiwi. Not so much to gluten – it’s different wheat (outside of North America).

Wendy: I was reading recently that some of the Asian countries where they grow and eat a lot of rice, the incidence of rice allergy is higher than in North America. In North America where we grow and eat a lot of wheat, the incidence of food sensitivity and allergy to wheat is way higher. When you are mass producing a food, there are changes to the food to grow it in big quantities. GMO could be a contributing factor. Nobody knows. It’s got something to do with the food itself.

Q: Wendy, how did being a nurse factor into your perspective?

Neil: She looks after me! I have osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis. I have been off gluten for 8 weeks, and My body has just changed. I ache less, my headaches and brain fog are less. Try going gluten-free for 30 days. And it takes two weeks after that to see if has any effect.

Wendy: I’ve always been interested in natural health, not just Western medicine. It’s been a lot of self-study in that area. I’ve always been interested in people optimizing their health. My background in nursing was neo-natal intensive care. It’s been 17 years since I last looked after a baby in intensive care. Some of these kids, I could be serving that future population of kids and looking after them now in a different way. I feel very much at home here nurturing people through food.

I think food is a key factor in health that is often overlooked in mainstream Western medicine.

Neil: No doctor ever told me that I’m celiac, but Wendy checked off all the boxes. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Wendy.

Wendy: We combine our passions, our knowledge – everything we have works well and meshes together here.

LIGHTNING ROUND!

Wendy and Neil had to pick one and say why
Doughnuts or macarons?
Both: Doughnuts, because I’m allergic to macarons. It’s too many almonds. Also, they are too finicky and the colours are too artificial.
Chef Michael Smith or Nigella Lawson?
Both: Nigella Lawson!

Wendy: She is unapologetically passionate about food and wants people to feast together.

Neil: And I’d rather kiss her! It’s either Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver, they’re both on the other side of the water!

Editorial note: Jamie Oliver has recently devoted a section of his website to special diets including gluten-free and dairy-free recipes. Nice!

Figs or truffles?
Both: Truffles. You can get different varieties, different strengths. I don’t like shaved so much – there’s not so much flavour. Pressed , like oils, I really enjoy.

Wendy: It’s harder to find a perfect fig. I get disappointed by figs too many times. 

Both: Loch Ness.

Neil: Home grown! I’m fascinated and terrified by things in the water.

(Do you think either exist?) Yes, both of them. 

Cast iron or non stick?
Neil: Cast iron. Unless it’s a fried egg. 
Paleo or vegan?
Both: Neither! (laughing)

Wendy: I have tried both.

Neil: I would say Vegan then.

Wendy: I would take Paleo, if I really had to pick. It’s the caveman diet… meat. 

Ramen or taco?
Both: Taco.

Neil: More versatility, you can put more stuff in a taco. We do like latino flavours. We like the crispiness of tacos.

WRAP-UP

What's Next for FEAST?

Neil: More staff in the kitchen, so we can do more stuff! There are pastries we did at home, and came out perfectly, and they just haven’t translated to our commercial kitchen yet. Eventually, if this goes well, we’d like to branch out and open more. We’ve had people request us to open everywhere. People think we are already a chain!

TASTING

A sampling of FEAST's spreads...
FEAST

Spread of spreads!

Specifically made for people who don’t eat dairy like ourselves. Our vegan butter is tasty and nutritious. Contains organic coconut milk which we culture with organic apple cider vinegar, olive oil and two kinds of salt: Himalayan pink salt and Maldon flake sea salt. Beautiful ingredients. Melts nicely, stirred into risotto, sauteed vegetables.

Lettucemeat notes: a nice balance of sweet and salty, spreads smoothly and great on toast!

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We get really fresh sunflower seeds, roast them in-house, add a little bit of organic coconut nectar to bring out a bit of the sweetness, a bit of smoked Maldon salt, and bit of organic coconut oil to smooth it out. It tastes really fresh. Sunflowers are usually one of the most difficult things to get because they are usually processed with nuts. Often sunflowers taste sort of rancid, but these taste sweet.

Lettucemeat notes: Parents, take note for school lunches! This is a tasty and healthy alternative to the usual nut butters. Bonus: Wendy is from the Prairies, so she knows her sunflowers!

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We blend our sunflower butter with vegan chocolate to make our chocolate spread. It tastes like Nutella. We wanted to make something that people would tend to miss.

Lettucemeat notes: Chocolatey yet healthy (i.e. unprocessed) alternative to Nutella. I even tried making chocolate puff-pastry pinwheels with it and it worked great.

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FEAST GALLERY

  • FEAST logo, interior
    FEAST logo, interior

FEAST FEATURED RECIPE

Singapore Noodles

Ready in under 15 minutes, this fabulously tasty and easy recipe features a few basic FEAST pantry items combined with fresh veg and protein of choice. 

  • 1 package Peacock brown rice vermicelli (FEAST pantry)
  • 1/3 cup Coco Natura coconut seasoning sauce (FEAST pantry)
  • 1 Tablespoon Coco Natura coconut flower nectar (FEAST pantry)
  • 1 Tablespoon hot sauce (FEAST house made)
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1/3 cup coconut oil
  • 2 cups protein of choice, cubed in bite size pieces (chicken, shrimp, tofu)
  • 2 Tablespoons Arayuma ayur masala curry powder (FEAST pantry)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground Arayuma black pepper (FEAST pantry)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1” knob of ginger, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 small white onion, sliced
  • 1 small green pepper, sliced
  • 4 green onions, sliced diagonally
  • Juice of half a lime
  • Garnish with chopped coriander, and Virginia Chutney Company’s Mango Chutney (FEAST pantry)
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  1. Soak vermicelli in cold water for 5 minutes
  2. Mix coconut seasoning sauce, nectar, hot sauce, and water. Set aside.
  3. Heat oil in large skillet or wok over med heat.
  4. Toss protein with curry, pepper and salt. Add to skillet along with ginger, garlic, and onion. Sauté until protein is just cooked through.
  5. Add marinade, and cook for approx. 5 minutes – until noodles are soft and marinade is absorbed.
  6. Add green onions and lime juice, and toss for a minute.
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FEAST

881 Queen St. West, Toronto
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