In WITF's Kitchen with Chef Donna Desfor

Food Wednesdays: Living with Food Allergies in Today’s World

Written by Donna Marie Desfor, Culinary Consultant and Chef | May 15, 2012 9:10 AM

Many years ago I coined the phrase “Luke Approved!” to refer to an ingredient or recipe that is (or can be made) free of milk and milk proteins, eggs, and nuts.  You see, my nephew Luke has severe food allergies.  He doesn't suffer from an annoying intolerance but, instead, the full blown anaphylactic, life threatening allergies.  As time went on and my recipe collection grew, I put together a collection of recipes that I and my family have come to lovingly refer to as Luke Approved!TM  They were created to provide Seriously Good Food® for a then, young boy named Luke and his family—of which I am a part.  Today Luke is a thriving tween and the recipes I collected became the cornerstone of an entire family’s way of thinking about food.  *For an electronic copy of this collection of recipes, simply leave a comment after this article to receive an electronic link for the download.

When Luke was first diagnosed with severe food allergies, I like most, reacted to what seemed to be an impossible set of limitations and restrictions.  I am, after all, a chef and chefs don’t like to be limited in their resources.  Luke’s Mom and Dad took a different tact.  They decided for Luke, for themselves and for Luke’s baby brother who would shortly come along, that a strict avoidance diet would be the norm.  Luke wouldn’t grow up thinking he was different or even special.  Luke simply knows some foods make him sick and others keep him safe.  He has a terrific record of only one trip to the emergency room; clearly all of our worlds have changed… or have become a new definition of normal. 

When I decided to publish this collection of Luke Approved!TM  recipes I was, in a sense, naïve.  My family and I had been cooking for Luke for several years, and my folder of collected recipes had grown quite large.  Some of the recipes had become regular features at our meals, and others were just waiting for their debut.  But, I still approached cooking for Luke’s food allergies as if I had a limited set of culinary tools and ingredients.  In a most unexpected and delightful way, I realized quite the opposite. 

It was late winter, and my work as a chef was starting to get some notice.  I had signed on as Executive Chef for a culinary website, and had managed to catch some attention in the local media.  I met a local wine personality and he invited me to create a menu for a group of his contemporaries.  Anxious to show off my skills, I rolled up my sleeves and went to work.  In the end, and quite unintentionally, I had created a 9 course tasting menu that was almost entirely Luke Approved!TM  I was astounded.  And then I wasn’t.  Seriously Good Food® doesn’t require dairy or eggs or nuts.  Perhaps it requires ingredients to function like dairy, eggs, or nuts, but they certainly need not be present.

After that dinner, I dove back into my library and found that most recipes, in their pure, elemental form were based on healthy, seasonal ingredients.  Because they were created with full flavor in mind, they required little more than what nature had already perfected.  My culinary world, my collection that I put together, and Luke’s cuisine was forever changed. 

The truth of the matter is that a healthy, clean approach to food isn’t a bad deal.  For the most part, we all could probably do a little better with our own nutrition.  The problem for most is that adopting a Luke Approved!TM lifestyle requires time, interest, vigilance and love.  For our family, each day we essentially start over.  Each night we say a quiet prayer of thanks.  And in between we rely on each other for support, information, compassion and recipes. 

As the years have rolled on we have all become increasingly aware of how to shop for and prepare Luke Approved!TM foods.  As our awareness has grown, my interest to improve on the flavor, taste and presentation of his food has increased.  I wasn’t satisfied with the simple, rather pedestrian kinds of recipes food allergy cookbooks recommended, let alone to have to first discount most recipes because they simply were not for strict avoidance diets.  Nor was I keen on investing time in lengthy preparations.  Let’s face it, when it comes to kids (heck, when it comes to just being hungry!) no one wants to wait while you go through lengthy preparations to provide something nutritious and satisfying.  If you are like me, time is a precious commodity. 

As resources have improved, and the availability of healthy, organic, gluten-free and allergen-free products come into the marketplace more frequently, I continue to realize that the so-called finer gourmet foods, are precisely the kind of clean, fresh foods that are the cornerstone of creating my Luke Approved!TM meals.  The substitutions or variations are no longer hard to come by, and the internet provides an endless and constantly changing resource of information and ideas.  But the best part is that now I never feel limited in my choices.  I never have to sacrifice flavor, texture or aroma to create a safe meal for Luke.  And every day – every meal – I get to share with Luke, I know that we’ll be enjoying some Seriously Good Food®.

So, okay, then where to start?  Anywhere.  Any cookbook or collection of recipes.  Look for recipes you like, or collections that engages your senses.  Look over, chew and digest the table of contents.  The recipes should be surprisingly familiar; but still interesting and engaging.  I trust you will discover what I did while combing through my library of resources – the cornerstone of any desirable meal, or any meal for that matter, essentially rests on a few basic elements:  seasonal fruits and vegetables, a flavor platform and aromatics.  Once you’ve mastered that idea, the rest is all about discovery:  go to work on the ingredients.  The ones you can use keep, the ones you can’t try and understand their function in the recipe, and then find a suitable, safe substitution. 

There are literally hundreds of recipes in my files and library that I could have re-created, adapted and then dumped into a litany of choices.  That is neither my style nor approach to cooking.  For me, food is always about discovery, and every kitchen a laboratory of taste and style and desire.  Food should only ever be (in my humble opinion) about falling in love with an ingredient or a flavor combination and coaxing that to perfection through a variety of cooking techniques and flavor platforms.  Happily, in the kitchen, as in life, when one love fades another quite unexpectedly arrives to take its place.

The collection I have, and the book I created from that, is made up of the elemental components to a meal.  Within that is a collection of recipes that are meant to be an opportunity for discovery – a discovery of technique, of flavor and your own creativity.  The combinations that are possible from within my collection alone are endless.  They have kept us all cooking and quite satisfied for a long while. 

Navigating Your Kitchen
Once you know what it is that you desire to eat, perhaps the most daunting aspect of the meal is learning how to navigate your kitchen.  For those with food allergies, ingredients and cooking areas are like a sacred altar – only the ordained should be there.  While that may be a compelling thought, it’s not practical in real life.  People are in and out of a kitchen endlessly through the course of a day.  But the truth is that in a home where someone has food allergies, a kitchen is as dangerous as it gets.  Learning how to function in that space is essential. 

Labels must be read and double checked each time you purchase an ingredient; manufacturers often have to be called to verify that the production line is free from potential cross contamination.  And, cross contamination must always be in the back of your mind.  Every time something is pulled from the pantry, it is essential that you stop to question whether there has been any use or exposure that created the potential for cross contamination.  Finally, you must carefully consider your cooking tools and vessels.  Each step along the way it is essential that you ask if there is any potential for introducing an allergen to your food.  Once you’ve done all of that, you get to tackle the ingredient list, and the seemingly endless need for substitutions and adaptations. 

As a chef, my kitchen could be as dangerous as a mine-field for Luke.  I have had to learn precisely how to keep my kitchen Luke Approved!TM  It is quite often the case where my kitchen is in full operation testing recipes and cooking up dairy-laden, egg-based and nut-garnished foods in the days or hours before Luke will arrive to my home.  That he has never experienced an allergic reaction while visiting is proof positive that my techniques work and my approach sound. 

It’s time to get cooking.
In the end, it is my hope that even just considering how prevalent and main-stream food allergies are and cooking for people that has, lives with or cooks for someone with food allergies, intolerances or sensitivities has become, helps anyone rediscover the bounty of the earth and the abundance of deliciousness you can create from it.  As you create, I trust you will learn.  I have learned that when it comes to food – especially Luke Approved!TM food – the only limitations are the ones that I choose. 

*To receive an electronic copy of this collection of recipes, leave a comment after this article.  You will receive a link from which you can dowload your copy.


Copyright © 2012 Donna Marie Desfor and There’s a Chef in My Kitchen, LLC.  All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2012 WITF, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Published in In witfs Kitchen with Chef Donna Desfor

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  • kellina.m.anderson img 2014-08-25 13:42

    Looking forward to trying out some of these recipes - my nephew is also allergic to nuts, and we are a nut-loving family so we'll be making some changes!

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