Chef Eric Hanson knows that allergy-free foods can be full of flavour

There’s this perception floating around that any food that is “free” of something – sugar, gluten, allergens of any sort – means that it is also dull, bland and unappetizing. We can’t seem to shake this stereotype, no matter how many “free” trends emerge from the depths of the culinary world. What people need to know though, is that there are creative (and successful) chefs in Canada who have dietary restrictions – they’re celiac or gluten-sensitive; they’re diabetic; they’re allergic to one or many of the ingredients we use to spice up our dishes.

And they’re passionate about enjoying mouthwatering meals. So they find a way to create dishes that are safe for everyone, not just the average Canadian. This is good news to the 2.5 million Canadians that self-report having at least one food allergy and the one in two Canadians who know someone with a series food allergy. (I personally can think of at least five people off the top of my head who are severely allergic to something – peanuts, gluten, olives, milk).

Chef Eric Hanson works to toss out the misconception that allergy-safe meals are boring. Why, you may ask? Because he is allergic to a very long list of items, including gluten, eggs and dairy. He is also very accomplished, earning accolades from across the country, including winning the 2016 Gold Medal Plates; bronze medal at the national final of 2017 Gold Medal Plates; and bronze medal at the 2017 Canadian Culinary Championships. He has travelled the world, cooking in over 40 countries, including Australia, South Africa and Europe.

Hanson is the chef and General Manager of Prairie Noodle Shop in Edmonton, Alberta. He started at Prairie Noodle Shop for a 12-day consultation through his consultancy business; now, 18 some-odd months later, he’s the man in charge.

Everything at Prairie Noodle Shop is allergy-free – including their gluten-free noodles, which can be exchanged for regular noodles when you place your order. An active member in the Edmonton community, Hanson loves helping people through the hardest part of finding out about a food allergy – going to the grocery store or a restaurant like it’s the first time. In fact, after I spoke to him, he had a woman come in with her 10 year old son, who had just found out he was diabetic. Hanson went through the process with them of finding food that is healthy and delicious, and gave them some Mberries to take home to try when they’re ready as well as the number of a diabetic baker who could give them more advice. After that, a newly gluten-free guest arrived, and he went through the process again.

Who better to ask about cooking with allergies than someone who has all of the allergies – and who can give us a good sense of what other countries are doing about food allergies?

 

 
What’s it like cooking ramen in Edmonton?

When you think ramen food, I’m the last guy who should be cooking ramen. I’m white, that’s the first one. I’ve travelled to 41 countries, Japan is not one of them. Noodle soup shouldn’t be something I’m making. For all these reasons, I shouldn’t be a ramen chef. When Japanese people come in and ask if this is traditional ramen, I just point at my face, circle around it and say “no, this is not traditional ramen.”

[The owners] talked me into it with saying “we’re not going to copycat these ramen,” I said, “ok I’m listening”. “We can embodied their mindset, which is to take terroir from around your area directly where you’re living and put that into the bowl”, which is essentially how all the bowls of ramen were made. We take all the ingredients from around Edmonton and in Alberta, and put that into the bowl as opposed to trying to replicate a Japanese ramen. I didn’t want to walk into a cuisine I’ve never tried before and try to replicate it. So our flour comes from Red Deer and we’ve got a noodle lady on the south side that makes noodles for us. All the ingredients we can get are coming from around here. All the proteins are coming from like 20 minutes south of Edmonton or about 30 minutes northeast. The eggs are coming from Calgary. That was something I could say yes to. I understand balance of flavour. I would do a disservice to ramen, it’d be embarrassing. It wouldn’t taste good. So I was like f*** that, we’re not doing that. I don’t even want to call this ramen, because *I’m* making it. I prefer noodle soup, but it’s west-style ramen; the noodles are ramen noodles.

So Prairie Noodles is quite apt, because it’s ramen, but it’s Canadian?

Yes, exactly … My kitchen lead is half-Japanese, half-Scottish. So we have some influence there. I have one Japanese cook, she was a wedding photographer from Japan …. yesterday she put out her first dish. So now we have an authentic Japanese dish on the menu.

You can put a little star by it and say “this one’s real”.

*laughs* “Actually FROM Japan”. That’s what it was. I said, “you’ve gotta make us something” and I was super curious about what she was going to make, and it ended up being this candied Japanese yam. She dices it up, makes a simple syrup …, boils it in it, and crisps it up, and it has a hard candy-coating on the outside. I had to push one of my cooks out of the way to get a bite.

So, let’s talk allergies, because there aren’t a lot of people talking about chefs with allergies. You have a few, right?

Oh, I’ve got a bit more than that. I went and got a stupid expensive allergy test … a full spectrum blood test where they test for more than 15 ingredients. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s been going on with me my own life. I’ve been sick off and on my whole life, not really knowing why. I’ve spent around a total of two years in the hospital. Not mostly for allergy things, for other really weird things …. I’m like the house patient that keeps showing up going “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

[For] the allergies .… gluten I figured out in Barcelona, I was in a hospital in Spain. Hitting critical mass, I had a spare tire around my belly. I couldn’t reach down to tie my shoes without like coming to tears; I couldn’t figure out what was going on .… The surgeons there, they think I need surgery. I’m so swollen, they’re sure it’s appendicitis or something …. So they do the test and I do an overnight in Barcelona. Then the [doctor] comes in and …. he’s pretty sure now that I have an auto-immune system disease. “Here’s a list of things I’d like you to try to eat. Do this for like four days, then reintroduce one ingredient” then pretty much, “shot in the dark, it’s going to take a long time, you’ll figure it out.”

That’s where I started. Had a subway sandwich, got three bites in, was keeling over. That’s one list of ingredients. The next day I had a slice of plain pizza. Two bites in, I’m keeling over. Back in the hotel, start ticking off ingredients and then realized gluten and I’m like “Nooooo”.

They say with your histamines, if you’re always eating something you’re allergic too, your histamines are always on high. If you have anything you’re allergic too, it’s kind of ok. But if you cut everything out and your histamines drop down to a normal level, and then you get hit with one small allergy, then your histamines go through the roof and you’re totally having a crazy full on reaction. So you have to be totally clean, then reintroduce one thing and wait a couple days, then you’ll figure out how allergic you really are to it.

Unless you go for a really expensive blood test?

Yeah, but even still. I mean, you can talk to an allergy clinic guy and he’s like “yeah, those tests are useless”. You talk to a naturopath and he’s like “ah, the allergy guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” You talk to a doctor, “there’s no way anybody knows…”

Honestly, I foolishly stopped at gluten … I knew I had lactose intolerance, but I wasn’t too sure how bad it was …. It wasn’t until a couple years ago when I went and did this allergy test when I figured out eggs was probably the biggest one. Every time I would have dairy, it would usually be like scrambled eggs; when I’d have eggs, I’d have it with milk. They would always be together and I was always pointing at milk saying “you’re the culprit”, when in fact eggs was definitely stronger than dairy.

So gluten, egg, all forms of dairy, beef, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, lactose as well as dairy, and then onion – that’s the one that’s really kicking my butt right now. And then zucchini a little bit, lamb a little bit, and oysters a little bit.

Yikes. What do you eat?

Yeah, so like chicken was good for me. That’s where I pretty much detoxed on the last one …. I couldn’t have a crumb of gluten when I was at my worst without vomiting. Once I had to drink out of a glass that was still dirty because the glass washer wasn’t fixed properly, and that made me sick, the residue on it. I could have a gluten-free beer that was under 10 ppm and that would still make me sick. So I’m more sensitive than a celiac.

How did your allergy discovery affect your career?

It took me probably two years of being bitter as a chef. Like the worst place, I was in South Africa working on a game reserve and they put flour on the black peppercorns. In the whole country. The kitchen … where I’d be plating, there was a bakery behind it, so when they’d open the door to the bakery, the flour would come in and I’d break out into a rash.

So it got tricky, and then I decided to change my mind and try to turn my weakness into my strength. Don’t work against it, work with it. Let’s try to be a guy that can break through all these things.

Somethings I ended up giving up. Like, I don’t make pasta, I don’t make bread anymore. I don’t do any of those things. But you find different avenues of food and creative outlets to still enjoy yourself. And now I know I can navigate pretty much anyone’s allergies that come in.

“The perception was that ‘free from’ means like free from flavour. It’s sort of like the general public perceives gluten-free, dairy-free as though you were making it and you added in a shittier ingredient or pulled something out to make it now edible (which it’s not).”

Did this give you the skills to serve a wider range of guests, because of dietary concerns?

We’re a ramen shop. Everything is gluten free; I can switch out the noodles. Everything is dairy free, shellfish free, peanut free. But if I tell people that, my attendance goes down. So people come in, they get to be pleasantly surprised. You’ll see, even the brownies are gluten-free and dairy-free. When I started putting gluten-free ramen on the menu we maybe had four to six people a week where as now it’s eight people a day on average. A big one is UberEATS with gluten free; we’re one of the only ones in the city.

But I advertised that I’m gluten-free, dairy-free; well, not me, but my food. And my attendance went down .… The perception was that “free from” means like free from flavour. It’s like the same kind of thing, I think, if a vegan comes into a restaurant and they want to order a dish, and I say “sure you can have this, I’ll just remove this thing from it.” And it’s sort of like the general public perceives gluten-free, dairy-free as though you were making it and you added in a shittier ingredient or pulled something out to make it now edible (which it’s not). So I don’t advertise it. I don’t tell people we’re gluten-free.

I’m surprised that attendance would go down.

That’s been my experience with that. But also, I find the shops that are usually primarily focussed on gluten-free or allergy-free, aren’t that good, and I wish that weren’t true. But that’s been my experience. When I go to a restaurant that’s 100% gluten free, I’m like “ah shit you guys, come one.” It isn’t good enough, it all has to be good, that’s the first priority. I get why it’s a stigma.

What’s it like cooking for allergies?

I do enjoy cooking for allergies. Sometimes I get crazy ones. You know, you get lots of lists and people with the cards. That’s me when I travel. I have cards translated. And my wife’s anaphylactic to nuts and now is very allergic to mustard. We are *the best* couple to go out with. Now I’m fairly well known in the restaurant community at this point, so people know me when I walk in the door. Because I’m like ‘Hey guys, this is going to be fun.’

Are they upset?

No, well, it helps winning first in Edmonton in Gold Medal Plates. I get a lot more respect than I used to, not that I needed it. I find them a little less annoyed. But flashback to when I helped Team Canada do test plating for all their new dishes for their new national competition, and some chefs from Calgary show up, like, Connie DeSousa shows up and she was on the paleo diet, and all the chefs were like “aw f***, I have everything planned, and now all of a sudden we need a paleo dish.” and I feel like that’s what happens when I show up.

You had mentioned that your kitchen is allergy free; but are there still risks of you having a reaction?

The hardest part is onions. Because it’s in all the broths. Yup, because that’s a flavour people like. I haven’t figured out all the allium family yet. I know onion is a thing. I know green onion is a little bit. I haven’t figured out garlic yet and honestly I don’t want to, I love garlic too much. Onion, I’m sad about. Now at my house, … there’s no onions, shallots, leaks. I do have a giant overabundance of chives that I’m bringing in.

And chives are alright for you?

I haven’t figured it out yet. This is sort of the last piece for right now, is trying to figure out alliums. For me it’s a tough one, so it involves getting really freakin’ sick during times like this during menu tastings, where I have to taste things over and over again to get it right.

So you still eat food you’re allergic to?

I taste some, I spit it out and then I rinse all my mouth out. Then usually, if I pull up my shirt right now I have a rash from all of the tasting I did yesterday. Then I have to do periodic tasting. Then really training the staff. Trying to teach my team how to execute properly, how to think about the whole dish, which means letting them fail and helping them get to the next step.

I kind of describe it as music – I find music style is a good, easy way to translate how you taste food. You have to look for the notes that aren’t there. You have to taste this and go “what is this missing?” Building that palate for people takes time, to taste it together and go “right, I want you to think about that flavour and what is it missing? Does it need more shiitake, is it more garlic, is it more ginger, is it more onion, is it more broth, is it more salt?” You’ve got to kind of fall through the layers and figure out what could make this perfect. Getting it there took a while, but now I have staff that can do that.

You enjoy it, even if you get sick?

Cooking is fantastic. I have a blast both physically trying to do as many things as you can possible do and executing them all perfectly. I think that’s one of my favourite parts, trying to juggle like 82 things at once, we’re like multi-tasking problem solvers trying to execute it at a high speed. That’s the funnest part. We’re professional problem solvers.

 

 
You’ve been to 41 countries; what is gluten-free like around the world?

I was in Germany 10 years ago, and in a small town, in a train station, there was a six foot by eight foot gluten-free section. That was 10 years ago .… I couldn’t find the symbols in Canada. They were just so ahead of it. They drink so much goddamn beer, they’ve got way more gluten-free people.

In Italy, there’s a law for the distance in meters between a gluten-free kitchen and a regular kitchen, because flour travels. So you can get really good gluten-free food in Italy, but you’ve gotta find it. The hardest part for me, thank god I’d been to Italy once before the gluten allergy, because I think I would’ve cried a lot more had I not ever gotten to eat a good pizza or pasta there. But going back, I think “well, I’ll have risotto”, but they take the pasta stock pot and that’s the water they use to replenish the risotto, so you’re just getting gluten water poured all in there. So you’ve gotta really be careful in Italy eating anywhere but a gluten-free restaurant. Which makes it tough. It’s an interesting progression, Italy’s ahead and behind now. Well it’s just those two countries. They had the same problems I have, they drank too much gluten beer and ate too much pizza and pasta… and then you break.

Germany and Italy [were at the] forefront of gluten-free. They were 10 ppm, 20 ppm. Then the EU forms and … decided to make a blanket 30 ppm for everything in Europe. So that means now Germany and Italy can have products that they wouldn’t have considered gluten-free available in gluten-free sections.

How do other countries approach food allergies?

It’s literally country to country. I lived in Australia for a couple of years, they were fantastic about it. Places like Vietnam don’t even believe in allergies. They would just laugh; they’re like “no, no, no, eat it”. Same with Northern Africa, they didn’t believe me. you know, I’d point at my belly and they’d be like “yeah, I get a big belly when I eat too”, and that’s not really what I mean. So yeah, Northern Africa was bad. Some of Europe, it’s a mixed bag. Eastern Europe was tougher. But it’s also language, making sure they understand you.

I was in Germany, at the number one sushi restaurant in Berlin. I’ve gone over the whole thing with them, they’re 100% sure [they’ve got it] and they speak English, but I also give them my card in German. I get my first course and I’m halfway through eating it and the lady runs out of the kitchen screaming “No!”

Dammit. Cue half an hour later, I’m vomiting in the parking lot.

Yikes. Is there anyway to prevent the vomiting if you accidentally eat something you’re allergic to?

What I learned from a nurse … I taught private cooking classes for a couple years. I had a nurse for my final class before going to Southeast Asia, and I was terrified because I was bringing my wife to Southeast Asia with an anaphylactic nut allergy. This could be a bad idea. And [the nurse’s] advice was … if you’re ever away … you need something with over 40% alcohol, at least one shot, one to two shots. That’s going to get in and fill where the protein receptors are in your gut, actually, so you’re going to stop receiving as much of the nut protein. Then 70ml of Benadryl. So that’s going to turn somebody into a zombie in about 10 minutes. But it’s happened.

We finished Thailand, we did it and nothing bad happened. We get to Singapore, the first country where everybody speaks English, English is one of the main languages. We’re in the airport still, my wife grabs a bite of a sandwich from Starbucks and there was a walnut in it. In the airport, I’m now going to the information desk, we found out where the hospital is, we’re just going to decide to go. But we kept two mini bottles of booze and a thing of Benadryl. She shoots both of those, and now she just starts to go into a comatose zombie stat and I’m just watching her breath. But the hives start going down almost immediately. She’s still going to be drained for a day and bit, but she didn’t die, and I didn’t have to hit her with an EpiPen and we didn’t have to go to the hospital.

Does that method help you?

I don’t do the Benadryl, but I do the alcohol if I know I just got hit. If I take a shot of 40%, over 40%, alcohol. It obviously it helps with the pain, because it’s alcohol, but it does help. I’ve had to do that a couple times where someone’s just like, “Omg, I just gluten-ed you.” and I’m like “GIVE ME A SHOT OF ANYTHING”. Yeah, so it definitely works.

I feel like taking a shot to prevent feeling sick is kind of an oxymoron.

*laughs* You know what, there’s a lot of good pop ups, and a lot of good chefs in this city that do pop ups, and I will go and eat them. I will have a small bit of dairy and gluten sometimes. I will take digestive enzyme pills, like handfuls of them, like eight gluten digest pills with eight lactose pills and I can do like a small course once every few months, and I won’t have the same reaction as taking a little bit of something right now. But it’s nothing you want to make a habit of. The “once in a blue moon”, and “this is the only time I’m going to taste this”. …. if there’s something I absolutely need to try, this is my thing. You know, I’m watching someone plate, and I’m just like I’m going to try it. And I’m going to pay for it.

Do you have any tips for people with allergies?

Don’t be afraid to be the annoying person and ask the questions. It took probably a couple years to put my hand up and say “actually I’m allergic to gluten, do you have anything for me.” Then the fad came out for all gluten-free people who aren’t gluten-allergic, and people being like “are you allergic??” and them telling the kitchen “well, he said he’s allergic” and the kitchen staff wondering if I really am or if I’m just wasting their time, or if I really do want them to change that cutting board over. That’s a big one, if they don’t change the cutting board over, it could be really bad.

Don’t be afraid to be annoying. That was the hardest, I think, is you don’t want to be *that* guy. That was the hardest part. I didn’t have the support of someone trying to help me kind of figure it out. I didn’t know. You gotta ask all the freakin’ questions.

Now there’s a bit more information on the internet. But when I started – like I got it in Spain and I immediately went to Morocco for two months, that was the next leg in my trip. I don’t read Arabic, so to know what was what was really hard …. I didn’t know what had gluten. The first time someone gave me Semolina, I was like “no, this is the top of the wheat, I can’t have this. Can I have this?” So yeah, it was just trial and error in the worst possible way.

 

 

Ginger, Honey, Carrot & Apple Juice

I’m not sure if you’ve ever used Scaling (%) in a recipe? You take the total amount of juice you want to make and multiply it by the percentage of each juice required. This tells you how much you need to juice.

Also a chef’s tip, I sprinkle citric acid solution (or lemon/lime juice) over the blades of the juicer and knife so that when I slice/juice so that the fruit don’t oxidize right away.

200g (58%) Red apple juice (5 red apples juiced)

100g (29%) Carrot juice (4-5 medium carrots juiced)

20g (5.8%) Green apple juice (1 green apple juiced)

12g (3.5%) Ginger juice (1 finger length knob ginger juiced)

8g (2.3%) Honey

Combined all ingredients in a bowl or glass.

I also used Dry Ice to make this. To do so, I blitz Dry Ice in a food processor until it’s a fine powder. I then sift it through a fine sieve to ensure no pieces are left (or you will kill someone, possibly yourself) I slowly mix the powdered dry ice with the juice. You can use an egg beater, a whisk, a kitchen aid. It’s all very theatrical and exciting for your guests.