When I was a kid I used to dream about whether or not I'd be able to eat my own wedding cake. I worried that everyone would be clinking their glasses for my husband and I to kiss and I'd have to awkwardly decline because he'd eaten something I was allergic to. I know that seems like a ridiculous concern for a kid to have, but I was always thinking of the future. And I was very, very concerned.
Fast forward 15 years and I'm sitting at a long table chatting with the soon-to-be husband and wife team behind Urban Acorn catering, Toronto's best allergy-friendly and flexitarian catering service. Their kitchen is more like a studio with vintage accessories artfully placed, edison bulbs hanging from the high loft ceiling, and a long table that runs the length of the space that's often used for tasting parties.
Now named one of Blog TO's Top 10 Best Caterers, Marie and Daniel's business has evolved from small-scale side project to catering company, fine food store, and unofficial hub for local entrepreneurs. They value sustainability and fair trade, paying their staff fair wages, giving opportunities to local vendors and producers, and working to eliminate food waste. Having both a catering company and store allows them to do that efficiently, and as they said it's not only better for the environment but benefits them financially.
“You bring food in, there’s nothing wrong with it, and you’re throwing it out” - Marie
Part of being a sustainable business is forming strong social partnerships. A local baker uses their space for cooking classes and in exchange provides cookies for their store. They have agreements with local restaurants to take their unused produce or other items that would otherwise become "waste" and make them into soups, sauces, crostini, etc. Their inspiration for doing this stemmed from their visit to the Green Living Show a couple years ago, where they became immersed in the farm-to-table movement. Because their store is just around the corner from their kitchen it also serves as an extra pantry which allows them to accommodate last minute switch-ups or requests from clients. They stock fine foods and house-made goods, and interesting products like delicious vegan cheeses, or made-to-order charcuterie boards.
Daniel is the chef, responsible for planning the menu and sourcing ingredients to prepping and cooking the final meal. Marie is on the client-facing side, handling their site and social feeds, client consultations, and staffing.
Their clients are generally those seeking a unique venue and experience for their guests. They've done weddings and events everywhere from a tea room to a farm, an art gallery to Toronto island. They've done 2 weddings at Balzac in Distillery where they’ve had to to do setup in an alley! And they've even done a vegan Irish Indian wedding where Daniel pulled out some badass moves and made vegan haggas samosas.
Allergies & Cross-Contamination
Every client has a restriction or allergy, they told me. There's always someone to accommodate, whether it's a preference like veganism, or a restriction like anaphylaxis. Marie and Daniel consider every detail to ensure the safety and comfort of their guests. As Daniel pointed out, it's often the smallest details that chefs forget which end up causing cross-contamination. Frying oil, for example, is refreshed every time it comes into contact with an allergen.
The biggest challenge to avoiding cross-contamination is generally the venue. It's not uncommon for them to be prepping and plating dishes in small kitchens or unconventional places like a farmer's field where the facilities are not ideal for keeping ingredients separate. For example there may only be one oven that has to be used for many things.
Daniel told me that organization is the best way to stay safe once on site. He'll assign kitchen staff each to work only on certain dishes so that the "contaminated" ingredients stay away from the "safe" ones. Marie will bring in platters for the allergy-friendly appetizers that are physically different from the ones used for the rest of the apps. That way there's less chance of confusing dishes and it helps guests identify what's safe for them. Certain servers will be assigned to only handle the allergy-friendly foods for the evening for consistency.
They always make a point of touching base with any guests who have allergies so that they can feel comfortable and safe. They recently catered a wedding where 4 people out of 61 had food allergies, and were able to create safe, delicious food for each one. When serving foods buffet-style Marie ensures that anything containing allergens is clearly labelled to keep guests informed. She explained that family-style is the most challenging serving style because it allows for so much cross-contact with the sharing of utensils.
Allergies - Building the Menu
No matter how severe or mild an allergy is, Marie and Daniel always treat it very seriously. Sometimes allergies are communicated right away as high priority needs and the menu is built around them. Other times they are communicated as an afterthought when the RSVP cards start coming in. Either way, they make sure those guests are treated well.
Daniel recounted a past client who had allergies to raw veggies, nuts, basil, seafood, pineapple, papaya, gluten, and eggs. There were a lot of obstacles to overcome in designing the menu for her event. Instead of focussing on what she couldn't have, Daniel asked her what her favorite things to eat were and then created a menu inspired by her tastes.
They also once catered a vegan wedding where one of the guests was allergic to legumes, gluten, and nuts. It was a family-style wedding which made it more challenging and the kitchen was very small so there was a huge risk of cross-contact. They decided to make a cauliflower bake minus the chickpeas just for her, plating it first before all other dishes to make sure it stayed separate. As I mentioned earlier they always greet the allergic guest personally to let them know that they've been taken care of even if those allergens are not on the menu.
Allergies - Challenge Accepted
Marie, Daniel, and their staff did a training course with Dine Aware to become more knowledgeable about how to handle food allergies. We were discussing how lately I seem to eat out less and less because there are a lot of people whose attitudes towards allergies are unpleasant, and a lot of restaurants that don't know how or don't want to accommodate allergies. Whether it be because of inadequate kitchen space, lack of understanding, or general indifference.
Marie and Daniel feel that when someone brings you a challenge, whether it's making a vegan haggas samosa, or creating a peanut-free menu. you can either feel defeated and avoid it, or take it head on. They feel that at a wedding especially, that's the first meal you have as a united family and the last thing you want is to alienate someone. If you don't have food there for someone just because they have allergies it shows that you didn't consider them, and that's not a very good start. As caterers the Urban Acorn team is part of that first meal, which is why they always strive to make it the very best.
And yes, they are catering their own wedding.
If you'd like to book Urban Acorn for your next event, visit their contact page.