One of the greatest challenges of chef Dominique Tougne’s career didn’t begin at work. It began several years ago at home when he discovered that his now 7-year-old son, Theo, had food allergies. As executive chef at Bistro 110, a popular Chicago eatery, Tougne had long been aware of food allergies—but the serious nature of his son’s condition provided a heightened perspective. Theo is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and sesame seeds. Tougne’s daughter Elodie, 5, also has allergies to these foods and to eggs. Learning how to manage his children’s conditions is a priority for Tougne. The experience has also made him more vigilant about handling diners’ special requests. “We can't guarantee 100 percent safety, of course, but we make every effort to accomodate,” he says. Tougne creates delicious, mouth-watering fare at Bistro 110 while striving to assure that the restaurant is as safe as possible for food-allergic diners.
I am not unhappy that my son, Kellen, has multiple food allergies. In fact, in many ways I'm grateful. I haven’t always felt this way. When Kellen was first diagnosed at 9 months old with what would eventually become a lengthy list of food allergies (dairy, wheat, gluten, eggs, certain nuts, to name a few), I was completely overwhelmed. A first-time mom, my only experience with food allergies was an uncle with peanut allergy and a grandfather with gluten intolerance. It wasn’t long before I developed tension headaches, induced, no doubt, by the stress of Kellen’s disturbing symptoms (hives, wheezing, vomiting and digestive problems) and the enormous responsibility of his care. What would I feed him? How would I keep him safe in everyday situations (playgroups, birthday parties, restaurant meals, holiday gatherings, school) where his risk of exposure was heightened? And there were desperate days when all hopes were dashed, as tests continued to reveal that he hadn’t outgrown any of his allergies, as doctors had suggested he might. Clearly, not the best of times.
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition where the body does not produce insulin, a hormone necessary to convert sugar (glucose) into needed energy. The disease, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, usually is diagnosed in children and young adults. There are 20.8 million children and adults in the United States (7 percent of the population) who have diabetes. About 14.6 million people have been diagnosed, while about 6.2 million are not aware that they have the disease.
Adiagnosis of celiac disease 35 years ago plunked me down in the middle of a culinary quagmire—eating safely, caring for a celiac son (diagnosed in 1993) and ultimately feeding an entire gluten-free nation (through Gluten-Free Pantry, the company I founded and operated until 2005). I don’t dwell on the challenges but sometimes I acknowledge I harbor a quiet, little hum of anxiety every time I eat. It’s subtle, unspoken, tiny, buried deep – but it’s there. Based on an underlying survival instinct, it’s the force behind the finely honed radar that takes over the minute I enter a restaurant. As I very calmly look at a menu, the worry starts its humming. What’s in it? How is it made? Is it safe? Will I have to send it back? Will the server cooperate? Will the chef understand? Will I get sick? So when someone like Chef Dominique Tougne at Chicago’s Bistro 110 prepares an entire meal that is gluten free, that low purr of hyper-vigilance finally ratchets down and I feel myself relax. It is a nice feeling.
When my brother and I were kids—and at each other throats for the umpteenth time—my dad would sit us down and say, “All you’ve got is each other.” I’ve said those same words to my wife: All we’ve got is each other. I was referring to the feeling of being alone as we raise our 9-year-old son, Mike, who has both type-1 diabetes and celiac disease.Friends and family are well intentioned but sometimes they just don’t get it. Not long ago Grandma was still saying, “He wouldn’t need insulin if he ate more vegetables.” While my wife and I do have each other to rely on, the sense—and the stress—of it being ‘just us’ takes its toll nonetheless. And that feeling is especially poignant each year at my family’s holiday dinners.
The call came from my doctor while I was at work. “Great news! Test results show you have celiac disease,” he said. “No more gluten for you.”
No matter how you say it, living without requires sacrifice, will power, spine. It takes a willingness to go against spontaneity and impulse, those gratifying moments that make life more satisfying, slightly decadent and, yes, delicious. Given the chance, few of us would willingly eschew. We would gladly give up the label reading, the constant vigilance, the extra expense of special diets and chemical-free living. We would kiss the just-say-no mentality good-bye. Who among us would deny the simple pleasure of milk in our coffee or the luxury of good fragrance on our skin? For me, the idea of biting into a silky cupcake, miniature marvel of butter, sugar and gluten, any time the spirit moves is a pleasure so palpable, I can almost taste it. But we’ve learned to adjust, be resourceful and rein in our impulses. And isn’t restraint the very thing we need more of in these troubled times?
Feeling doubly blessed, living without.
Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. While my sweet tooth is as strong as the next person’s, for me Halloween has always been as much about the costumes as the candy. My most memorable childhood ensembles were hand-sewn variations of Raggedy Ann, Cinderella and the wicked witch. After I grew up but before I had my own children, I used to sew elaborate costumes for my niece and nephews. I’m still haunted by the recollection of working until the wee hours of Halloween morning, finishing up the see-through eyes on Casper the Friendly Ghost.
My son Mike feels like he is different. To me, he’s like many other 10-year-old boys. He has friends, goes to school, plays soccer. But because he also has both Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, he feels he isn’t viewed the same way as his peers. At school, Mike gets singled out every day. He never buys lunch like the other kids, bringing it from home instead. He has to leave class just before lunch, alone, to go to the nurse to test his glucose. At the end of the day, he has to get out of school early to be tested again before heading home. He catches up to his friends afterwards, who are already on the bus.