Food creatives expand restricted diets’ horizons
For diners at Northeast Portland’s Natural Selection, the seasonal, vegetarian, mostly vegan, often gluten-free restaurant doesn’t always go far enough.
“I had one person call who couldn’t have any sugar of any kind, natural or refined,” says chef Aaron Woo. “I said I could make them something with agave, maple, all kinds of stuff, but I can’t do a dessert without anything. They couldn’t even have fruit juice.”
With a week’s notice, Woo is usually willing to design a menu for almost any diet, no matter how restrictive. That’s partially because the chef, who trained at four-star restaurants in San Francisco, believes in good customer service. It’s also because he’s been there himself.
Woo is one of a growing number of Oregon chefs, restaurant owners, bakers and brewers who, faced with their own allergies or serious health concerns, have decided to open businesses offering food they can eat. Accommodating special requests isn’t new — just think of the gluten-free pizza crusts available at many pizzerias — but some business owners are going further, with entire menus conforming to Paleolithic, vegan or (most frequently) gluten-free diets.
Three years ago, Woo lost the lease on his other Northeast Alberta Street restaurant, the Vita Cafe, and moved across the street. At the same time, the 42-year-old chef was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, a hyperthyroid condition that can be brought on by stress.
Woo’s naturopathic doctor suggested eliminating certain items from his diet — including gluten and dairy — then gradually bringing them back to figure out what was damaging his body.
“It was very vegan but not totally vegan,” he says of the diet. “No eggs. Very little fish. No red meat aside from wild game. Anti-inflammatory. No gluten. No corn. No nightshade vegetables, like peppers, eggplants.”
Woo stuck to the restrictive diet for more than four months. The most difficult part was finding places to eat out. Breakfast was doable, but most restaurants serving suitable dinner options were “all casual, really hippie-dippie,” he says.
“So I thought, why isn’t someone doing fine-dining, or upscale cooking, with a lot of care, that’s vegetarian or vegan-based but isn’t loaded with pasta or wheat?”
As Woo bounced around the idea, the space next door to Vita Cafe became available. He signed a lease, and, after a brief stint honing his skills at Napa, Calif.’s high-end vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu, opened Natural Selection at 3033 N.E. Alberta St. last March. The restaurant quickly earned accolades for transcending the limitations of its menu. In September, The Oregonian gave the restaurant an A- review.
Lisa Clark was a freshman at the University of Oregon when she found herself overcome with digestive problems. More than one gastroenterologist diagnosed her with IBS — Irritable Bowel Syndrome — but after doing her own dietary experimentation, she found that cutting gluten and dairy from her diet improved her digestion, energy level and even her skin. She lost 60 pounds.
Paleolithic restaurateurLaughing Planet Cafe owner Richard Satnick played rugby for 12 years. The grueling sport wreaked havoc with his joints, causing arthritis that he suspected was being exacerbated by his diet.
“How about a clean, refreshing salad?”