Food Network Competitor Chef Luca Della Casa Takes on Food Allergies
If you’ve been watching the tenth season of The Next Food Network Star competition, you’ve probably seen Chef Luca Della Casa (and enjoyed his wonderful Italian accent). What you might not have realized, though, is that Chef Luca is a food allergy family’s dream come true: A chef who believes that “it should be common practice for every chef to try to accommodate people with food allergies and make delicious meals for those who have limitations.”
The fact is, food has always played a significant role in Luca’s life. Luca grew up in Northern Italy and began working in his grandmother’s restaurant at an early age. His journey has taken him from Italy to Spain and then to the U.S., where he is now the Executive Chef at Nosh Restaurant and Silo Restaurant in San Antonio, Texas. Having worked in the restaurant business for the past 16 years, he has seen the number of diners who must cope with food allergies increase significantly over time.
How Chef Luca Accommodates Food Allergies in the Restaurant Setting
Today, Chef Luca says that the issue of food allergies comes up in his restaurants at least once a week. “It’s definitely something that I believe will keep growing,” he says, “so it is very important for restaurants to address this.”
Chef Luca understands the precautions that need to be taken to prepare a safe meal for a food-allergic diner. “Within a restaurant, the most important thing is to be aware of cross-contamination,” Chef Luca notes. “For us this includes always cleaning every surface, knife or utensil that gets in contact with a specific process or ingredients before we prepare the special meal.”
“We also train our staff how to approach our customers to get a very clear understanding of what kind of allergies they have,” he adds. “Sometimes the communication is a little cloudy, so in these cases I would rather talk to the customer myself to understand what ingredients are not right for their diet.”
Chef Luca’s Advice to Parents Regarding Restaurants
We asked Chef Luca what he feels is most important when talking to restaurant staff members about food allergies. His recommendations include:
- Speak to the manager– The restaurant’s manager is usually the most professional link between the customer and the kitchen, and is much more likely to be knowledgeable about menu ingredients than the wait staff is.
- Be very specific – Clearly communicate exactly what ingredients must be avoided.
- Emphasize the severity – Be sure to explain that your child has a potentially life threatening reaction to foods – not just an intolerance or dislike for certain foods. As Chef Luca notes, “We take this even more seriously.”
Chef Luca’s Food Allergy Recipe Challenge
Recognizing how his culinary skills can be so helpful to the food allergy community, Chef Luca recently teamed up with Kids With Food Allergies to launch a new program: Challenge Chef Luca.
For this program people who are coping with food allergies are encouraged to submit their requests for recipes that eliminate their specific list of allergens. Requests can be submitted directly to Chef Luca on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/cheflucadellacasa) or in response to the periodic “submit a request” posts that we’ll run on the KFA Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/kidswithfoodallergies). Each week Chef Luca will pick one of these requests, develop a recipe for something delicious that meets this need, and post the recipe both on the KFA blog and on his Facebook page.
The first request chosen was for a meal with meatballs that did not contain any of the “top 8” allergens. Chef Luca’s response to this first challenge is his new recipe: Chef Luca's Cauliflower Risotto and Meatballs with Fresh Tomato Sauce.
Why is Chef Luca So Interested in Food Allergies?
“As a chef I have always thought the thing that gives me the most pleasure is to make people happy with my food,” Chef Luca states. A recent experience with a food-allergic customer helped remind him about the difference he can make in peoples’ lives.
Some personal friends of Chef Luca came in to his restaurant to celebrate a special occasion. With them was the couple’s daughter, a little girl of about two who has multiple severe food allergies. “I just made a pasta with chicken and tomato sauce for the little girl,” Chef Luca explains, “something that seemed a little too basic to me for a restaurant meal. But it was amazing to watch this little girl eat that meal with such an appetite and smile, her face red with tomato sauce! These are the best moments, because it makes me understand that I'm going in the right direction, making people happy with my cooking. I see what a difference it makes to these families that can finally relax and celebrate the day without the worries that come with the food allergies.”
This experience is what motivated him to launch the Challenge Chef Luca program. “It’s an amazing challenge,” he says, “and I’m really excited about it. I have always thought that a good chef is one who is constantly curious and food and ingredients. This has pushed me to increase my knowledge every day, experiment with different recipes and try different substitutes for ingredients that commonly provoke allergic reactions. I want to put my skills at the service of people with food allergies. And I’d like to see more chefs involved with this! I hope this will move some of my colleagues in the right direction.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Luca Della Casa is Executive Chef at the Nosh Restaurant & Silo Restaurant, San Antonio, Texas. Chef Luca has 16 years’ experience in the food service industry in Italy, Spain and the U.S. He was raised in Northern Italy, with an in-depth knowledge of Italian, French, and Spanish cuisines. He is currently a contestant on Food Network's The Next Food Network Star, which airs on Sundays at 9 pm Eastern time. He welcomes food allergic diners at his restaurant. You can find Chef Luca at facebook.com/cheflucadellacasa.