Guests of the Intentional Vegetable Feast in September 2017. Photo: Alix Wall

Sharing a meal is one of those basic, human interactions that brings people together. But what if you have multiple food sensitivities?

For Lila Volkas, it’s no small thing.

She often brings her own food when she attends dinner parties — not wanting to miss out on the social element — and when it comes to dating, she faces the part where it comes to deciding what to eat with dread.

On a recent date, she suggested a picnic, and had some of her staples in the car just in case: salmon salad, kale and coconut yogurt for dessert; luckily this person was open to the picnic idea, but not everyone is.

So Volkas, who come spring, will be a certified nutritionist from Berkeley’s Bauman College, began wondering how she could share the food she eats more widely.

“I have a lot of food sensitivities,” said Volkas, “and eating what’s healthy for me can sometimes be isolating. It means a lot to me to be able to share what I can eat with a group of people.”

Through a friend she met Kathryn Thompson, a chef/owner at Three Stone Hearth, the cooperative kitchen in Berkeley. And together, they hatched up the plan for what they’re calling The Intentional Vegetable Feast, a Paleo-style pop-up dinner party that celebrates a seasonal vegetable.

The two make a great team, they said, because they each bring different skills to the table. Thompson is the more knowledgeable of the two in the kitchen; working at Three Stone Hearth has made her an expert in cooking this kind of food in large quantities, while Volkas is tasked with marketing, the website, Instagram, designing the menus and more.

They both share an interest in “pushing for how we make each dish the best it can taste,” said Volkas.

The first Intentional Vegetable Feast was in September. The next one is coming up on Dec. 4*, and the chosen vegetable is the beet.

“Usually, I am eating really delicious food, but by myself,” said Volkas, who is also a culinary illustrator, food writer and sometimes leads workshops on how to make kombucha. “I feel good when I eat this way, but I don’t often get to share it with people. This felt incredibly special to have a dinner where everyone could eat together, and I didn’t have to bring my own food.”

Rather than emphasize what can’t be eaten there, the pair decided to emphasize what can. At each feast, the chosen vegetable is featured in every course.

“We are celebrating one vegetable and all the different ways you can use it,” said Thompson, noting that people are often surprised by so many iterations of one simple vegetable. “We also focus on making sure the food is as nutrient-packed as possible, by using such techniques as lacto-fermenting and sprouting to make them more digestible, and dehydrating, to show how you can preserve food,” she added. Thompson added that in addition to being nutrient-dense, the food was designed to make diners feel “satiated and nourished.”

For the most part, Volkas follows the AIP diet, or Auto-Immune Protocol, which has some traits in common with the Paleo diet.

This means that despite its name, the Intentional Vegetable Feast is not for vegetarians; “nutrient-dense” food almost always includes meat and staples like bone broth.

Rather, “we wanted to show how you can cook without using things that people would normally cook with, like nightshades (any member of the tomato, eggplant or pepper family) or alliums (garlic and onions), which often make up the base of a dish,” said Volkas. They also don’t serve gluten or dairy, corn or soy. Refined sugar is also out.

Zucchini Nori Chips, sprouted split pea dip, and seed and zucchini crackers. Photo: Lila Volkas

At the feast in September, the chosen vegetable was the zucchini. The feast took place at Neyborly, a homey space in central Berkeley with blond wood, exposed brick and twinkle lights, where about 30 diners sat around one long table.

Volkas and Thompson, who were dressed that night in matching print jumpsuits, greeted everyone.

Menus drawn by Volkas were at each place setting, with the appetizers already on the table. While no alcohol was served, the beverage of the evening was a Zucchini Cucumber Rose Fresca.

Appetizers included Zucchini Nori Chips (that were dehydrated and flecked with bits of seaweed); seed and zucchini crackers (that were with flax seeds and both baked and dehydrated) with sprouted split pea dip (the sprouting took three days; this makes legumes easier to digest for some) and lacto-fermented zucchini pickles with goldenrod, a perennial known to help allergies.

Zucchini noodles with “nomato” sauce and organic basil-fennel chicken meatballs. Photo: Alix Wall

The main dish was zucchini strands fashioned like noodles served with a “nomato” sauce and organic basil-fennel chicken meatballs. Since tomatoes are in the nightshade family, the brown sauce made a hearty substitute; some of its ingredients included carrots, celery, beets, bone broth, dates, olives and herbs. It made for an excellent comfort food type of dish for those who can’t eat the regular old spaghetti and meatballs.

Fermented coconut frozen yogurt with roasted zucchini and zucchini sprinkles, with an almond maple cookies sprinkled with bull kelp. Photo: Alix Wall

Volkas, who said she can’t digest regular coconut milk, has become a great fan of fermented coconut yogurt, and makes it regularly in her Instant Pot. For this meal, she made it frozen yogurt style, and topped it with roasted zucchini and zucchini sprinkles (“yes, those are a thing,” Volkas told the diners). The dessert was served with almond maple cookies with bull kelp seaweed, which she often integrates into her food, liking the salty sweet notes it provides. Sadly, Volkas can’t eat nuts, so she didn’t partake in the cookies that night.

What was evident by this meal was that it was quite labor-intensive, with all the sprouting, dehydrating and pickling.

Chef Kathryn Thompson speaks with guests at The Intentional Vegetable Feast September 2017. Photo: Lila Volkas

Throughout the meal, one could hear diners commenting about their various allergies, what diets they adhere to and how rare it was to have a place where they knew they could eat without worrying about what hidden allergens might be in their food.

Natalie Wells was one such diner, also a Bauman-trained chef whose business is called Nat King Kale. She started following Volkas on Instagram, which is how she heard about the event.

Wells could relate all too well to what Volkas described, as she too often brings her own food to events.

“When people say something is gluten-free, I always wonder if it actually is,” Wells said. “Here I don’t have to worry.”

*The next Intentional Vegetable Feast on Dec. 4 is now sold out. Sign up to the Intentional Vegetable Feast newsletter or follow them on Instagram to find out about the next dinner. 

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...