Monday, April 13, 2009
Warning - Food Allergy RANT, just ahead.
This entry is overdue. Long overdue.
More and more people are being diagnosed with various food allergies and intolerances. Some, no doubt, are dubious. I’m thinking of the woman in the restaurant I worked at who claimed she had a severe dairy allergy. We made a special dinner for her and made sure there was no dairy of any kind in her meal. Later, we watched her eat the entirety of her husband’s ice cream. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she was controlling the amount of dairy she was consuming. Still, it’s this sort of restaurant behavior that has left some chefs, cooks, servers, and managers a little less than vigilant when it comes to allergies and food intolerances.
Some places are rock-solid on this issue, no doubt because it is part and parcel of staff training and there are various checks and balances in place. But most - most are doing a piss-poor job.
I'm a chef that has developed - in the last 3 years - an allergy/intolerance to the allium family. The whole family: Mom, Dad, little Johnny, cousin Alice. Nothing personal, really. They’re nice and all. They're colorful and flavorful but they have this way of overstaying their welcome and then suddenly, dramatically, making a quick exit. If I eat raw garlic, I become violently ill. Hummus with several cloves of raw garlic whirled in? It’s like eating a salmonella-laced piece of chicken. I will be fine. I won’t die. But sometimes I wish I would. I've gotten hives from it twice. Raw onions give me a stomach ache but I don’t get the same dramatic reaction. Still, like most people -I assume- I want to feel good after a meal, not bloated, and certainly not pregnant with virtual twins. Cooked garlic makes me feel sick, but not about to die. Cooked onions barely give me troubles.
Because I’ve worked in the restaurant business and because my partner has been a server for many years I occupy a unique insider-outsider position when I go to a restaurant. I feel immediate empathy for most servers, as well as cooks. I don’t like being “difficult” in a restaurant. I leave tremendous tips for a job well done. Before I developed my allergyintolerance (whatever I should call this) I was voted “least likely to send food back”.
Things are a little different now. I won’t eat food that’s going to make me sick. I need to be vigilant. I need to be careful. And, to all you cooks, chefs, managers and servers out there, nerve-wracking as it may be, I am putting my trust in you. This is a vulnerable feeling, to say the least.
When I order I say something like the following:
“Hi, how are you? I wanted you to know that I can’t eat garlic AT ALL or any raw onions. Basically anything in the allium family that is raw will make me very sick, but especially garlic. So, no GARLIC AT ALL and no raw or barely-cooked green onions, shallots, leeks, red onions, chives. Thank you, I really appreciate you making sure the food is safe for me to eat.”
When there is a breakdown in the system, and more often than not, there is, I don’t blame the server entirely. I blame the management and ownership. This stuff starts at the top and if it is not a priority of the house, it’s not reasonable to expect the server to bear full responsibility.
Each time I get served a plate that has garlic in it, or a bunch of chives all over the top for garnish I think about how a finely tuned check and balance system in a restaurant could have avoided the mess-up. I also think about the person with a deadly seafood or nut allergy and how scary eating out must be for them.
In my ideal restaurant, the server would take notes on your issue. Servers: there is nothing cool about your incredible memory, your “I don’t need to write anything down!” steel-trap of a mind when you ultimately make your customer sick or uh, dead. Write it down. Exactly as they say it. Ask clarifying questions. Make sure you understand.
Next. When the ticket gets sent or given to the kitchen it should have a bright red ALLERGY- GARLIC and ALL RAW ONIONS on the ticket. The server should verbalize the allergy/intolerance to the kitchen or expediter in addition to it being on the ticket. The cook should verbalize that they understand by saying it back to the server or expediter when delivering the food.
It’s not rocket science, but in a busy kitchen, when the shit hits the fan and people are screaming out orders and there’s a huge rush all at the same time, it gets harder and harder to get things out that are safe for the customers. There HAS to be multiple check points along the way. The final step, in my opinion, should be the server delivering the plate to you and verbalizing your intolerance or allergy again to make you feel safe and also to make sure they have understood the issue once again. "Here is your rabbit, no garlic, no raw onions of any type. Enjoy!” When I worked at the Herbfarm we used post-it notes on plates so that it was yet another reminder of the person's dietary requirements. I do this now, as a private chef, when I'm plating up dinners.
Here are some lines a server should never say. Never.
1. “I think you’re fine,” I'm always tempted to follow this one with, "if you think I'm fine, then I think I won't puke on you."
2. “I’m pretty sure this doesn’t have (enter food here) in it,” where you can follow with, as the case may be, "I'm pretty sure I won't be going to the hospital, then,"
3. "This only has a little bit of (enter food here) in it." As my friend Kate says, you're either pregnant or not, can't be a little bit pregnant. You can respond to this by saying, "Good to hear. I'll only puke a little bit on you," or the worst of them all:
4. (this actually happened), “this definitely doesn’t have (enter food here) in it,” only to hear the server asking the cook if it does AS I'M EATING THE FOOD.
Servers shouldn’t ask, “is this an allergy or an intolerance?" This just makes people feel like they won’t be taken as seriously if they have an intolerance and while in some ways, yes, being sick for 2 days is not the same as going into anaphylactic shock, I still want to feel like they will take the exact same precautions.
Whether the customer is avoiding garlic because it gives them bad breath or because it makes them violently ill, or because it can kill them, it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately we need to treat every customer as if they have a severe allergy, unless told otherwise. I love it when servers ask me if it is okay to use a pan that may have been in contact with garlic at some point. That shows me they are truly aware and respectful. That makes me feel safer.
And, no, you don’t need to use a special pan, I say, but thank you so much for asking.
One more thing: If you are a customer, make it easier on the server by not asking questions like, "uh, which things on this menu have (enter food here). It's much easier if you ask them, "please come back and tell me which items I can choose from." If I asked them to tell me every dish that has allium in it, they'd be there forever... much easier for them to come back and say "we can make the following dishes safe by...." It's a two-way street. Don't be an annoying customer if you're sitting at the table and for god sake's, if you are a restaurant, don't make your customer sick.
Okay, there were two more things: If you run or own a restaurant and you screw up (and hopefully the customer hasn't left on a stretcher) do the right thing. What is the right thing? Do everything in your power to make sure it doesn't happen again. The best thing you can do for the person you have made sick is to overhaul the way you deal with food allergies/intolerances. And, of course, it wouldn't hurt to invite them back to your restaurant for a comped, allergen-free meal.
If you have friends or family with food allergies/intolerances/what have you and/or you know people who are cooks, servers, restaurant managers: do me a favor, pass this on to them.