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.


Shauna said...


I'm broadcasting this from the mountains. Thank you.

Berry K said...

One reason I love Amici's pizza chain is they have a GF menu that EXPLAINS how they keep the GF pizza safe! Separate ingredients, special board and cutter, special oven rack etc. That's they way to do it.

Yasmine Galenorn said...

Thank you--I have mixed food allergies/intolerances. Some of the intolerances make me sicker than the allergies.

I also, hate the "I don't think so..." that drifts off into what feels like a "Do you feel lucky?" moment.


foodonthebrain said...

Having just been diagnosed with a nut allergy (and ranting about it on my blog), I'm totally with you on this one.

Yasmine Galenorn said...

OH...and I'm also so sensitive to garlic that if it's enough to even barely taste, it's enough to make me curl up with stomach cramps all night long. But for me, raw or cooked--doesn't matter. Onions, not quite as bad, chives and the rest--not quite as bad but all of them, off the plate.


Emily said...

thank you for a great post. will be passing this link on to everyone!

as someone with multiple food intolerances, it really is incredibly frustrating to eat out. i end up getting sick every time, no matter how vigilant i am, or think the restaurant is being.

Susan Weissman said...

So well said! I think your suggestion are sound and reasonable and can be done. My son has food mulitiple allergies and I have witnessed the shannagins that some dieters or just plain annoying people pull with the misuse of the term "allergic."

I always want to say to the servers and cooks "Please don't take your expereriences with the weirdos out on those with legit. issues."

I want to say that to the rest of the world sometimes too.

Jeanne said...

Amen, sister! As someone with multiple allergies and intolerances, and a daughter with a life-threatenting peanut allergy, we go through this all the time. Thank you!

Ruth Smith said...

As the mother of a child with multiple life threatening food allergies I thank you for this article.

We rarely eat out and when we do, we choose to spend our money at restaurants that "get it".

It's just not worth taking the risk.

Wendy McConnell said...

Well done and well said! Thank you so much Becky for writing and sharing this! My husband has been diagnosed with gluten allergies and is getting tested for other food allergies. It seems like people don't take him seriously when he eats at restaurants or even in the homes of his own family!

Erin Swing said...

THANK YOU!!!! I'm posting this in my blog and anywhere I can!

-Erin Swing

Jenny said...

I appreciate your honesty and will put your post on my blog (I just blogged about restaurants today), but please, please don't assume that food allergy requests are "dubious" just because of a few nincompoops.

I have a daughter with a life-threatening nut allergy. Trust me when I say that a chef believing her allergies are real means the difference between a nice evening and a potential deadly reaction.

I've been bemused by some people's food claims myself, but don't ever doubt a nut allergy just cause there are some "nuts" out there.

Thanks again for this post--it is very helpful to the general discussion.

Best, Jenny

Allison the Meep said...

As someone with celiac disease (I can't eat gluten), thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou THANK YOU! It's really a struggle to have my gluten intolerance taken seriously at restaurants, and it would be so great if more restaurants adopted your attitude.

Also, I get really tired of the eye rolling from servers. Apparently, they do not enjoy having to walk aaaaaaall the way back to the kitchen to ask what's in a dish.

Becky said...

Shauna: thanks for spreading the word

Berry K: Nothing like a special menu to make you feel safer. That's awesome.

Yasmine: One of my favorites is the trailing, "I'm thinking you're fine..." Oh, and not sure if this would help you but before and after I eat at a restaurant I take digestive enzymes. They seem to help reduce my symptoms a lot.

Food on the brain: I went to your site, I can totally relate - obviously. I agree with others, the only good thing is if you are ever to discover a food allergy/intolerance now is a good time. Imagine knowing you had these issues twenty years ago.

Emily: I hope, for all our sakes, restaurants really start making the commitment to do the right thing on these issues.

Susan: Amen.

Jeanne: I'm sorry, but not surprised, to hear you go through this all the time.

Ruth: I'm starting to work on a list of restaurants in my area that "get it" I think there already exists something like this online...

Wendy: Hey there! Sorry to hear about your husband.

Erin: thanks for the post.

Jenny: Thanks for your comments. You bring up a great point and let me reiterate that I don't assume someone's food allergy requests are dubious... only when it is obviously a case where someone is being dramatic about a SERIOUS FOOD ALLERGY and then you see them eating that food. It dilutes the urgency people should place on these important issues.

Allison: eye-rollers suck, they really do.

Meggerific said...

Well-put. My mom has a severe allergy to shellfish, and eating out with her is always a bit of a gamble. Even ordering a hamburger at an inland restaurant in Virginia has sent her to the ER because someone didn't bother to make a note that it was serious.

My favorite, though, was the "special regional dish" my brother and his in-laws insisted she and my dad try while we were visiting them in France. They asked if it had shellfish, and the family said the classic, "I don't think so." We asked the waiter, and he said no, no shellfish in this dish. She takes a taste of the dish, slathered in a mysterious pink/red sauce and notices it tastes and smells a little fishy. You sure? The waiter finally admits, "Well, there's some lobster in the sauce, but no shellfish in the dish." Ack! And the waiter acts like it's nothing. My brother, probably more embarrassed than anything, laughs it off with his in-laws. I'm nearly fainting on the other end of the table. Thank goodness she didn't get past a half-bite, and then followed it with several glasses of water, but the epi-pen was definitely on high alert. Yikes!

I'm glad there are those in the restaurant business who appreciate the seriousness of allergies and the like. I've met a few out there, but this was a much needed rant. Kudos (garlic-free, of course) to you...

Dr. Jean Layton said...

Thank you for your amazing words.
They capture the situation from both sides perfectly.
I'll link to you today.

LC said...

Seems like food allergies are on the rise, anecdotally at least, and some effort should be made to understand why. Taras Grescoe suggests in his book "Bottomfeeder" (highly recommended) that the increasing incidence of allergic shellfish reactions may be due in part to all the chemicals (hormones, antibiotics, etc.) being used in shrimp farm operations in places like Thailand where regulations/oversight are scant. Scary thought.

Becky said...

Megerrific: I love your story. It's like, since when did lobster leave the shellfish family?

Dr. Layton: Thanks for the link to the article. I appreciate that!

LC: Can I borrow Bottomfeeder? Been meaning to read it.

Karen said...

Thank you for this rant. I wrote something similar on my blog last week, but not nearly as eloquent as this. I just get so tired of the wait staff telling me, "there's no wheat in it, just flour".

Marty said...

Oh boy, where to start! I was just diagnosed with multiple food allergies. This is hell! For one thing, I love the blank look the server gets when I try to explain my allergies and try to figure out what I can eat there. I cannot eat garlic or onions raw or cooked, plus most grains, peas, peanuts, tree nuts, tomatoes, the list goes on! Half the time they don't get it right even when I make it very simple.

A server at a restaurant made a comment the other day that made me furious. We were discussing peanut allergies and she said she thought that people with food allergies shouldn't be allowed to fly-it was just too inconvenient for the other travelers.

I have had some good experiences-most of them at the restaurant with the mouthy server. (Small town, everybody knows you)

I'm still wading through the qwagmire of food additives and ingredient labels, and I keep getting it wrong, but I am feeling much better so it's worth it. (I have a terrible, chronic cough that I've had for 20 years and was told, "no, it couldn't be food allergies")

There are a couple of places in this area that cater to people with food issues and I patronize them as much as I can.

Anyway, good rant!

goingforseconds said...

Well said my friend. This is something that Sarah and I deal with all of the time. Thanks.

Geraldine said...

I went out with a friend who has a severe dairy allergy (as in, could end up in the hospital, can't-even-touch-it-with-her-hand severe)and someone was trying to get us to try a dessert. We explained her allergy, and the guy said it was fine. Skeptically, we made him list the ingredients. Apparently he didn't think butter was dairy.

Becky said...

I'd like to give a shout-out to some restaurants in Seattle doing an incredible job with sensitivity to food allergies. Please add your own to this list, whether you live in Seattle or elsewhere.

1. Tom Douglas Restaurants
2. Poppy
3. Spring Hill
4. Mashiko

kitchenmage said...

Great rant, Becky. I seldom go out to restaurants - I live in a county that seems to not believe in them - but I remember the little post-its at the Herbfarm when we were there last spring. Most restaurants seem like such a minefield for people with any 'issues' - like my newfound thing for low-carb, low-fat...

I don't have food allergies, but of course I have many friends with them. Whenever I am going to potlucks, I try to take something gluten-free because one friend who is often there can't eat it. At a recent large party, about 25% of potluck was labeled with the various things it did/didn't have: vegan, gluten-free, nut-free, and half a dozen others; it was very cool to see.

Frank said...

I'll add that Rover's has been great with accomodating allergies. But yes, the Tom Douglas restaurants are great. Also, I haven't been in a long time, but it was mentioned to me that Dragonfish were very cognizant and helpful with diners who had food allergies.

theculinaryaddict said...

Recently a server brought back a "business" allergy card from a customer listing all of the items that person couldn't eat. This illustrated that the person was serious about their allergies. More often than not people are full of shit (ie. ice cream lady). I thought this was a good solution to all parties b/c a lot can happen between the table-kitchen-table. Plus, it gave an excellent point of reference for the cooks that could staple it to the ticket. I can relate to your allergies being sober, however, at the end of the day I'm responsible for my recovery, not some fucking waiter. TCA

garlicfreeveggieme said...

Wonderful post! I too have a garlic allergy/intolerance diagnosed by an allergists office after patch testing -- so I refer to it as an allergy. I get sick at just the smell of fresh garlic cooking, a problem for just the everyday. In addition I've gotten sick from eating out and have been to the hospital 2 times with hives, severe pain, and all kinds of crazy symptoms. Add to that the fact that I'm a vegetarian, and eating out is a nightmare. Eating in is a nightmare too with food labeling (spices...what does that mean??!!). The best thing to come out of it has been the fact that I now cook the majority of my own food.

MJP said...

Hi Becky,

My wife has a garlic intolerance that has been somewhat mitigated by an enzyme pill. She'll have a mild stomachache where before she would have 18+ hours of pure, unadulterated stomach cramping pain.

I was wondering if you or any commmentors had any success with similar OTC/herbal remedies, or had seen a gastrointerologist about this disorder. I'm trying to see if there's anything to bulwark our usual "omit the garlic, she cannot eat it due to an allergy" reaction for restaurants that might not have a firm grasp on English.

Either that or learn how to say "eating garlic will cause her pain and suffering, please don't put ANY garlic or garlic-containing ingredients in this" in a bunch of different languages.

Becky said...


Thanks for writing. I, too, take an enzyme pill before and after eating at restaurants because it can - just like your wife - save me from the worst of the digestive problems and so many restaurants have a hard time getting it completely out of my dinner.

I take Quick Digest from Zand which has a bunch of different kinds of enzymes in it (to cover my bases). I've also found that bitters and soda helps also.

I'm totally open to hearing if there are other things out there that help too.

Mr. G said...

Becky, this post was friggin' awesome! I am DEATHLY allergic to shellfish and fish, and as rule, I avoid any kind of seafood at all costs (I also suffer from anxiety/panic attacks -- yeah, not a good combination with a life-threatening food allergy). The mere smell of the stuff or even touch can send me into an anaphylactic shock in a matter of seconds. Now see, I've pretty much gone my entire life (21 1/2 years =] ) eating just about where ever I please, without incident. Unfortunately, last year I had a few allergic reaction episodes at my job, and I have become much more cautious. Possibly more cautious than is necessary, but hey, it makes me feel safer. The level of fear that a life-threatening condition such as this can instill in a person is almost paralyzing. I unfortunately have run into a few people at the job who just don't/didn't "get it". When you have episodes, sometimes within mere days of each other, it becomes tempting to always look over ones shoulder so to speak. To be sure to rule out any possible accident ingestion or cross contamination, I check the ingredients on everything (especially after a recent episode this past September, where I ended up in the ER because I failed to check the ingredients on a TV-dinner that I'd taken a few bites of) and of course on the now rare occasions that I eat out, I make sure to ask the server if their are any fish or shellfish ingredients in the food, condiments etc.

I'll definitely take in some of the suggestions you've mentioned for making the restaurants I visit aware of my condition (the one suggestion that a commenter in fact made about sending the waiter/tress with a little "business card" regarding the allergy, especially caught my eye). I know that it is hard on both ends, for the waitstaff, chefs and customer. This is why it infuriates me the way people lie about having an allergy when they don't. Especially if they're dumb enough to tell on themselves after making the waitstaff and chefs go through all the trouble. They don't realize that they're "crying wolf" could mean the difference between a nice romantic dinner out on the town or a traumatizing night in the Emergency Room for the next person who comes in with a LEGIT allergy (not to mention a ridiculously expensive EMS and Hospital bill). It also isn't lost on me, that sometimes these restaurants themselves just don't treat allergies with the proper seriousness, either out of carelessness or because they don't understand it, as has been stated by you and many of your commenters. It can be scary to know that you're putting your life in their hands.

With all this being said, I hope that science advances in a way that will put an end to these intrusive allergies. Especially since nuts and seafood ingredients are very common in more foods than we may think (i.e. did you know that in some countries the orange flavor of the soft-drink 'Fanta' is made with fish oil? Thankfully that is not the case here in the U.S.! That's my favorite! lol). Once again, thanks for writing such an excellent post! It's always refreshing to know that there are in fact people out there who GET IT, especially one who has been on boths sides of the equation.

Rock on,

Josh Lewin said...

allergic to garlic?! poor girl! I recently posted a similar rant on my blog which you might appreciate. I was too angry at the time to be quite at thorough as you, but an issue close to my heart nonetheless.

SugarNikita said...

I just found your blog, and I wanted to say, I have multiple food intolerances (including gluten, dairy/casein, eggs, and soy, to name a few), and eating out is a major pain. However, since I know servers will never be able to remember all my intolerances (and I don't expect them too!), I made up a food intolerance card. It describes what I look like, has blank spaces for the server's name and table, complete with a list of my intolerances. Then they can give it to the chef who makes my meal. I pretty much order things to be cooked plain, and I'm usually pretty safe with fish, so I just order something they can easily adjust. I hate making people go to extra trouble for me, so I try to make it easy for them. So far, it's worked well and all my servers have been nice and understanding, and I've had some yummy, safe food!

Anonymous said...

I ate out today and i had to get something quick for the sake of time and i was honestly scared as I ate my food, because i'm gluten intolerant. I think the paranoia made me a little sick, but it might have been that there was cross contamination around every corner. It's hard to enjoy an art show when you're scared you'll need to collapse into the fetal position at any point in time. Eating out is hard, and i really hope this gets around to restaurants.

Anonymous said...

just a note from a chef -
In a properly run kitchen we will take every caution to avoid contaminating a plate for a patron with food sensitivities/allergies. Please allow a bit more time for service, the extra steps taken by the kitchen are time consuming, we want to serve you our very best, and at the same time ensure your safety, all the while keeping up with the demand of the dining room. Any good restaurant will accommodate you, I only ask that you please give them time to get it right

achefabroad said...

A very refreshing blog and a pleasure to read. Particularly being written by a fellow chef. I am also cooking privately now with different guests all the time. A lot of different food allergies and preferences. Its very simple in my head, these people are paying me to cook for them, why would i ever consider not doing my utmost to give them exactly what they want.
I think that maybe some of the problem in the industry may be that colleges and restaurants are not giving the suitable training to the young cooks who are coming up the ranks. Maybe we need more awareness at college level so it is taken a bit more seriously.

Cibatarian said...

Thank you!!!! I'm horribly intolerant to anything Allium and generally get a blank stare when I attempt to order something that won't turn me into *ahem* a human volcano. I just wish restaurants would list it on the description for the food. Some people love garlic and onions and will track right to them as a bonus. It's a win-win.

[BTW, found this blog/entry via a google search for allium intolerance]

Anonymous said...

This is fantastic. I'm severely allergic (or sensitive) to anything in the Allum family. A few months ago, I was at a restaurant with my family. I was very detailed and explicit in my dealings with the server. I asked her to talk to the chef and find out if A,B or C had onions in it. She came back and said they could be made without onions. Somehow, I ended up just having a taste of onion, and I became severely ill, vomiting etc. I wish there was more awareness as to how real this sensitivity is. Thank you for writing this article.


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