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Allergy Heavy

April 5, 2018

I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. Once, many years ago, someone thought that when I dressed up in scrubs for Halloween I looked like that bald guy on ER. Apparently he’s a famous actor, but I couldn’t tell you his name.

In my immediate family, we don’t suffer from many allergies. Mrs. Fussy gets snuffly whenever she encounters dust, and has seasonal reactions to pollen. In New Jersey I took my son to an allergist, because we thought he had allergies. Really, he had a sinus infection. As a kid I went through the dreaded scratch test, which revealed I was allergic to goose feathers, dust, and dogs. My father is allergic to cats.

As far as food goes, we’re clean. I do sometimes get a reaction to eating pineapple, however, I think that’s some kind of enzymatic reaction? I have no idea.

What I do know is that allergies can be deadly serious stuff. We had a dear friend of the family tragically die from anaphylaxis after eating chili that contained peanut butter as a “secret ingredient”. This was back in the 1970s when awareness of peanut allergies was much much lower.

There’s an interesting divide on allergies though when it comes to restaurants and guests.

This is something I’ve heard chefs and restaurant people talking about over social media. I’ve never doubted their stories. Still, seeing it unfold with my own eyes yesterday, really hammered this home.

Restaurants take allergies very very seriously.
The people who come into restaurants, maybe not so much.

Here’s what happened.

A woman asked for her dish to be prepared without bread. The kitchen made a small mistake. They put the bread on the dish. Then they took it off. The guest had been waiting for her food for a while, and when one of the cooks brought the food to her table they asked her a question.

“You ordered this without bread, is that because of an allergy or something else?”

As soon as she said, “allergy” the cook whisked away the plate back to the kitchen to prepare her a fresh meal, much to the guest’s confusion. And when she received her new meal several minutes later, she told the staff, “that really wasn’t necessary.”

Here’s my hunch. I suspect that the customer said she had an allergy to bread because it was the path of least resistance. It is Passover, and those who observe don’t always feel like explaining the dietary laws and customs. Or maybe there was some other complicated reason why she didn’t want the bread with the dish, and didn’t feel like going into it.

If you say “allergy” that ends the conversation.
As that woman learned yesterday, it can also lose you your meal.

Let’s say that she really did have an allergy. Clearly it wasn’t a life threatening one, or even one that would cause her a great deal of potential physical distress. Still, a restaurant wouldn’t want anyone to have any adverse reaction to its food, even if it’s just a mild case of gas or whatever side effects one might get from a minor allergy to wheat.

The big learning here, is that saying “allergy” in a restaurant is like saying “fire” in a movie theater. It’s something you should totally do if the situation exists. But saying “allergy” to push whatever ridiculous fussy preparation of a dish you want through a busy kitchen is like saying “fire” in a crowded theater to try and get out more quickly.

It’s easy to think that there’s no danger to the practice, but there is.

Customers have a way of all looking the same to a kitchen. Cooks on a line see tickets, not people. And if the tickets keep on saying allergy when there is no allergy, it can create a situation reminiscent of the boy who cried wolf.

Seeing the kitchen staff at Zaitoon spring into action when they heard the word “allergy” was impressive. Good kitchens will stay vigilant. But people are people. As consumers, customers, and citizens, we have a role to play too. Hopefully it helps to remember that words have consequences.

Please make sure to use the word “allergy” carefully and precisely, for everyone’s sake.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dominic Colose permalink
    April 5, 2018 11:08 am

    I know I’ve talked about allergies on chefsday but I I have not done a post dedicated to them.
    This is an important subject to me for two reasons. First and foremost is that my seven-year-old daughter has a severe dairy allergy that is life-threatening. She had to have an Epipen once when an apple orchard made it very clear that their “homemade” cider donuts were dairy-free. Since they were apparently homemade we trusted them. The day after the incident my wife called to report the issue and they in fact were made with a mix that contains whey. This is a case when the customer was honest and the vendor was not.
    As a chef who has had to deal with a real allergy I know what can happen when someone ingests something they shouldn’t. In my kitchen we take allergies very seriously and do everything we can to accommodate them. We change utensils, we are careful in our methods, and in our plating. It’s disheartening when a server reports back that the same customer with the allergy is sharing food with dining companions that contains the reported allergen. It happens more often than you’d think.
    These scenarios have caused me to be skeptical. My wife and I don’t trust food vendors, and I don’t trust customers. While honesty may be the best policy, it’s not the common policy. It’s too bad because someones life could depend on it.

  2. Ewan permalink
    April 5, 2018 1:41 pm

    Anthony Edwards. And you look nothing like him.

    (I have a shellfish allergy; 99% of the time I have been hugely impressed with how seriously restaurants take it.)

    • April 6, 2018 9:24 am

      I think you mean Paul McCrane (Dr Romano).

      As for allergies, I don’t think I have one. I once broke out in a rash after eating a meal with shrimp, but I think it was the was the way it was processed since I have not had issues since. My mom however has a shellfish allergy and I think I am more vigilant about it than she is.


  1. Allergies – chefsday

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