Picture a chef in his kitchen barking orders to cooks, managers, and any server who happens to be within earshot. Requests from the dining room for special preparations are declined on the spot, no matter the reason—it’s his way or the highway, baby! Now, turn off the television show you’re watching and return to the real world. Believe me, special requests docome to the kitchen from guests and for a wide variety of reasons.
Some special requests are preference-driven—for instance, textural dislikes, a desire to avoid physical reactions such as heartburn, diet/calorie consciousness, religious beliefs, environmental concerns, or taste partiality. Others may come from guests with a food allergy, and this is where it gets serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are eight foods that account for 90 percent of all food-allergy reactions: cow’s milk and milk products, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, and so on), fish, shellfish, soybeans, and wheat (which also may be described as a gluten allergy).1,2,3
While 3.3 million Americans are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts, 6.9 million have allergies to seafood. Combined, food allergies cause 30,000 cases of anaphylaxis (a reaction after previous sensitization), 2,000 hospitalizations, and 150 deaths annually.2 As reported by the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), currently more than 12 million Americans have a food allergy, which represents four percent of the population or about one in 25. The incidence of food allergies has doubled in the United States over the last ten years, and scientists don’t know why.
As a restaurant professional, it is more important than ever to know how to handle requests and create ways to prepare foods that you know are safe to serve. With food allergies it boils down to the FACTs:
Familiarize yourself with the different food allergies and what trigger ingredients are used in your recipes—in allstages of preparation and cooking. By understanding different food allergies, you can help guide your guests toward appropriate choices based on their needs. Double-check ingredients in your pantry for items you do not prepare from scratch. These may include dairy items, frozen items (coatings that may be used on prepackaged fried foods, for example), spices, and canned goods. You may be surprised at what you find.
Ask the right questions of guests to ensure you understand their exactdietary restrictions. Both front- and back-of-the-house staff should be comfortable in asking to clarify patrons’ precise needs. For instance, if they are allergic to nuts, does this include nut oils and vinegars? If it is fish, is it allfish, including what may be found in stocks and sauces, or shellfish only? Ultimately, the burden of responsibility lies with guests to choose what to eat, but you should participate in their decision-making process to ensure they understand their options. Consider listing ingredients for dishes on your POS system and make printed recipes readily available so that any employee can answer specific questions for guests.
Cook to order, and train your entire staff to understand how to modify your recipes so that guests can enjoy safe alternatives to regular menu items. Be aware of sources of cross-contamination such as knives, cutting boards, utensils, mixing bowls, grills, and frying oils. Make sure your staff understands that once an item is prepared with a trigger ingredient, you cannot remove it; it must be remade.
Take care of guests with allergies, and you also will take care of your business and build sales. Once guests with allergies know they can trust you to prepare foods they can enjoy, they will be more likely to return to your establishment and recommend you to others who may suffer the same problem.
Remember, if you don’t want to accommodate guests with allergies, there’s another restaurant down the street that would be glad to have your throwaway business.
1. Report on the Expert Panel on Food Allergy Research, June 30 and July 1, 2003, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health http://www3.niaid.nih.gov/about/organization/dait/PDF/june30_2003.pdf [PDF 190K].
2. Sampson, H. 2003. Food allergy. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 111(2):540–547.
3. Sicherer, S. H., Muñoz-Furlong, A., Murphy, R., Wood, R. A., & Sampson, H. A. 2003. Symposium: Pediatric food allergy. Pediatrics 111(6):1591–1594.