At the suggestion of a chef friend, I recently began viewing the Netflix, six-episode docuseries “Rotten.” It’s a very well-executed look at the food supply chain and the crime and corruption that lie within.
Episode Two is titled “The Peanut Problem.” It examines the recent sharp rise of peanut allergies in the last decade or so. I’m sure you have either said or heard someone else say that “there weren’t so many kids allergic to peanuts when I was young.” Something is going on in our environment that has caused an explosion in the rate of many food allergies, and scientists haven’t got it nailed down just yet. Famed chef Ming Tsai, proprietor of Blue Ginger (now closed) and Blue Dragon in Boston, started taking allergies seriously on behalf of his restaurants’ diners when his own son was diagnosed with a peanut allergy when he was very young.
Anaphylactic shock is a serious and possibly life-threatening reaction to certain foods (among other things) wherein a person’s immune system overreacts to allergens, releasing chemicals that cause allergy symptoms. The scale of the symptoms runs from mild to extreme. Often, reactions worsen with each subsequent exposure to the allergen.
In “The Peanut Problem,” we’re presented with a couple of cases from the United Kingdom in which a group of restaurants under the same owner didn’t take diners’ claims of peanut allergies seriously. The diners both requested “no nuts” (it was even written on their order tickets). But the restaurant went ahead and added a cheap, ground peanut filler to the dishes it served them. One got extremely sick, and one died alone in his apartment after just one or two bites of his dinner. The restaurant owner was eventually jailed for manslaughter.
Needless to say, most restaurants take great care to make sure allergy claims are taken very seriously — if for no other reason than self-preservation. Ming Tsai’s restaurants developed an allergy binder that lists every single ingredient of every dish, with common allergens highlighted at the top of the list. This helps the cooks and serving staff serve the public with confidence they won’t sicken anyone inadvertently. But even without an allergy binder, a good chef should know exactly what’s in every dish and train his kitchen and servers what to do when an allergy claim is made.
Restaurant owners and staffs must take such claims to heart. So, imagine what we go through when an allergy ticket comes back to the kitchen. Normally, the server will come speak to the cooks to reiterate the allergens involved. A cook will break away from the line to fetch freshly re-washed pans and utensils, check the recipe, don gloves and stake out a place on the stove as far as possible from the area where regular meals are being prepared. They can’t multitask as they normally would, shaking this pan and tossing that one; they must be devoted to this meal alone until it’s complete. It can slow down the whole kitchen, but it’s worth it to make sure we’re taking the best possible care of our patrons.
So when a guest claims a gluten allergy, and we’re in the kitchen taking the utmost care to be certain no gluten comes anywhere near their plates, imagine our dismay when the server comes back and casually mentions that the allergic guest was observed eating three rolls out of the bread basket.
This happens often. It doesn’t mean we can just throw up our hands and tell ourselves it doesn’t matter that we follow through with allergy procedures. But it does have a desensitizing effect on the staff. It always makes one wonder if an allergy claim is real, or simply a preference. We follow procedure anyway, and if a slowdown throws a wrench in the kitchen engine, so be it.
Claiming an allergy where none exists does a disservice to the restaurant staff, other diners who’ll have to experience a delay in their meals, and especially to diners with true allergies.
If you don’t care for tomatillos, just say: “I don’t care for tomatillos.” Don’t claim an allergy to nightshade vegetables, and then turn around and order eggplant Parmesan with a side of frites. We see you. And you’re chipping away at our resolve. We’ll happily leave the tomatillos out of your appetizer, without having to devote a whole portion of the stove to your meal. •
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.