Food Safe

by Kristi Willis

A woman is crying in the dining room of the Blue Ginger restaurant in Boston. Instead of being alarmed, though, Chef Ming Tsai is delighted because he knows these are tears of joy. The customer’s son, who suffers from severe food allergies, is having his very first meal out at a real restaurant. “I grew up and became exactly who I am because I ate at restaurants all the time with my parents,” says Tsai. “I think it’s the right of every American to be able to eat safely in a restaurant.”

Tsai is one of the food industry leaders helping to make dining out safe for people with food allergies—a cause he championed even before his own son was diagnosed with an allergy to nuts. He was instrumental in passing legislation in Massachusetts that set standards for how commercial kitchens create dishes that are safe for all diners—the first statewide law of its kind that’s now being used as a model by other states.

The need for labeling and safety standards is pressing—15 million Americans currently have food allergies that can cause a range of reactions from simple rashes and irritation to anaphylactic shock and even death. Also troubling is the fact that the number of children diagnosed with allergies between 1997 and 2011 has increased by 50 percent. 

Scientists are unclear about what’s causing the dramatic increase in food allergies, but the general consensus is that it’s a combination of genetics and environmental triggers. “No one knows why people have food allergies, but there are many theories,” says Mike Spigler, vice president of education for the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization—a national effort that invests in research and provides tools and resources for people with food allergies. “Every time we think we figure it out, a study or statistics come out that discredit it.”

Austinite Beth Martinez felt lost and overwhelmed when her son Lorenzo was diagnosed with a life-threatening combination of allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, soy, dairy and wheat. “There is a huge learning curve,” says Martinez. “At times you think, How am I ever going to be able to keep my kid safe? But you reach a point where you realize you have achieved a new normal in your life.” Martinez’s new normal relies heavily on information and research from FARE, as well as connections to other local families dealing with food allergies through Austin Families with Food Allergies (AFFA). The community shares news, tips and alerts via their online forum, Facebook group, monthly educational meetings and an annual family retreat. 

Allergy experts agree that anyone can develop a food allergy at any point in their life, and although any food can trigger a reaction, 90 percent of all food allergies involve eight particular foods: Peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. People with food allergies have to pay careful attention to dishes with unexpected ingredients. For example, someone who’s allergic to chicken has to question any dish that might contain chicken broth—including queso, mashed potatoes or rice. 

A food allergy becomes even more challenging for people with a career in the culinary industry. Michelle Lee, who is on the Foodie Team at Central Market, discovered she was allergic to mangoes 10 years ago, then blueberries a few years later. She manages what she eats by paying careful attention to labels, but sometimes has to make special arrangements at work. “It can be hard sometimes because we do a mango event each year,” says Lee. “I try to avoid the produce department that week. Also, if anyone is doing a food demo that uses mango, I can’t go near their table or in their prep area. I also have to be careful with sample products because mango powder and blueberries are used quite a bit.” 

FARE works with the National Restaurant Association and food manufacturers through training programs such as SafeFARE, ServSafe and AllerTrain, to help those who prepare food understand basic but vital information. For example, if an item comes in contact with an allergen—no matter how quick or seemingly insignificant the contact might be—the item is irrevocably contaminated. “Chefs are used to dealing with microbes, like with raw chicken,” says Spigler. “If raw chicken touches something, but you cook it through, the microbes are killed. But if a diner has a dairy allergy and a chef cooks their food on a grill that was used to cook something with cheese on it, that diner is going to get sick. Once that touch happens, it’s over.” 

To ensure that the next generation of chefs considers food allergy safety protocols part of their standard operating procedures, culinary schools are incorporating training on common allergens in their coursework. Chef Jackie Parchman of the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Austin teaches a baking and pastry course that includes lessons on gluten intolerance, celiac disease, diabetes and lactose intolerance, as well as vegetarian and vegan dietary restrictions. “The course enlightens the students to what the general public now is facing as far as food allergies, and how they can, as chefs, accommodate customers in the future,” says Parchman. 

Identifying allergens and protecting guests starts with recipe development. Tsai and his team created a spreadsheet system called “The Bible” that lists every ingredient in every dish—making it easy for anyone on the line to identify what the diner might be allergic to on a plate and substitute it out. “A steak-and-potato dish can have shellfish in it if the potato was fried in the same oil as the shellfish,” says Tsai. “That’s the kind of thing that is easy to overlook—and I don’t care how smart you are, it’s hard to remember every dish on your menu.”

Restaurant guests with allergies can do their part, as well. Note the allergy when making the reservation and ask questions about the menu. FARE created a card that helps alleviate some of the confusion when communicating with the kitchen. Diners can hand the card identifying their allergies to the server so that everyone is on the same clear page.

Executive Chef Mat Clouser of Swift’s Attic is particularly motivated to accommodate diners with food allergies, because he personally suffers from a shellfish allergy that emerged after several years of working in kitchens. His team emphasizes training and balances the menu so that there are plenty of options for people with allergies. They also avoid ingredients that commonly cause issues—opting for gluten-free soy, for example, and substituting coconut milk for cream to add richness to a dish. “The last thing we want to do is make anyone sick,” says Clouser. “We’re in the business of serving people food and making people happy. Anything we can do to get food in their bellies and keep them smiling, that’s what we want to do.”

With leadership from chefs like Ming Tsai and organizations like FARE, people with food allergies can expect it to get easier to find more delicious, and safe, meals at home and at area restaurants.


For more information on FARE, visit foodallergy.org

For information on Austin Families with Food Allergies, visit facebook.com/Austinfamilieswithfoodallergies 


Tips for Dining Out


Know the types of foods that can have “hidden” ingredients, such as sauces, desserts and buffet items.

Call ahead. 

Contact the restaurant a few days in advance to let them know you have allergies and ask how they might be able to accommodate you. Giving the restaurant advance notice gives them time to plan a memorable meal for you.

Share and ask questions.  

Even if you’ve called ahead, tell your server about any allergy. Take a chef card, available on the FARE site, to help clearly communicate your allergies to the server and the kitchen staff. Don’t be embarrassed about your allergy; it’s a normal course of business for restaurants.

Be prepared. 

Even when you plan ahead, sometimes an allergen can come in contact with your food. Carry any medicines needed in case of an emergency, and make sure your dining companions know how to assist you.