Note from Mary Kate: Ann is a good friend of mine from college (during which, no, no one including me used my first name) who who is an artist and chef. In one of our conversations, she mentioned that food allergies were a hot topic in the restaurant world. Of course — that makes complete sense. But rather than hostility, she expressed that accommodation was part of her job as a chef, in the hospitality industry. I invited her to write us a guest post, as I thought it might be useful for those of us with food allergies to hear from the kitchen directly. Ann writes at Winslow’s Bread Shop in her “spare” time, and I know she’s been working on a gluten-free pizza crust. The picture at the top is Ann’s work.
Pending approval, this post will appear both at Winslow’s Bread Shop and at Surviving the Food Allergy Apocalypse, which is the website of Kate, my college friend from Agnes Scott, and her friend Denise. Thanks, Kate, for inviting me to be your guest blogger of the hour!
To give a little context to readers of Kate’s & Denise’s blog, I am a chef at a well-known international luxury hotel chain. My experience comes not so much from culinary school as it comes from almost ten years of gut crushing, mind blowing, maddeningly awesome work. Food allergies were mentioned in school as a reason to avoid cross contaminating foods, but ten years ago, it was not nearly as big a deal in my work as it is now. Cheerfully being able to accommodate food allergies has now become par with knowing how to make hollandaise without a recipe or measuring tools.
I’ll admit that it’s easy for me to be irritable about the food allergy epidemic because I have been blessed for my entire life with only one food allergy: fuji apples make my lips itch. Recently I discovered that I can eat fuji apples if I peel them. Heck, maybe I’m not even allergic to them any more. Minor as it is, the fuji apple allergy was a simple and direct conclusion. My mouth only itches when I eat fuji apples, so I eat other kinds, and I also try to avoid eating things like poison ivy. That worked well until one day at work when I was hungry, and the only available food was a half case of fuji apples. Really. (We had just reopened the hotel after ski season, and that case of apples, 2 weeks old, was all the food we had.) How, then, do people come up with complicated food allergies, which require months of trials and eliminations and multiple doctor visits? I mean I have seen some things that seem downright made-up in comparison with something obvious, such as lactose intolerance, hives or passing out dead on the floor from a severe shellfish allergy. I understand that those who do make up ailments make those with genuine ailments look bad. I just don’t have the ability to decide who is fibbing, nor do I feel like risking my entire career by taking that chance.
Just for kicks I’ll invite you to consider food phobia fanatics as a rising minority among the allergic crowd. As an example, I’ll mention the pregnant lady who called the operator to ask her to call me to ask if our sliced turkey was cooked in our ovens or if it was prepackaged, i.e. full of chemicals. News flash: turkeys nowadays are born full of chemicals, antibiotics and gmos (genetically modified organisms/feed)…at least the ones that hotels like the one where I work are able to buy more than one bird at a time. Furthermore, those daily prenatal vitamins, whose ingredient panels are probably more than four words long, if in English, may be more harmful to an unborn child than a few slices of deli turkey at one meal. We do, in fact, roast turkeys for sandwiches and other preparations. We also have “extra chemicals” turkeys, just in case an emergency strikes the ovens, or there is a turkey sandwich convention for which we are unable to roast turkeys fast enough. If we had been unable to meet that guest’s requirements in the turkey department, I would have asked her personally what she would like as an alternative because that’s the kind of service we provide. I would have been more than happy to put all other important projects aside to make sure that one person is satisfied. Lesser organizations probably would not have been as accommodating.
By now I’m sure you may be choking on my sarcasm, and I apologize. I do not view any segment of society as the source of my difficulties in life, and I do not wish to alienate anyone. The purpose of this blurb is not to spout my frustrations in a new outlet. To the contrary, I actually experience much less frustration than I used to about life in general and people with food allergies in particular. You might say I have turned over a new leaf and adopted the asi es attitude of the friendly Mexican workers of the stewarding department, which supports me every day. It’s the way it is, and I find that suffering abates dramatically if I surrender. After all my hearty constitution seems to be a rarity in today’s world. I might go so far as to call myself an endangered animal in a rapidly changing species. Here’s why:
I work in a specialized department called the club lounge. Some of you already know what that is. For those who don’t spend much time staying in hotels, the club lounge is basically a room, usually in the middle or upper floor of a hotel, where guests of that entire floor pay a premium rate to have exclusive access to their own concierge as well as private meals prepared by a chef who cooks only for them and nobody else in the hotel. This means that nobody in the rest of the hotel gets to eat what the club guests eat. When the chef is very good, this is truly a special experience worth extra money. These guests also get a free bar, tv, computers and big, fluffy chairs.
From week-to-week, I get a report about what’s going on with guests in the club lounge. This list often has super V.I.P. guests, including the owners of the hotel, company employees at the top of the food chain, other various persons whose toes I do not want to step on and, yes, guests with food allergies. I can’t remember the last time I had a report that did not have or was not updated to add guests with food allergies. Some are boring food allergies. Most are gluten or nut allergies. Occasionally there will be an entire family.
If you are a reader with a food allergy, I beg you to make your allergy known each time you dine in public. Earlier this year we almost lost a guest who had not spoken up and ate something fatal to him. Miraculously he was saved, though I still don’t know exactly how, since the incident occurred when I was not there. I came in the next day to a memo asking us to exclude indefinitely the offensive ingredient from all future preparations. This is one very extreme and very scary example of the way in which the food allergy epidemic is transforming the food and beverage/hospitality industry. Reputable chefs will change entire menus if that’s what’s needed to avoid this kind of thing happening.
Believe me, folks, you have got real power. Nobody, at least nobody in my company, is interested in messing around to find out whether or not you’re just pulling our chain. This is why Kate and people like her are right to avoid chain restaurants and places of mediocre quality. (Could the dining experience be in for a global upgrade?) Sure some of us chefs may grumble, some of us may even get genuinely angry about having to change a menu that is very special and dear to us into a menu that doesn’t make much culinary sense. But when it comes down to risking a life or causing some medical trauma or even being the source of an unpleasant experience, we don’t have the guts to stand our ground forever. That’s just silly, and it’s bad business. I hope that the chefs who refuse to budge will gracefully find work in metallurgy or concrete, where being hard is valued.
As a passionate member of culinary society, I say “yes!” to evolution, whatever that means. May the fittest survive in this insanely rapidly changing environment, and may the food industry grow ever better for everyone.