The Dish on Dining Out with Food Allergies
by Mireille Schwartz
Aside from the stunning Fog City backdrop against the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is best known as a foodie haven with great local cuisine. When moving to the Bay Area more than a decade ago, I didn’t take into account the overwhelming presence of seafood in the city. Having a seafood allergy, it took some adjustments to be able to enjoy the beauty and culture and still dodge seafood, which seemed to be everywhere.
When dining out, people like me who are living with food allergies must be particularly alert to what’s on their plate. The first step to dining out safely is to perform some preliminary research. Start by calling restaurants you’d like to try in your area. Investigate restaurants’ websites and look for either a menu listing ingredients or an email address where you can ask for information about specific recipes.
If you want to find out a restaurant’s policy on serving diners with food allergies, you’ll need to call the place well ahead of your dinner date. Be sure to provide as much notice as possible so the staff will have enough time to assess if they can keep you safe. It’s good to call at the beginning of the workday, long before the hectic lunch rush begins and the end-of-evening fatigue sets in. Another good time to call is between 2 and 4 p.m., after lunch but before the dinner rush. The following are examples of questions to ask when you call:
- Do you have a formal allergy policy? Is the wait staff educated and trained in handling food allergies?
- Do you have a book or list of the ingredients in all the foods you serve?
- Will you custom prepare a meal for a food-allergic individual?
- How is your kitchen laid out?
- What kind of oil is used in the fryer? What else is fried in it?
- Do you have dedicated cooking surfaces that are kept safe for food-allergic cooking?
- Are cooking utensils for different foods kept separate and safe?
- Does the wait staff know to keep dishes containing food allergies away from other dishes? Do they know that allergens can’t just be picked off a meal?
When you’re looking over the menu, be mindful of hidden allergens lurking in breading, salad dressing, complex sauces, garnishes, and certain courses.
If you’re not satisfied with any answer you’re given, ask to speak to the manager or the chef, as they have more intimate knowledge of the many aspects of food service. If you’re still not satisfied, continue to search for a safe restaurant in which to dine. It’s better to be told no by a restaurant after they have assessed their ability to cope with food allergies than to get a rushed, halfway yes and then succumb to your food allergy in the dining room.
When you arrive at the restaurant, make sure to meet the manager and explain your condition thoroughly. Tell the manager that you would like to brief your designated waiter about your food allergy once you are seated – he or she will be your liaison with the kitchen.
When you’re looking over the menu, be mindful of hidden allergens lurking in breading, salad dressing, complex sauces, garnishes, and certain courses. Sometimes ingredients are listed by alternate names. So if you request that something be left out of a dish, it’s vital to know all the terms, including derivatives, under which your allergen may be listed.
I always check with the wait staff and chef to ensure fish is not cooked in the same skillet or in the same oil as other food items. It’s also good to make sure your dishes are not prepared with the same utensils or on the same work surfaces as your allergen or you will be subject to cross-contamination or cross-contact. One savvy chef taught me years ago to tell a waiter, “I am also severely allergic to utensils that have touched fish.”
However, two avenues of cross-contact are difficult to avoid. The first is restaurant grills. Always inquire whether a food marinated in an allergen is cooked directly on the same grill as any grilled dish you may want to order. The second is frying oil. If you are allergic to something cooked in a deep fryer, you have to avoid eating anything else fried in that oil.
When your meal arrives, trust your instincts. If you have doubts about your order after you’ve received it, it’s perfectly fine to politely ask your waiter to double check with the kitchen. Then don’t feel shy or embarrassed about sending food back if a mistake has been made, as simply removing the allergenic items from your plate isn’t sufficient to keep you safe. You should also be sure to have an emergency plan in place in case an allergic reaction occurs.
Food allergy fighter Mireille Schwartz is CEO and founder of the Bay Area Allergy Advisory Board, AllergySF.com. This article is excerpted from her book The Family Food Allergy Book.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, May/June 2014.