Allergy, Sensitivity or Preference: Diners, Your Words Matter

While food allergies might be something of an afterthought to many, they are at the subconscious center of most things that a professional cook does.  But other types of dietary restrictions need to be given the appropriate level of concern – and that appropriate level is not always high. At virtually any respectable restaurant, one of the first things a server will ask a new table is “does anyone have any allergies or dietary restrictions?” or something of the like.  In my experience, if a guest has an allergy, they will explicitly respond with, “I’m allergic to ____”, and that will be communicated to the kitchen in such a way.  In the case of religious dietary restriction, people tend to be less forthcoming (as discussing/revealing religion in public can change the climate of a room in a hurry), but if you work in hospitality long enough, you learn to read between those lines.  If someone says no pork or shellfish, you can assume they’re an observant Jew.  If someone says no pork or alcohol, you can safely assume Muslim.  However, if someone just says no shellfish, we will treat it as an allergy. While we do take allergies seriously, doing so can frequently be very inconvenient for those of us in back. Example: I was cooking at a neighborhood bistro that offered a really great burger special on Monday nights, and we had several customers who regularly came in for it.  One such person was a man who would sit at the bar by himself and regularly order a burger.  In the kitchen, we’d know it was him, because his ticket was always from the bar, for one person, and it always said, “Allergy: tomato”.  Tomato allergies, while uncommon, are a real and serious thing.  We would prepare over a hundred LTO’s (prepared stacks of lettuce, tomato and onion, to be quickly placed on a burger bun for a faster pick-up time) prior to Monday night service. If a ticket simply said “no tomato”, we would just pull the tomato from the LTO and put up the plate.  But for the “allergy”, we would have to go into the cooler, pull a leaf of lettuce, rinse it and dry it, while also, from the other side of the kitchen, grabbing a red onion from dry pantry, peel it, and slice a nice slice from the middle on a clean cutting board, all to ensure there wasn’t trace of tomato that would induce an allergic reaction, anywhere on the guest’s plate. These are a lot of extra steps to be taken in the middle of an already busy dinner rush, but steps we’re happy to take if it means avoiding an anaphylactic episode in the middle of the dining room. Now, one of our sous chefs had Mondays off, but lived in the area and would frequently come in to take advantage of the burger special.  He also would sit at the bar to do so and had come to know this regular “tomato allergy” customer.  It turned out, my co-worker discovered, that this guest was in fact not allergic to tomatoes, he just really didn’t like them.  To ensure tomatoes didn’t make it to his plate, he would just say he was allergic. Did this make us unhappy in the kitchen, to know that for months, we’d been going out of our way, often in the middle of a busy service, taking extra time and care to do something that it turns out we didn’t need to do? Absolutely.  The past is in the past, but from that point on, we would treat that guest’s ticket (first, confirming that it was actually that guest) proclaiming “allergy” as just a “no” — it never became a problem. On a certain level, I don’t fault the guy: telling your server (or bartender, in his case) that you’re allergic to something is an effective way to ensure it doesn’t end up on your plate, because I hope I’ve made it clear by now, that however inconvenient, we take allergies very seriously.  Sometimes it’s a little douchey to claim “allergy”, because it might make some hard-working people work even harder, just to make sure your delicate palate isn’t offended.  Usually, simply asking for something to be omitted from your plate is just as effective a way of making sure of just that.  If, for a given dish, that’s not realistically possible, your server is meant to tell you as much.  But sometimes, there will be an “allergy” on a ticket that we know is either a dietary preference, or the work of a hypochondriac; regardless, it’s simply not an allergy. There are things (ingredients) that people are just sensitive to, but somehow, they’ve been convinced (either by themselves or others) that it’s an allergy.  Cooks love sharing stories about the most ridiculous allergy claims they’ve ever seen on tickets or heard with their own ears.  Some of them are hard to believe… I mean, we don’t believe them; it’s just hard to believe someone would actually think and say they had such an allergy. Examples I’ve encountered include: “vinegar”, “anything from the ocean” (meaning seaweed, salmon, and sea urchin were all off the board, despite having nothing in common, chemically or nutritionally), “anything green”, and (my personal favorite) “salt”, are all things I’ve personally had guests say they were allergic to.  In case you didn’t know, none of those are known to cause anaphylaxis in humans.  Hell, the “green” person is apparently allergic to chlorophyl, and the “salt” person apparently is the only person on earth whose body doesn’t require some amount of it to function and stay alive! FYI diners: those that work in kitchens are TRAINED in allergies. In most states/major cities, in order for someone to legally work in a kitchen, they need to take a course (then take and pass a test) on proper food safety and sanitation standards and procedures in line with federal, state and (where applicable) local government standards.  Allergies have their own section in most of these courses, so chances are that if a person is allowed to be cooking your food, they are well-educated on food-related allergies.  Some people think they’re allergic to things that we know aren’t actually allergies, and we also know – nay, we’ve been trained, on how to sort through such types of bullshit. There are seven main categories of allergies (dairy, eggs, nuts, shellfish, seafood, soy, and wheat/gluten), that over 90% of food-related allergies fall under. That being said, not all food allergies fall into said categories, but we still can sort through bullshit allergy claims, and discern which ones need to be taken (and just how) seriously. How can you trust me?… I myself, have a ridiculously specific and unique allergy: I am allergic (to the touch!) to cold, raw, or undercooked shrimp, lobsters and scallops. So, if I eat shrimp cocktail, I’ll start down the road to anaphylaxis, however if I drop those same shrimpies into boiling water for fifteen seconds first, I’ll be fine. Also, while the proper temp’ to which scallops and lobster should be cooked (from a culinary perspective) is ‘medium’, I need to overcook them to safely eat. And it’s super weird, that while scallops are a red-flag for me, I can navigate other mollusks (mussels, clams, oysters) without batting an eye. This all particularly sucks, because despite being Jewish, I fucking love shellfish! As weird of an allergy as this is, I know that when my allergy is communicated to a kitchen, the cooks are probably a little surprised, and maybe a little skeptical — but it falls cleanly into one of the major allergy groups, so I know it will be given due concern. On the other hand, let’s say a guest said they were allergic to olive oil.  When we make vegetable stock, the vegetables are cooked in olive oil and that vegetable stock is in just about everything. Therefor, trace amounts of olive oil are in just about everything on the menu. Does this concern us? No. Why? The same reason I didn’t take the “salt” or “anything green” allergy claims seriously: If there were an allergy to something as common as those, that was so sensitive that it might trigger a life-threatening reaction, we’d have heard about it. Then in sort of its own category, is cilantro. Fresh coriander (this is the name for cilantro outside the US. Yes, the coriander seed grows up to be cilantro. Is your mind blown?) is an interesting one.  When people say they have a cilantro allergy, this is actually what’s going on:  roughly 5% of the global population has a gene irregularity, where in the event that they eat cilantro, instead of it tasting like what the other 95% taste, they taste a flavor most frequently compared to soap.  This is not an allergic response (because it does not trigger an immune reaction), but merely a sensitivity. (if you don’t believe me, check out this 2020 article published by the Cleveland Clinic) As cooks, it’s our responsibility to respect the disclosures of the diner, therefore the words used to do so, matter.  In the event of an allergy or something that seems religious, we as cooks will do everything within our power to be accommodating.  We acknowledge the spiritual or medical importance to that person, that no trace of a certain food touches what they consume, regardless of our personal feelings on the matter, because we do respect our guests. Please, return the favor, choose your words correctly, and we promise: what we put on your plate will probably make you happy — but it definitely won’t kill you! I’m not here to tell you how to manage your diet.  Every individual human body is different, and every person processes the information from their body differently.  And every person has the right to govern their body the way they want. However, there’s a very big difference between something you don’t like, something that will make you a bit uncomfortable, and something that might make you die.  The last thing any of us in the kitchen want is for our food to be the last thing you taste because we accidentally killed you with it.  But, for the sake of those people with real allergies, be honest with your self, and more-importantly, with your server.  Those of us in the back will responsibly take care of the rest.

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