by Carrie Hirsch

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is an immune system response to a food that the body mistakenly believes is harmful. Once the immune system decides that a particular food is harmful, it creates specific antibodies to fight it. The next time the individual eats that food, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals, including histamine, to protect the body. These chemicals trigger allergic symptoms that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, and/or cardiovascular system. Some reactions can be deadly.

What precautions should a person take who has food allergies when dining out?

Lauren Cirafesi at OMBRA Cucina Rustica recommends that a person with food allergies should always call ahead and ask to speak to a manager or chef/kitchen personnel at the restaurant before dining and alert them of the allergy.

“They should ask if that restaurant has dishes without the allergen and if they are able to prepare the food without cross contamination with the allergen. When you arrive at the restaurant always alert you server of your allergies and ask them to please alert the kitchen. Even ask them to add your allergy to your guest notes in the reservation system for future dining as well. Do not always trust a server to know the ingredients of the food. Always have them ask the chef to make sure that there are no allergens in the food. You are your (or your child’s) best advocate.”

For example, in the case of a nut and peanut allergy, always make sure to ask the server ask the chef if he/she uses peanuts, peanut oil or nuts in the food. If a server says “I think”, that is not good enough.

When dining out, also always ask what type of frying oil they use. Many restaurants use peanut oil in their fryers so always make sure that they use vegetable oil or some other alternative. If you have a latex allergy (not just a food allergy), you need to alert the restaurant. Many restaurants have their kitchen employees use latex gloves to bread or batter the food or even prepare the food which will contaminate the food with latex and could kill someone with a latex allergy.

“Some restaurants now use vinyl gloves in the kitchen instead of latex.” adds Lauren.

What is reasonable to expect from a restaurant in addressing food allergies?

“It is completely reasonable to ask for a restaurant to cater to an allergy by using the utmost care to prepare the food and without cross contamination but it does have its limits. What is unreasonable depends on the type of allergy you have. To go to a restaurant, for example, which uses peanut oil to fry and offers shelled peanuts as a snack and expecting them to be able to cater to a peanut allergy would clearly be unreasonable and actually impossible. If you are allergic to shellfish then going to eat at a seafood restaurant and asking them to prepare a dish for you without cross contaminating would be hard for the kitchen to do. If you are allergic to fruit then a smoothie shop would be an unreasonable place to go for you. Selecting a restaurant with types of food that are “distant” to your specific allergy is important.” says Lauren.

What types of allergies are most common?

Chef Paul Colella at The Studio says the most important thing is that the customer be forthcoming with either the intolerance or the allergy. “The most common allergy we’re seeing now is to gluten, whereas it used to be more shellfish and nut allergies. We also encounter dairy and garlic intolerances. We recommend that customers bring any dietary issues to our attention at the time of reservation. We want to accommodate those who wish to experience dining with us in every way and we do as much as humanly possible to avoid cross contamination.” he adds.

Which Meals Do Food Allergies Affect the Most?

Food allergies affect all meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner. Since Randy and Debbie Harvey opened Stack’s Pancakes in 2004 they have seen an increasing amount of guests with special dietary needs and food allergies. “Stacks Pancakes welcomes guests with food allergies.

We train our staff on the importance of understanding food allergies and a significant amount of training is performed so that there is no cross-contamination of the food allergens on a special request.

We do stress to our customers that we have wheat flour, and nuts and other allergens in our building and we do not have a separate kitchen, but we clean our grills before every special order, we use special tools and utensils and have implemented specific plating and service procedures to assure our guests a great dining experience.” says Debbie Harvey.

“Education, cooperation, and teamwork are the keys to safely serving a guest who has food allergies. All food service staff – including restaurant managers, servers, and kitchen staff – must become familiar with the issues surrounding food allergies and the proper way to answer guests’ questions.” adds Harvey.