At Sycamore in Newton Centre on a recent Monday night, more than 10 percent of orders went into the kitchen with “allergy alert” written in red ink. That is fairly typical, says chef-owner David Punch, if a bit on the high side. What is atypical on this particular night is two tables of diners with celiac disease and two others with gluten allergies, mixed in among others allergic to nuts, natural sugars, and legumes. That much gluten avoidance is “a lot,” says the chef, even though the much-maligned protein compound is now the ingredient diners most frequently ask to do without.
In restaurants all over the area, chefs and line cooks are increasingly challenged by diners’ allergies and sensitivities to, and intolerances of, foods or ingredients which, if ingested, can be life-threatening or cause varying levels of discomfort. “The allergy thing isn’t something that has just shown up,” says Charles Draghi, chef-owner of Erbaluce in Boston, who cannot handle raw shrimp (he breaks out in hives), and whose wife has a gluten allergy. But he and others agree that recently its prevalence has skyrocketed. Many restaurants now have keys on their menus, like “GF” for gluten-free, to help make choices. Says Ana Sortun, chef-owner of Oleana and Sofra Bakery and Cafe in Cambridge, and Sarma in Somerville, “It’s not going away.”
Last year, Virginia-based Food Allergy Research & Education launched the SafeFARE program (www.safefare.org), partnering with the National Restaurant Association, MenuTrinfo, and AllergyEats. The multipronged effort offers tools for restaurants to educate workers about allergies and safety precautions, and advises diners looking for allergy-sensitive restaurants. “We want it to be as simple a process as possible,” says Scott Riccio, FARE senior vice president for education and advocacy.
Massachusetts was the first state to enact food allergy legislation, and though chefs here might be ahead of the curve, the issue is bigger than allergies. In response to the myriad requests from diners, chefs are doing everything they can to make sure guests enjoy their experience, whether it’s creating a dish on the fly or, as is becoming the new norm, subtly shaping menus. As Draghi puts it, “Everybody in [the] hospitality business wants to make people happy.”
Sortun agrees that it’s part of the challenge of doing business. “People are trying to avoid things for certain health reasons, and wouldn’t it be awesome if we could rock their week for them?” she says.
Thanks in large part to Ming Tsai, chef-owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley and Blue Dragon in Boston, the state implemented a multi-part allergy awareness law (Bill S. 2701) in 2009 for restaurants and other food establishments. That notice you see on menus reminding you to notify your server if you have an allergy? Part of the law. Other parts refer to restaurant worker training and awareness. Though statewide, the law is enforced by local health departments. Tsai, whose son had multiple food allergies, says, “Eating safely in a restaurant [is] the right of every American.”
When he opened Blue Ginger 18 years ago, Tsai created a food allergy reference book, which he calls his “bible,” that lists every recipe, broken down by components — sauce, protein, garnish — with allergens highlighted. Eight foods or groups — peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, dairy, and eggs — are responsible for roughly 90 percent of food allergies. That way, he says, it is easy for cooks to quickly see which dish, or portion of a dish, has to be eliminated or altered for a customer’s specific food issue. Punch and Sortun have allergy grids at their restaurants — their versions of Tsai’s tool — that are updated whenever menus change.
Tsai notes that when he first developed his book, allergies were the main concern. Now, roughly half the requests at both his establishments are for gluten-free food. When a customer requests a menu adaptation, staff members ask whether it is based on a dietary choice, an allergy, or celiac disease. “It makes a big difference in the way we prepare the food,” says the chef.
In the case of allergies or celiac disease, restaurants follow a set protocol. Cutting boards, work surfaces, knives, fryers, have to be scrubbed down and ingredients separated to avoid any cross-contamination. “We take it very seriously,” says Punch. “If they say they have an allium allergy, we say is it onions? Is it chives? Is it shallots? How severe is it? Can they be cooked?” Some people who are allergic to garlic or onions can’t eat them raw, but when they are cooked the sulfur compounds break down, so most people don’t develop symptoms.
“We try to get allergies ahead, when we book reservations,” says Sortun. “It relieves anxiety from the guests’ point of view. If we can take the information before the guests sit down, the servers, hosts, manager, and chef all know about it.”
“It would be significantly easier if people called ahead, especially with a staple allergy,” adds Draghi. If the offending food is something like onions, carrots, or gluten, he can prepare a stock without those vegetables, or gluten-free bread before the customer arrives.
To anyone who may have a sensitivity or allergy that is not life threatening and doesn’t want to call attention to themselves or inconvenience the kitchen, Punch says, “Don’t be embarrassed. We’re professionals. We’re gonna figure it out.” “It” being a safe and delicious alternative to what’s on the menu.
In addition to customizing meals for guests when asked, chefs are making subtle adjustments to accommodate the changing restaurant landscape. Most say they have not changed the way they cook, but, for example, at Centre Street Cafe in Jamaica Plain, a 32-seat Italian restaurant with a small menu that features house-made pasta, chef Brian Rae (who is allergic to shellfish) says the frequency of special requests is “prevalent enough that we try to make at least one dish with no nuts and one pasta with no dairy” every night. And the restaurant always has gluten-free pasta on hand.
Draghi, who makes everything from scratch, says he usually makes two stocks — one with and one without shellfish. He tries to have gluten-free bread prepared, but will always make a loaf if necessary. At Sycamore, Punch says, “We always try to keep one dessert gluten-free and one dairy-free.”
Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon both have gluten-free menus, says Tsai, “because it became the most prevalent discussion.” In what he calls a case of “subliminal cooking,” the chef developed the newer restaurant’s fried chicken recipe with a batter of cornstarch and rice flour, instead of flour. After the fact, he says, “I realized it’s gluten-free.”
On the flip side, Sortun cites “a big disappointment when a lot of effort is made to be careful. Then we find out the allergy isn’t very serious,” as happened recently at Oleana when a diner was very specific about the items she could not eat and was then seen tasting all of them from her companions’ plates. “Those kinds of things bum you out,” she says.
Restaurant goers who are avoiding certain foods by choice should say so. “If it isn’t really an allergy but a preference, be honest,” says Draghi. “We’ll still take care of it for you, but there’s many more hoops to jump through if it’s a real allergy.” At Erbaluce, he tells customers who say they have a food allergy, “We’re happy to do whatever you want. It may take an extra 20 to 30 minutes,” while he prepares a fresh stock or sauce. This sometimes causes allergies to miraculously disappear.
The bottom line, says Punch, is hospitality. “The last thing we want to do is make someone sick, and we’ll do anything not to make that happen.”
Andrea Pyenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.