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How do you deal with allergies at a restaurant?

I have food allergies. I am lucky in that most of my allergies are not severe. However, I do have one severe allergy (sesame seeds and oil) and wanted to hear how others have handled being a "chowhound" with allergies.

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  1. i've worked in restaurants all my adult life. if you call to make a reservation, tell them to make a note about your allergies. when you get your menus, engage your server and immediately let him know what foods are a problem for you. in any decent place, he should tell the kitchen and double-check with the chef. it's your responsibility to be proactive -- menus don't always list all the ingredients. i can't tell you how many times i've seen orders served, only then to have the guest say, "oh, i'm allergic to xxxx."

    1. Also, if it's a life-or-death allergy (peanut people, I'm looking at you), WEAR YOUR BRACELET. If, for some reason, your trigger food gets served to you and you eat it and start having problems, it will save the waitstaff and the EMTs a lot of time if it's in plain sight.

      1. I talk to the waiter/waitress. Stress that it's a food allergy and not a food preference. Sometimes they're really good about finding out, sometimes they're clueless. The biggest problem w/ a severe allergy is that, if they use that pan to make something with sesame seeds before making your dish, your dish could be fine but you'll get residual. For that reason, I never bring my daughter to Indian restaurants--she has severe cashew allergies and there are cashews in so many dishes. It would be smart to carry an epi-pen, too.

        3 Replies
        1. re: chowser

          I really like your comment: food allergy NOT food preference. Sometimes when I tell the waiter/waitress I feel like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. Recently after explaining my allergy I was asked by the manager to leave. They (from what I understand) had many, many things I could have but didn't want to "run the risk." I understand their point of view, but I believe that the risk is my to take. After all, a food allergy shouldn't keep you from exploring new foods!

          Has anyone called ahead and had luck?

          1. re: jennifer810

            I had a very similar experience when I went to Heaven on Seven. I have a strange allergy; green peppers. It's not an intolerance; it's an allergy. I know Cajun cooking so I asked what they have without green peppers. The waiter came back with a very long list from the kitchen and basically said "If you're allergic, why did you come here?". There entire menu was pretty much on the list, even though there were items that did NOT have peppers in them.

            I hunkered down with a Shrimp Po Boy and was sated.....but they kinda rubbed me the wrong way.

            1. re: Dee S

              I've mostly had nice experiences with calling ahead and mentioning allergies as we made the reservation. Some restaurants have offered outstanding service, even putting together dishes not on the menu as all the starter dishes contained something I am allergic to.

              I never frequent very cheap places. Nor sandwich places since I can't really handle sandwiches that have tomatoes in them or sandwiches that are cut with a knife that has had tomato cut with them on a cutting board with tomato previously on it. Almost all give me the reply well, just push the tomato to the side and eat it anyway! Well, if I could I would, dimwit. But it's just plain ignorance.

              With some severe allergies, like my friend depending totally on a peanut-free environment where not even trace amounts can be found on let's say a griddle, a plate, fork or a table, we don't put that kind of strain on a particular chef or restaurant. As Hilltowner said below, it IS asking too much, even is you bring an epi-pen, first you scare the living daylights out of the restaurant and their staff and customers, next yourself and your family and you'll spend an unhappy couple of days in the hospital to recuperate. Due judgement is required, both from the restaurant and from the visitor. An allergy shouldn't prevent you from having a zest for nice food, and it surely hasn't prevented me from becoming a foodie, but as far as handing out laminated folders and demanding a restaurant kitchen scrub down of cross-contamination mid-evening is really pushing it too far.

        2. My mom has a severe allergy to carrots, which she has developed in the past few years. It has landed her in the emergency room a few times, but now that she knows she has gotten very accustomed to mentioning it when she makes a reservation. She simply says, "would you please note that there is a severe food allergy at our table?" The reservationist almost always thanks her for bringing it to their attention ahead of time. A few outstanding restaurants have gone the extra mile to prepare standard sauces without carrots (mire poix or stock is in almost everything) because they had the heads up for service. At other restaurants, she is usually just very, VERY careful about what she orders.

          I will mention an interesting experience I had when working in a restaurant kitchen in NYC. The private dining room had been booked for dinner service and the hostess handed a laminated letter to the manager to take to the kitchen to be read aloud "for leagal purposes." It stated that she had a severe allergy to some food product and insisted that nothing with any possible trace of that food could be brought into the private dining room that evening. This created a terrible ordeal for the kitchen staff and for management--a headache that could have been avoided all together if the patron had simply made the allergy known as far ahead of time as possible.

          1. I have a fairly serious allergy to nuts, secondly comes an allergy to tomatoes. That is much less serious though and usually stops with rashes and itching. I usually call ahead and speak to staff. That way they are prepared and I have seldom encountered a problem. At upscale restaurants they usually work around allergies in a very professional manner.

            With the lady that handed the laminated letter to the hostess of the private dining room. That's asking an awful lot as an allergic person to at the time of ordering ask that not even trace amounts can be brought into the room "for legal reasons" (looking to sue?). In restaurant kitchens it is very difficult to keep the food THAT clean so that not even trace amounts of certain foods can cross-contaminate others. It is not anyones fault and even is the most well kept restaurant kitchen it's just that you can be very careful and things are still airborne so there's no guarantee unless you prepare food in a sterile environment. I have a friend that is that severely allergic to peanuts. We read menus ahead of time and if there's peanuts on the menu we simply cook dinner at home. It's asking too much to have all peanuts, even trace amounts washed out, and I mean rubbed off everything basically.

            1. I also have a nut allergy. Developed over the last five years. I always tell the waiter about the allergy and I've yet to have one wh was anything but helpful. That being said all us allergy-types still need to be our own advocates. With nuts, desserts are a nightmare. Almost everything chocolate will have a nut incuded (yup there are a few exceptions) so we need special vigilence at the end of the meal.

              DW can't eat sage or shellfish. Fall with all the sages around is also difficult.

              No matter how careful we are, mistakes will arrive. At the Ritz Carlton in Naples FL last year, the waiter was great and checked everything we ordered. Then our chocolate mousse pie arrived for dessert and the crust wamade with nuts. W caught it before the first bite. The waiter was sooooooooo embarassed and apologetic. An enormous plate of cheeses arrived to make sure.

              5 Replies
              1. re: jfood

                jfood, with regard to you comment about everything chocolate will have a nut included, it should be noted that many chocolate processing plants include equipment shared with nuts. This means that when chocolate/cocoa is received into a restaurant/pastry kitchen, it may already have traces of nut or nut oil. As a pastry cook I always include any chocolate dessert as having possible traces of nuts when someone asks for a list of "nut allergy" dessert items. This is not to say that all chocolate has had nut contact, but I'd really rather play it safe when someone's health is a serious concern.

                1. re: Non Cognomina

                  NC, appreciate your concern from the kitchen. The good news for me is that the allergy is not as agressive as many others and i can have trace but not loads of the allergen before its a problem. The hazlenut crusted talapia, nope, the pistachio ice cream, nope, but a chocolate flourless cake with some creme anglais, yessiry.

                  1. re: Non Cognomina

                    I was wondering -- do most restaurants keep such lists of dishes with common allergens? Or when someone asks for non-nut items, someone in the back of the (very busy) kitchen has to say, "Hmm, let's see. . ." and jot it down?

                    1. re: Covert Ops

                      Some do. Some servers have gotten ingredients lists out when we've asked.

                      1. re: Covert Ops

                        I think it depends, and I don't know of any formal protocol/regulation for restaurants. But as a cook I can tell you that I take great pride in knowing exactly what goes into a specific dessert (I do pastry), even if I didn't personally have my hands in the preparation of each dessert on any given night. I think any cook should be embarassed if they don't know the ingredients in a dish they are serving. As a pastry chef, I always present a new dish to the servers the week before it goes on the menu so they can see what it looks like, taste it, ask questions, etc. I always make note if it has nuts, gluten, eggs or dairy (common allergies). I don't keep a formal list, but any of my cooks can answer questions on the fly about ingredients.

                  2. As a server, I would say that the best thing you can do is mention your allergy very early on; at the time of the reservation is great, but that may or may not get passed on to your server. Definitely tell your server that you have this allergy, and ask that they make sure your dish does not have the allergen in it. With something like sesame seeds, continue to stress that there can be NO sesame seeds, even as a garnish. If your server does not seem to take it seriously, or adopts a casual "whatever" attitude, you might want to consider either switching servers or finding someplace else to eat. I know that when I wait on allergic people, especially highly allergic people, they know how difficult it is for the restaurant, because it is difficult for them every day.

                    Having said all that, sometimes it is impossible to ensure a nut/shellfish/seed environment for certain allergic people. Your allergies SEEM easy to handle, but when people come in and ask that their chicken be put on an area of the grill that has not been touched by shellfish at all that night, or ask that any nuts be removed from the kitchen before making their meal; that's going a little bit too far. It is just not possible in the middle of service to clean a grill or take away ingredients.

                    I have to say that I feel pretty bad for highly allergic patrons of restaurants. They are really putting their well being into the hands of people who may or may not give a crap about their situation. I do. I'll go hunt down that product and look at the label if I must, but alot of servers just don't get what it means.

                    OK, rambling post over. Bottom line - find a restaurant/server you can trust; otherwise bring an epi-pen.

                    1. I have a serious shellfish allergy. Eat, lungs swell shut, unpleasant death follows. No one in SE Asia seems to have the allergy. Everywhere my dining companions would turn to me with, "What? You don't like seafood?"...and would nod in disbelief when I tried to explain the allergy.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        my mom also has this type of seafood allergy. she has been in hospital several times. she has stopped eating in asian restaurants all together - she is always afraid of fish sauce or stock, even if it's not listed as a fish item
                        my children have allergies as well, though not to this level, and not to fish. we are lucky to carry around their medicine with us and take it before we step into ANY restaurant. our safest place to eat is a japanese restaurant - they have the fewest number of allergic ingredients for my kids (obviously, my mom doesn't go with us!). It's so difficult for little children to cope with this sometimes - to not have what they want. that's the point of eating out - to have something special you wouldn't normally partake in.
                        We have tried to find a cuisine we are fairly safe with, and look for that type of restaurant. Indian food is often safe - it is frequently vegetarian, and wheat free (if you stay away from the naan)

                        1. re: rmarisco

                          Well, as you know, here in Colombia I have to say I'm allergic to "mariscos".

                      2. It is such a shame that restaurants cannot accomodate food allergies. Blue Ginger in Wellesley MA - run by the famous Ming Tsai of Food Network and now PBS - has a"food bible" in his restaurant which lists all ingredients and highlights specific foods that people are commonly allergic to. He keeps a separate area/ pans for preparing non-allergic foods. His is a high end, wonderful restaurant and he says it is not difficult to run a restaurant like this. BTW his young son has sllergies to 8 foods. He says he can prepare anything for him that is allergen free.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: emilief

                          Lucky for him, he has the space and the resources to provide that service. Many restaurant kitchens barely have space to move, let alone provide an area solely devoted to allergic customers. It is a service any chef/cook/owner would want to be able to provide, but unfortunately, in some instances, it is impossible to do without negatively impacting the entire dining room.

                          1. re: emilief

                            Blue Ginger created a fantastic nut-free meal for me in 2004. They were extremely attentive.

                          2. One thing this topic has not yet addressed is the occasional ignorance of the said allergic customer. I myself have allergies (thankfully none that are severe)- I know because I have been tested numerous times by several allergists. However, some people believe they have allergies when they have never been tested and others who do have allergies to certain foods are not as informed as they should be. Case in point: someone I knew a while ago said he had an allergy to nuts. (I do not know if he was tested). However, he would eat pesto on pasta, even after I tried to explain to him that it contains nuts! (He never got sick) Additionally he claimed an allergy to fish- again I would tell him that there are bonito flakes used to flavor miso soup- which he'd drink liberally. Again, no reaction, ever and we went to a Japanese restuarant all the time...and yet he'd refuse to eat in an Indian restaurant out of fear of....nuts. My point is that sometimes ignorance comes from both ends!

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: NicoleFriedman

                              Aren't nut allergies usually specific to particular varieties? As in, sure, you could be allergic to peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, cashews, pinenuts, brazil nuts, AND pistachios, or you could only be allergic to one or two.

                              1. re: babette feasts

                                The answer to the ability to eat one or two out of the nut group is two fold. If you are allergic to nuts you can't eat de facto nuts period, no discussion.
                                Almonds, pistachios, cashews and pine nuts (kernels) are not de facto nuts though. Neither are peanuts. Peanuts is a bean, related to the pea and bean family. Almonds and pistachios are in the same family as appels and cherries, as are cashews. If you have cross allergies then you can't eat them. Pine nuts (kernels) is a pine cone seed, usually found in pesto but sometimes they substitute it for something cheaper like almonds. I have no problems with pine nuts despite an allergy to nuts. Pesto can be tricky, I usually don't eat it out but prepare it at home.

                                I can eat peanuts and pine kernels but none of the other.
                                It is important that you, as the allergic person educate yourself on your specific allergies. Equally important is to not leave out entire food groups out of fear that something might happen, like if something is called a nut you assume it is a nut and therefore out of the question. It might be but you have to have to have been tested before you start avoiding it. Allergy is the immunological reaction to foods or something in your environment. In lieu of the immunological reaction you can still be intolerant and want to avoid something. If your diet becomes over the top depleted it might be a good idea to see a registered dietician for help with your diet. I developed an unhealthy fear of eating, avoiding more things than I needed to. Seeing the RD and an allergist and educating myself more on food and the origin of fruit and veggies help enormously. For a time, while re-introducing foods, I had the priviledge of eating in the hospital, so that if I had a reaction it could be dealt with in the hospital.

                                Allergies are like a bucket involving your immune system. At times your general stamina might be so good that you can tolerate more of a substance without developing a serious reaction. During, let's say, pollen season I am very very very careful with what I eat since the bucket is already full with dealing with the pollen. In November getting a sandwich that has been in contact with a tomato doesn't have to end in misery, whereas the same thing in May would not be pretty.

                                It is important to always take someone who says that they are allergic seriously. At one time they (former friends) wanted to test if things were as serious as I said they were, and mixed fish stock that had been cooked on among other things lobster, into a sauce. I left the party by ambulance.

                                I recently went to a small newly opened coffee shop and asked if any of the cakes contained nuts. Oh let me look said the girl and hauled out a booklet with a very detailed ingredient list. That kind of service without grumbling or hinting that oh how difficult must you be all the time impresses on me, and makes me a returning customer.

                                1. re: PicklingJessica

                                  Pistachios and cashews are in the same family as mangoes and poison ivy (not that anyone is making poison ivy salads). They contain urushiol oil which is what usually causes the reaction. My daughter is severely allergic to those, slightly allergic to walnuts and pecans, not at all to almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts or pine nuts. Luckily, cashews and pistachios are less commonly used that peanuts and other nuts.

                                  You have to be careful w/ nut allergies with baked goods because even if they don't have nuts, they can be baked on trays that others w/ have, they can be put next to them touching. I was really angry once when I specially baked all the non-nut treats first, and put them on one tray and then the ones w/ the nuts and put them on another for my niece who is severely allergic to all nuts. I told her and her mom who plopped a banana nut bread that she brought right on top of the no nuts. It didn't seem to concern her. Ugh.

                                  1. re: PicklingJessica

                                    I have the tree nut and kernel allergy but peanuts are fine.

                                    If my skin comes in contact with the nut oil or pesto I develop hives.

                                    1. re: KitchenAid

                                      Chowser,
                                      I am not that sensitive to nuts that I have to be vigilant about trace amounts since I've had some hyposensibilisation to nuts and horses but I certainly know what you mean. I attended a christmas party yesterday where the presence of cracked nuts in another room became too much. My colleagues quickly removed the nuts without discussion, the room was aired etc., and then the party continued as before. I never have to explain myself with them. All food etc., was sans nuts.

                                      KitchenAid,
                                      I once encountered a nut oil in a vitamine supplement. Grew intensely sick. Called the company in question. The representative's answer well as a nut allergic person you can't really be allergic to the oil because oil doesn't contain proteine and it's the proteine you react to.
                                      Gee tell that to my immune system...
                                      Sometimes you just have to face it that you fight weather mills...

                                      Peanuts are, when my mind got to chew on it, in the soy family. Soy allergy is one of the deadliest around.
                                      It is not fun when you don't get your point across at all, that this is not something you do for the fun of it, that it is actually a matter of life and death.

                                      1. re: PicklingJessica

                                        Sorry, I went back after I posted that, read my post and thought, "Oh no, I hope she realizes I was using the general 'you' and not the specific 'you' in my post," but it was too late to edit. I meant "one" should be, if they are severely allergic to nuts, not you particularly. Until people know others w/ severe allergies, it's hard to understand how hard it can be to avoid. My mom will put other food into cashew containers and my daughter can't have them, even though, my mom says she wipes it down with a paper towel...ugh!