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How Chefs with Food Allergies Are Raising the Food Safety Bar

foodandwine.com by Lindsay Burgess, April 3, 2018

For many chefs, having an allergy or intolerance is an advantage when dealing with guests with restrictions.

When Amanda Freitag was diagnosed with a hazelnut allergy in 2006, the Chopped judge experienced "an extreme wake up call." She learned to take extra precautions around what she ate and to communicate her allergy to restaurants and jobs.

Freitag knows that her situation isn't unusual—"you would be surprised how many chefs have developed allergies over the years," she says. But increasingly, the food industry is attracting chefs-to-be with existing food allergies. And at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), these students have shown that advocacy can bring about real progress in the realm of food safety.

At the CIA’s New York campus, School of Culinary Arts Dean Brendan Walsh estimates that 14 percent of the student population has a food allergy or a severe intolerance (for example, a gluten intolerance caused by celiac disease). That’s higher than the national average: around four percent of Americans suffer from food allergies, and about one percent have celiac disease. (It’s important to note that intolerances fall across a broad spectrum; they’re generally more common and less dangerous than allergies, but some exceptions, like gluten intolerance from celiac disease, call for similar food safety protocols.)

In particular, the "big eight" allergens—peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, milk, eggs, wheat, and soy—pose a complex teaching problem at the CIA. "We have a seafood class," says Walsh. "Now, what do you do with someone who can't be around seafood?" For these students, he explains, it becomes necessary to isolate elements of the curriculum and learn the materials differently. You can understand the history of a dish without tasting it; ingredient swaps may be possible when a hands-on lesson calls for an allergen.

But there’s more to student life than what happens inside the classroom. Feeling underserved by the on-campus dining options at the CIA’s New York location, trainee chefs with dietary restrictions called for change. “Probably the most important thing that we realized through this is the importance of awareness,” says Walsh.

The school's Allergen Awareness Committee looked at cross-contamination issues and considered solutions offered by dieticians, advisors, nurses, and student advocates. The result, devised and implemented within a year—a timeline made possible by the "power of collaboration," says Walsh— is an allergen-free dining program called "Oasis."

All Oasis food comes from a separate, sanitized kitchen, and only chefs trained in allergen awareness can use this space. Walsh notes that items from the allergen-free dining program have been top sellers since they hit the campus last May; the grab-and-go items have been popular with faculty, and the school's vegetarian population has also found some appeasement among the offerings. The Oasis menus have the additional benefit of raising allergen awareness—in particular, shining a spotlight on food safety.

Food safety covers everything from storing food at safe temperatures to cooking meat correctly, but in the context of allergens, the most significant issue is preventing cross-contamination. Since most restaurant kitchens can't operate completely free of allergens, prevention usually involves steps like specially cleaning items and areas (or using specific gear reserved for allergen-free dishes) and food handlers changing their gloves. Without notice, the measures required to accommodate one diner's allergies can impact several tables, especially during a busy service or at a smaller restaurant.

That's why chefs have been so outspoken about their frustration with false or suspect allergy claims. Late last year, Raymond Blanc remarked, "[it's] a very great fashion to have a food intolerance." Others in the industry have been blunter. "Faux food allergies are all the rage," wrote David Mau in a 2016 OC Weekly column. And last summer, Patrick Friesen took to Instagram to call out diners whose self-professed dietary restrictions conflicted with their orders. “Sort your shit out and let your waiter know,” wrote the Sydney-based chef. “You make it really damn hard for people with actual allergies and dietaries to go out to eat.”

The industry’s frustration isn’t with all allergy sufferers, but with those who use the diagnosis as shorthand for everything from “that gives me gas” to “that makes me gag.”

But chefs with restrictions of their own bring different perspectives to the kitchen. "I do believe that living with a common allergy or dietary restriction makes one hyper aware and sensitive to not only similar but all dietary restrictions," says Taylor Stark, chef de cuisine at Departure Denver, who has a shellfish allergy. Robin Clark, chef de cuisine at Deadhorse Hill in Worcester, MA, struggles with sulfites; she thinks that having an allergy or intolerance is an advantage when dealing with guests with restrictions. "Since you can relate to them, you can better plan for how to adjust the menu and food to meet their needs," she says.

At the restaurant level, commitment to food safety isn’t just about understanding allergens—it’s also about anticipating diners’ restrictions and building efficiencies into service. Executive chef of Charlie Palmer Steak DC, Michael Ellis, has a nut allergy; like the CIA students, he uses substitutions like toasted sunflower seed kernels and vadouvan roasted chickpeas to replicate a nut’s crunchy texture, and a handmade pine nut butter to use in place of peanut butter. By eliminating nuts to accommodate his own allergy, Ellis also provides a safe dining option for nut-free guests.

Even among chefs who don’t have allergies, Freitag points out that many now embrace the food safety challenge of omitting top allergens from their menus. "I think 'allergy stigma' is a thing of the past," says the Empire Diner alum. The diner’s current chef and proprietor, John Delucie (who is allergic to shrimp and crab), points out that it’s easy for any restaurant to stock items like gluten-free bread and nut milk. "It's 2018, so alternatives need to be commonplace," he says. "I just don't understand how it could be otherwise."

But Dean Walsh believes that collaboration is essential to understand food safety and how it connects to other issues, like food waste created by poor food safety practices. As more chefs with allergies enter the industry, he believes they will carve out new opportunities to innovate in this area.

“We have underestimated the importance of food safety in this country,” he says. “In the next five to ten years ... it will be changing dramatically.”