Entering the restaurant, I asked to speak with the manager again. She had told my server and had made notes in their computer system. Not only was the chef aware of my needs, she was happy to make the necessary adjustments to any dish on the menu. When we sat down, our server confirmed my allergies and let me know that the chef and kitchen staff were ready for me. Unlike the 1990s, when auto-injectors weren’t readily prescribed, my purse contained (as always it now always does) two epinephrine auto-injectors, an asthma inhaler, antihistamines and cortisone pills as per my doctor’s recommendation and my personal emergency plan.
I asked about ordering the steak taco. The server told me the dish’s ingredients and how the chef would make adjustments for me, such as cooking the steak in a clean pan instead of on the grill with the fish, and that she would substitute baked soft corn tortillas for the fried tortillas. When our dishes arrived, the manager and server bussed our plates to the table. I double-checked the ingredients in my dish with the manager and tucked in.
The chef brought a complimentary sorbet dessert, personally dished with a clean scoop, to our table. I thanked her for a lovely dinner. She gave me her card, and thanked me for letting them know ahead of time about my needs. The next day, I e-mailed her a thank you note; she replied, saying next time she’d like to make me a special off-menu dish free of all of my allergens. Yes, really.
So what changed? Is it how I approached the restaurant or how the restaurant approached me? In truth, it’s a combination – great news for all of us living with serious food restrictions.
In the last five years alone, there has been a palpable difference in how food allergies, intolerances and celiac disease, have entered into the zeitgeist. There are up to 12 million Americans with diagnosed food allergies and two million Canadians, while at least one in 133 in both the U.S. and Canada has been diagnosed with celiac disease. Sheer numbers have prompted forward movement in our schools, in the labeling of packaged foods, in the media’s attention and, increasingly, among those who serve us food.
Consider that the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which trains food-service professionals in food safety regulations and allergen awareness in the U.S., now issues 350,000 food protection certifications a year through its ServSafe program. That means, over the past decade, almost four million food-service professionals have learned how to handle food allergens in the kitchen!
Working with the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (now known as FARE), in 2008 NRA made a free training guide available for restaurant staff. Also in 2008, with guidance from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, NRA created a celiac disease webinar.
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