I have a secret. I am a very bad food writer.
I like to think I can write okay about people, hence why I’m hired to enough. But food and I have a love-hate-love relationship.
I got Lyme Disease when I was twelve, back in the early nineties when less was known of it than is today, though that’s not saying too much. I was in a wheelchair for a while, in too much pain to move, and existed on a diet of buttered elbow noodles and orange juice, when I felt like eating at all. My body was puffy, I was uncomfortable, and it took a drastic change in diet and vitamin intake for my body to jumpstart its immune system and help the floods of antibiotics do their thing.
Twenty years later, I’ve had a bad relationship with certain foods, primarily gluten, dairy and sugar. A score of others – nightshade vegetables, citrus, beef, pork, eggs, soy, corn etc. – have come and gone (and sometimes come and gone again). Sometimes I’ve felt great, others I’ve had to quit jobs and let figuring my body out again take focus. It doesn’t all hinge on what foods I eat (other lifestyle choices and constant ingestion of both eastern and western medicines play a big part, too), but it’s a pretty big piece of the puzzle.
Suffice it to say, not many of the chefs I work with know about this. It’s almost something I’ve been embarrassed about, as gluten problems are often looked at as a “trend” first and a serious source of problems for some second. It doesn’t help that a lot of rather ditzy, diet-grabbing gym bunnies claim to be on a gluten-free diet without even knowing what gluten is or if it does or does not affect them. Yes, that statement was meaner than I usually like to express from myself. But I have friends with severe Celiac disease. And others whose health changed dramatically once the eliminated gluten from their diet. If I eat something with milk in it, I’ll vomit violently for a few hours and feel like shit for days. But, more scarily, if I allow certain things into my diet with any regularity, I risk being bed-bound again. And my heart can’t take another bout of that.
So, in an attempt to both guide those with food allergies into being considerate eaters and educate restaurant folks on how to best handle the delicate situation that is eating out for those with food allergies, I interviewed chefs, managers and servers around the country, for a piece-in-process for Serious Eats. But this conversation, with Chef Lynn Bound of New York’s MoMa cafes, felt worthy of its own home on the internet. She takes particular care of those with food problems so that pregnant women, mothers and families can eat safely and particularly well amongst those with no problems. At our original interview for my series I was really touched with how seriously she takes food allergies, and that I could eat two of the three dishes she prepared for our shoot. I was even more moved when we talked for almost an hour just on this particular topic.
Here’s the full conversation.
Diners with Allergies: Chef Lynn Bound Takes You Seriously
Taken May, 2014
Restaurant servers are usually the ones allergy eaters deal with. How is your staff prepared to guide the experience?
We had a recent incident with one of our servers here. A mom and a son come in all the time, and the child has allergies. We usually make them something special, but the server didn’t write it on the ticket. I don’t know if he didn’t understand the seriousness of it to really take the few extras steps to check, but when I saw the ingredient specification on the ticket he didn’t know if it was an allergy, so I went to the mom who explained and said, “I come here all the time and this is usually seamless.” I had to explain to him that he has to take it seriously – it’s a child here. It’s not just that they don’t like or don’t want to eat it something, it will make them sick.
It’s our job as chefs to cultivate an environment that makes that clear. It has to get promoted with teams and training, and the kitchen has to support the servers when a ticket comes in. I get upset with servers if they didn’t do more; if I have to hunt them down to confirm something that they didn’t communicate clearly with me. You put it to them that “we have a responsibility here. I know that you’re busy and maybe you don’t want to go back to the table again, but you really have to.” I know that server was upset with me, but it’s better to be upset with me than get somebody sick. For the newer ones you really have to drive it home. It’s better to check again just in case you’re wrong.
Do you feel like some servers are burnt out by the extra responsibility? I’ve had several remark that they feel they need a degree in nutrition to wait tables in New York, especially because it seems sometimes people don’t even know their own allergies well enough.
I had a situation recently on Terrace 5 when a woman ordered the soup and the server came to me after and said, “She’s deathly allergic to shellfish.” I told her she couldn’t have it because we make it in the same kettle as lobster stock, and she responded that she’d never have thought of that. If you’re deathly allergic, why wouldn’t you think of that? If someone’s “deathly allergic” we take it seriously. She really appreciated it, but it was the daughter who said her mother needed to tell about the allergy. When I know there’s an allergy we go through steps to make sure that doesn’t happen. I had a guest once say to me, “I’m allergic to dairy but do you think if I have one of the sundaes I’ll be ok?” No! You won’t be okay! I went to cooking school, not medical school, but no!
What’s the protocol on the line when an allergy comes in?
A lot of dishes we’ll gear around gluten or dairy free to have a balance on the line. For a gluten allergy, we make sure the station it’s coming from doesn’t touch anything with gluten, and cooks change their gloves and then don’t touch anything near the croutons or whatever; we keep those away from the other product. For a peanut allergy, I’ll make it downstairs. I’ll call the sous chef to wash hands, re-sanitize sauté pans, make it and bring it upstairs to us. We sanitize the plate or pot and do whatever we can on the line, and I’ll speak to the person to make sure they know what we’re doing.
Cooks are often in a hurry, so we train them with repetition, to keep that awareness on the line. When it’s something you think of all the time, it becomes second nature. Don’t assume. Call me out of a meeting or ask a sous chef. We take it seriously.
How do you teach subtleties amongst ingredients?
We often bring Elizabeth from Murray’s Cheese to go over the differences in cheeses, and have what the mix is on the menu as a reference for the servers and the guest. Some women who are pregnant don’t eat certain dairy products, so it’s also about getting servers to understand what the person’s asking, even if they don’t have an allergy; to do their due diligence. When we do new menus we highlight allergies – gluten, dairy, sulfates, onions, nuts – and when a new dish is coming out we’ll let them know what contains what.
There are so many more ingredients accessible now and diners seem better educated to navigate their allergies, but there are also more people requesting substitutions for them. Does that make it easier or harder on your end?
I think it is easier, but ten years ago I worked at a large catering company and coming up with allergy-friendly dishes for 1500 people would not be the norm. So there’s more to work with now, and people are also more educated about different types of food – I was using quinoa twelve years ago and people were like, “Ew”, where now they love it. I think some people always had the knowledge, but now I feel inspired and challenged by “what can I make that people can eat and everyone can enjoy?” So that people can feel great when they leave, and we’re being socially responsible on our menu. And for young people coming into this industry, a lot of dishes have butter and cream and people think that’s good cooking, but as you learn and branch out with cuisines, a lot don’t have gluten or dairy. It’s about challenging yourself to expand your skillset. I don’t look at it as a burden. You want everyone that comes in your door to feel welcome.
Why should more restaurants try?
People enjoy eating out, and I think we have a responsibility to provide them with foods that are okay for them to eat, just like you would be sensitive to those who don’t eat or don’t like red meat so wouldn’t have all meat in a restaurant. It’s the same concept. You have to balance all issues, because you’re not serving one kind of person, and you want a very diverse type of people coming to your restaurant and enjoying the food so they feel at home. You want things to be available to people in the style of who you are as a chef and what your restaurant is. You want people to have choices, and you want them to be great, just like everything else on the menu. As a chef I think you should be able to put something on the table that’s interesting and has texture and flavor, and something people with food sensitivities and restrictions can have. It’s easy to cook things with cream and butter and make the usual dishes, but you should want to challenge yourself to meet where we are as a society.
What’s the biggest takeaway for you?
I think getting to meet the guest and knowing they or their child is happy, and that we’ve made them feel welcome and comfortable and fed and refueled. I want them to be able to eat and enjoy. A teenage girl came with a bunch of her friends, and her mom emailed “I usually send her with food, and this is the first time I don’t have to.” We told her what we could do and did it, and the mom wrote back the loveliest email that said “It was so wonderful to hear my daughter talk about being able to go out with her friends and eat like everyone else.” She said she had tears in her eyes as she wrote it. I’d be an overprotective mother; I’d be nervous wreck because I’d worry so much. So I think it’s important the mom said, “We’re going to take this leap.” She did it the right way by talking to us, and we did what we’d do for anyone else. For a teenage girl that has to be a big deal; you’re going to the MoMa with your friends and no mom and dad. She took a picture with Liz, my sous chef, and sent it to her mom when she was at the lunch, and the mom was so thrilled. I thought that was so nice. A lot of these folks become loyal, regular customers because they know they can come in and that we want to serve them.
I think it needs to depend on the restaurant to say, “How can we make guests feel comfortable enough to enquire about a dish?” We want to feed people; to feed their souls and create great memories for them. So I think it’s about educating, and re-training when need be. Looking at opportunities to learn.
We had an event with a dean from one of the prominent colleges in the city who had an allergy that was so severe that if someone ate something he couldn’t have and shook his hand he’d have a reaction. The man wasn’t going to eat, so that wasn’t the issue; it was about him shaking hands with people, which he’d have to do all night long. We prepared a menu, totally sanitized the kitchen, and fried in a pot on the stove to make sure there was no cross-contamination from a fryer. At the point we were done producing and we ready to execute I felt 100% comfortable that we’d done what we needed to do. And the person who organized the night was thrilled.
The world is evolving. People eat differently, they approach food differently, and we need to meet society where it is and continue to educate ourselves. What we learned 20 years ago in school or from another chef, we have to relearn. You need to keep on your feet in this business.