Eating Out With Food Allergies
I've read all of the tips available about eating out with food allergies but they haven't made me more comfortable or confident in my ability to stand up and be heard at a busy, noisy, allergen-filled restaurant.
Recently, I decided that this must change! The key to eating out safely and comfortably with food allergies is getting to know the people behind the food...the chefs! Rather than going to numerous local restaurants, I decided to use the power of the internet to reach chefs all over the world.
I posted my question, "How do you deal with food allergies?" on two forums for culinary professionals: Chef2Chef.net and Cheftalk.com. The chefs and other culinary professionals on those sites were very open and helpful!Here are the take home messages that I gathered:
Check the menu in advance
Although it may not always be possible, looking over a restaurant's menu before you arrive there can make communicating with the chef and restaurant staff easier. Many restaurants have websites that include their full menu. Try an internet search using the restaurant name, city and state to quickly find the website.
This was a very popular suggestion by the chefs on the forums. It is especially important if you will be attending an event that is catered since the food is prepared in advance. Here is why it is helpful:
- While food in a restaurant is typically made when you order it, a lot of the components that go into a dish are prepped ahead of time. For instance meats are often marinated ahead of time and those marinades may contain an allergen that you are avoiding. If you can call ahead, the chef can skip the marinade for one portion to cater to your needs. This may not be possible if you drop in during the busy dinner rush.
- It will be easier to communicate with the chef over the phone (provided you call during a slow time of day) than at the restaurant while he or she is in the middle of a busy mealtime rush.
- It makes the chef and restaurant staff happy because they aren't caught off guard and can be prepared for you.
- You can ask the chef for menu suggestions based on the constraints of your allergies and he or she will have more time to help you.
When calling ahead, keep the following in mind:
- Call before or after the busy meal time hours (for instance, between 2PM and 4 PM).
- Be brief and to the point. Even though you're calling during "down time" restaurants are busy places and chefs are busy people.
- A little gratitutde goes a long way!
Be vocal about your allergies ASAP
If you can't communicate to the chef before you get to the restaurant, be sure to let your server know as soon as you are seated and are given menus. This way, the server can communicate with the chef and other back of the house staff and you can begin working together to determine what you can eat.
If you don't get the feeling that the server is taking your allergies seriously or doesn't understand the importance of what you are saying, ask to speak with the chef. If you get the same feeling from the chef, you might be better off going elsewhere.
Some of the chefs on the forums said that people don't always share the information about their allergies until they have received their meal. Do not do this! Not only will you have to wait even longer to get your meal but the chef will not be happy with you. I don't know about you but I want the chef preparing my food to be doing so with love, not anger and frustration!
Bring a Chef Card
To learn more about using a chef card while eating out and what chefs think of them, sign up for the Eating with Food Allergies Newsletter (it's FREE!) When you subscribe below, you will be able to download a FREE chef card that I designed based on the feedback from the chefs on the forums.
Eat at off peak hours
Dining earlier or later than usual mealtimes might mean that more attention will be paid to you and your food. For dinner, that means go out before 6 PM or after 9 PM. If you're like me and have kids, this might not be a problem at all as many kids eat earlier anyway. Your service will probably be much quicker during those times as well.
Be polite and reward excellent service
I mentioned earlier that a little gratitude goes a long way. As someone who used to work in food service, I think this deserves mentioning again. Chefs and restaurant staff work hard and, in most cases, they really are aiming to please. They know that if they do a great job they will make their patrons happy and they know that happy patrons are returning patrons. For a quality dining establishment especially, this is very important!
That being said, if you have been well taken care of and have had an excellent dining experience, be sure to bring your business back there again. If you do, you'll probably get to know the chef and restaurant staff and you'll find that they are even more willing to take good care of you.
Finally, don't forget to tip your server well for providing an excellent dining experience. You are not a typical customer with typical needs. You have special requests and expectations and should reward the server for being attentive to them.
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