In this guide to eating out with food allergies, chefs share their best tips to help you have a safe meal and an enjoyable experience.
I've read all of the tips available about eating out with food allergies. That doesn't mean I'm more comfortable or confident in standing up and being heard at a busy, allergen-filled restaurant.
I decided that this must change! The key to eating out safely 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 work with customers who are eating out 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!
Following are the best tips that I gathered.
Check the menu in advance
It may not always be possible, but looking over a restaurant's menu before you arrive can make communicating with the chef and restaurant staff easier.
Restaurant websites are also becoming useful tools in preparing for dining out. Many restaurants are sharing their menus and allergen information online.
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:
Food components are prepped ahead of time
Food in a restaurant is typically made when you order it, but 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 marinades may contain allergens you're avoiding.
If you 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.
Alerting the restaurant about your allergies helps prevent cross-contact. This happens when a safe food touches an allergen making it no longer safe.
When you call ahead, the restaurant staff may be able to have ingredients set aside that are not at risk of cross-contact.
For example, a Mexican restaurant that has fresh salsa might portion some out from a fresh batch. This reduces the risk of it coming into contact with cheese, for example, during the cooking process.
Communication is key
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 mealtime hours (for instance, between 2 PM 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 gratitude goes a long way!
Be upfront about your allergies right away
If you can't communicate with the chef before you get to the restaurant, be sure to let your server know as soon as you are seated. 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 it's frustrating for the staff.
Bring a Chef Card
Chef cards are a handy tool when eating out with food allergies. They allow you to communicate your allergens with restaurant staff in writing.
A chef card outlines what allergens you need to avoid. Having one prepared saves time for your server as they won't need for them to scribble down your list of allergens on your order.
It also allows you to be able to communicate to any staff that reads it so there is less "lost in translation".
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 try to go out before 6:00 PM or after 9:00 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!
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.