From the Other Side of the Kitchen
Over the summer I had the opportunity to interview Patrick McGrath, who is the head chef at quite a few different restaurants in New York. It was particularly informative and I got the opportunity to learn more about what goes on in the other side of the restaurant that is frequently unseen by those with food allergies, eating in restaurants. I learned more about the ways that kitchens handle food allergies, and what makes it clear to the kitchen staff that your allergy is extremely important.
One of the first questions I asked was how do his kitchens handle food allergies. He responded by telling me that when they get orders, servers ask if they have any food allergies. I was really pleasantly surprised by this because a lot of restaurants don’t do this, but it could be really helpful if they did. Mr. McGrath also told me that they when the servers enter the order, they note which person has food allergies then everyone in the kitchens sees those tickets. Servers also go back and inform the kitchens of the allergies. This is the general process of most restaurants, but it double-checks to make sure that everyone in contact with your food understands your allergens. The staff/servers are trained to know what’s in each of the dishes, and what can/cannot be left out of a meal. So sometimes just asking can save a lot of trouble and be super informative.
Mr. McGrath then told me that the best way to make ordering food easier is simply to make it super clear. You should point out your allergy early on and make sure the server understands. He suggested using allergy cards (FARE has a great template) because it makes it clear that it’s not just an intolerance. A lot of people with food preferences (i.e. doesn’t like mushrooms) will claim they have allergies to get the kitchen to take the food out of their meal, but if you have the card it lets people know that they need to take your allergy seriously and that it’s not just a preference.
We then talked about some more specific things. He told me about how because chain restaurants are more standardized, it’s easier to know what’s in the food. It’s a lot harder in smaller restaurants or less high-end restaurants. Also, some people in restaurants aren’t educated enough about food allergies to know the difference between tree nuts and groundnuts for example. Also, think about your allergies before you go to a restaurant, if they have a lot of peanuts and that’s what you're allergic to, it might not be a good idea to go to that restaurant.
I learned a lot from meeting with Mr. McGrath, but my key takeaway was communication. You have to make sure to communicate with the servers and the chefs and be really clear. It’s as simple as that.