Keeping Allergies Off the Table

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Blue Ginger opened on February 10, 1998, and since day one, we've had a three-ring binder filled with all the dishes we serve, ingredients listed out, which allows us to quickly and correctly report to a diner what is in each menu item. Along with solid staff training, that binder has helped us serve people with food allergies and sensitivities for over a decade.

It's a system I hope other restaurants will adopt. Now called the Food Allergy Reference Book, it's also the template for the voluntary aspect of the Food Allergy Awareness law for restaurants (S. 2701) that recently passed in Massachusetts. I helped draft and lobbied on behalf of this law, and is incredibly simple to implement. I've always believed if you're in the restaurant business, which is in the hospitality and service industry, after all, it is your duty to serve everyone safe food.

The thing that really crystallized the need to be vocal about food allergies was an experience that David and I had at a different restaurant in Massachusetts.

About a year after Blue Ginger opened, our first son, David, was born. At around six months old, we noticed David had a rash that wouldn't go away. Turns out it was eczema, which, in infants, is an indicator of food allergies. A trip to the doctor's office later, David had been diagnosed with seven of the eight major allergens. He was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, dairy, egg, and shellfish.

Some may call it an unfunny joke from Him or Her upstairs, the son of a chef being born with major, life-threatening food allergies, thereby limiting what he can eat to a narrow window of "acceptable" foods. But I never felt that way, nor did David. He always ate well, and probably because I am a chef, we always just worked around it, viewing it more as how one would view another child's likes or dislikes and less as a life sentence, albeit always being extremely aware of the side effects of a potential cross-contamination. David grew up eating organic lamb, steak, and rice noodles--he was definitely well-fed. And, on a side note, he developed a great palate!

You could say having David really kicked our allergy awareness at Blue Ginger into high gear, and you'd be right. But the thing that really crystallized the need to be vocal about it was an experience that David and I had at a different restaurant in Massachusetts.

When David was about five years old, I took him into a casual, family-friendly restaurant and, before we were seated, I spoke to the manager to let him know of David's allergies, which I always did. I think it is important for people to take that first step and let a restaurant know, at the first possible moment, of any allergies. In theory, it should make everything go more smoothly.

In this case, that didn't happen. Instead of being greeted with a can-do attitude or any amount of graciousness, I was literally told, "We'd prefer not to serve you." As a father hearing that, my blood boiled. It's a good thing my son was there, or I probably would have popped him, especially when I had to explain to David that, yes, we were hungry, but no, we couldn't eat there after all. Hearing those words as a restaurateur, I was absolutely incredulous. I kept thinking, "You're turning down two paying customers because you can't guarantee me you know what's in your food? That's scary and wrong."

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Ming Tsai is the James Beard Award-winning chef/owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, MA and the host/executive producer of public television's Simply Ming. More

Ming Tsai is the James Beard Award-winning chef/owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, MA and the host/executive producer of public television's Simply Ming, nominated for two Emmys in 2009. He is a national spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN).
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