Taking Fear Off The Menu

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[Curator's note: Alyssa Rosenberg recently wrote about her experiences as a food-lover with food allergies, always wary, always hoping what a server tells her is true and never quite knowing what or who she can trust. She found unexpected bliss at one of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's restaurants, in Las Vegas. I asked her to glean their secrets, and the chef and general manager were happy to help.]

I asked Jason Neve, executive chef of B&B in Las Vegas, and Lori Lucena, the general manager, what it took to create their restaurant's sense of comfort for people with allergies.

Their answer was communication, backed up by good technology. The restaurant gives servers intensive training so they can master the details of the approximately 85 dishes that appear on the menu in every given night. Because the menu changes frequently to respond to changes in seasons and local availability of ingredients, Neve posts an allergy checklist in the kitchen for servers to refer to.

B&B doesn't have a custom modification for allergy tracking; the restaurant simply uses its sales software system to its fullest extent.

Servers and cooks alike can rely on the information tracked on B&B's sales software, a commonly used program known as Micros, which the restaurant uses to generate checks for the kitchen and patrons. B&B doesn't have a custom modification for allergy tracking; the restaurant, Lucena told me, simply uses the system to its fullest extent, and he gave me two examples.

The "Name Check" section can be modified to create custom names for tables, including patrons' allergy information, instead of relying on a numbering system. And the "Message" system lets servers attach notes to seat numbers, specifying which patron's dishes need to be cooked with their dietary restrictions in mind.

Most of Batali's restaurants use Micros, Lucena told me. But she added that restaurants using other software programs have similar options for tracking dishes.

"Allergies aren't anyone's fault, and we'll be as accommodating as we can," she said. "The biggest problem that we run into is people who don't take their allergies seriously and don't mention them at the beginning of the night. They're the ones who are angry with us because we didn't go through every tiny dish."

Neve keeps plenty of clean cutting boards and knives on hand and a fresh pot of water on the stove so he and his staff can start completely fresh when they're cooking for a customer with allergies. But other than taking sensible precautions, Neve hasn't altered his cooking specifically to avoid food-allergy triggers.

In part that's because Italian cooking relies on olive oil, so he doesn't have to constantly make substitutions for an allergen like peanut oil. Neve told me that he's excited about a gluten-free pasta from an Italian maker he plans to start using in the restaurant. But unlike Ming Tsai, the Massachusetts chef who has made allergy awareness central to his cooking and has written a food allergy reference and advocating for food safety legislation, Neve simply relies on broad offerings and a willingness to be flexible to handle customers' individual needs.

"We change it so much, and we just have such a large menu that we can find something to make people happy," he says.

It's not a complicated goal. But after a lifetime of ignoring the dessert section of menus and inspecting crenellated sugar for traces of coconut, of automatically ruling out swaths of entrees and panicking when slivered and browned garlic looks a little too much like almonds, simply being happy feels like progress.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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