Keeping Allergies Off the Table

By Ming Tsai
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Photo by Emily Sterne


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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That was really the catalyst for me to start speaking out about food allergy awareness and safety and to try to teach people what we do at Blue Ginger. I became a national spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) not long after. The system we use at Blue Ginger is simple, low-to-no cost, and it works.

The first step is proper training. Every restaurateur has got to have the time and the means to properly train his staff. It's Rule One of being open. At Blue Ginger, we've always trained our staff not only on the proper handling of food, as any restaurant should, but also food allergy safety. What that means is our staff is extremely cognizant of cross-contamination during prep and during service. I always give the example that everyone knows to wash their board and knife thoroughly, if not change out their board entirely, after working with raw chicken because of the risk of salmonella.
You can't just scrape the cheese from a cheeseburger for a dairy allergy and then put the bun back. It needs to be an entirely new dish.
At Blue Ginger, every ingredient is raw chicken.

Every ingredient is prepped separately and kept separate for as long as possible. Especially now, since we've made a name for ourselves as a restaurant that is hospitable to those with food allergies, it's not enough to keep the eight major allergens separate but then prep the Thai basil with jalapenos and red bell peppers. What if you get a pepper allergy? And that has happened. Consistency is key.

One of the examples of cross-contamination in service I always give is, you can't just scrape the cheese from a cheeseburger for a dairy allergy and then put the bun back. It needs to be an entirely new dish, made with entirely new equipment. When we serve someone with a food allergy at Blue Ginger, it's new tongs, a new board, a new pan, a clean knife. Everything is washed and sterilized.

It's true for every restaurant that the dishwashers are some of the hardest-working staff in the building, but ours really get a workout. And they're trained on food allergy safety as well. It's not enough to just have the cooks aware of cross-contamination. Everyone needs to be aware of why they need to be careful and why those tongs need to be washed before that meal can get cooked. So, at Blue Ginger, everyone, from the bussers to the dishwashers to the front of house staff, receives training on food allergies and cross contamination. Because a molecule can kill. Our servers know that if crumbs from a nut tart somehow get on napkins that were being folded, those napkins cannot simply be dusted off. They must go into the dirty linen bin to be washed.

It's all second nature to the staff at Blue Ginger because it's a way of life here. It's a level of service we provide that we will never waver from, because, for us, there is no other way to prepare food or serve the public. As I mentioned, the absolute backbone of the entire system, and how we can efficiently serve diners with allergies every day during service, is the Food Allergy Reference Book. Or, as we call it at Blue Ginger, the Bible.



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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/07/keeping-allergies-off-the-table/21659/