Ming Tsai’s Food For Thought
My journey with food allergies began when I opened my first restaurant, Blue Ginger, in 1998. I felt it was important that our kitchen be mindful of food allergies to ensure that all customers could safely dine with us. Little did I know that soon enough food allergies would become an enormous part of my everyday life.
Just a few years after opening Blue Ginger, my oldest son was diagnosed with multiple food allergies; in fact, he was born severely allergic to soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, shellfish, and eggs. At first, as a chef, I thought it was an unfunny joke from upstairs. But I soon realized it would be an invaluable lesson and opportunity. I quickly learned that trying to eat at restaurants with food allergies was a much larger task than I imagined. Even though I had established protocols in my restaurant for those with food allergies, most other restaurants didn’t take the same care. I can recall a few times where my family and I were turned away because the chef or restaurant did not want to accommodate us. There were a few occasions where my son was accidentally served a dish containing a small amount of one of his allergens, and within minutes he began exhibiting symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction. As a parent, it’s one the scariest experiences. Thankfully, my wife is a trained nurse, and we were able to spot the signs quickly and administer epinephrine right away.
First implemented at Blue Ginger, and later at Blue Dragon (which is 100% peanut and tree nut free), we created a book that includes every dish on the menu and a comprehensive list of ingredients separated by dish components (i.e. proteins, starches, vegetables, sauces, and garnishes). This way, the patron and restaurant staff can easily determine which part of the dish has the allergen and omit the item from their order. For example, a customer with a peanut allergy would still be able to have the Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce by opting for an alternate (and equally delicious) dipping sauce.
Additionally, any ingredient processed and received from outside vendors is starred and the ingredients are indexed in our system (e.g., dried *egg* pasta). A highlighted ingredient indicates that it is one of the top eight food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, shellfish, fish, milk, or egg. Our protocols also ensure proper lines of communication between the front of house staff and the kitchen. Every manager, server, and bartender is trained to ensure all customers can safely dine with us. You can find an example of our documentation here.
My family’s experiences, and the knowledge that comes with being a restaurant owner and chef, inspired me to champion the first bill in Massachusetts to require all local restaurants to comply with food allergy awareness guidelines. It took four years working with the Massachusetts legislature to write Bill S. 2701, which was eventually signed into law in early 2009.
I’m incredibly proud of the work that we’ve done in Massachusetts to help those with food allergies have a more positive restaurant experience. As a chef, restaurateur, and a food allergy parent, I’ve experienced this issue from multiple sides. From the customer perspective, it’s important to notify the restaurant when making the reservation, triple-check that the server understands the severity of the allergy, and do a final check when the food arrives at the table for any visible cross-contact with your allergen or mistakes. Food allergies are a two-way street. From the restaurant perspective, we need to have procedures in place to make sure customers can safely eat, but we also need to be made aware of any allergies and understand the severity so that we can accommodate. Over the years, I’ve developed a useful and effective way to better determine the severity of people’s food allergies. I ask, “Is using the same fryer okay?” The point we are getting at here is if shrimp is fried in a fryer, could the customer eat fries out of that same fryer? Depending on the answer we then have a better understanding as to the severity of the food allergy, which we use as a directive to the kitchen staff.
Restaurants should care about food allergies not only because it keeps their patrons safe, but also because it’s smart business. The hospitality industry can be challenging, and meeting customer’s demands is always of the utmost importance. At the end of the day, we are all fighting for loyal customers.
I guarantee you, if you serve a food allergy customer a delicious and safe meal, and they leave smiling, you’ll have a customer for life.
Peace and Good Eating,
Chef Ming Tsai
Ming Tsai holds an equity stake in Allergy Amulet.