Friday, December 14, 2007

Food Allergies and Famous Bedfellows

I haven't written about celiac disease or related food allergy issues recently. (Remember that three week stint of chicken broth, pureed food, and sparking water with a straw? That made it pretty easy to avoid gluten or dairy.)

Liquid diet aside, I haven't had too much to say about living with dietary restrictions. I've figured out ways to make home recipes tasty and safe, and I've learned what--and more importantly, how--to ask when I'm dining out. (Remember that whole selling one place and buying another? That transaction has certainly cut down on our dinners out, anyway).

But for everyone out there who is gluten-free, dairy-free, or suffers from any type of food allergy, I do have something to report. This week, Ming Tsai, nationally known chef and local celebrity and owner of Blue Ginger, was at the Massachusetts State House with his son, who has suffered from multiple food allergies, to urge legislators to pass a bill that would make dining out a lot easier for patrons and employees alike.

I’ve eaten at Blue Ginger, so I can vouch firsthand for its highly acclaimed food. It was one of the more memorable meals we’ve had. But I can also vouch for the fact that when I informed the waiter about my condition, he snapped into action, heading back to the kitchen and returning with a list of appetizers and entrees that were completely gluten-free. He also said that in the future, if I give the restaurant 24 hours notice they can usually prepare something special (and safe).

I was impressed with the service and the thoroughness, not realizing at the time that Ming Tsai is the national spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). I found out later that he keeps a sort of “Bible” of recipes and ingredients in his kitchen, even including the ingredient lists for whatever prepared foods (think soy sauce) his dishes may require.

I think it’s great that such a well-known chef is putting himself out there and advocating for awareness of food allergies and dietary restrictions. The real story, though, the one that affects so many people who don’t live close enough to Blue Ginger to bask in its food-safe abundance, is the bill itself. It would require restaurants to:

--Prominently display a poster about food allergy awareness in a staff area
--Put a notice to customers on the menu that it is their obligation to inform their server of any food allergies
--If the restaurant serves 50 or more, obtain a master list of all ingredients used in each recipe that is available to the customer upon request

For more details, check out the language of the bill here.

As customers, it is our job to advocate for ourselves, ask questions, and disclose relevant information, just as it is the responsibility of servers and kitchen staff to try to answer our questions as thoroughly as possible and accommodate us as much as can be reasonably expected. This bill makes that process a lot easier.

I spent a lot of time in a hospital cafeteria over the past week, and each entrée and side dish had all the ingredients listed, including a bolded section that highlighted any of the major allergens, like dairy, nuts, soy, wheat, etc. It made such a difference, and the fact that I was able to zip through the line without pointing and asking about every item made it a lot more effective for all the non-restricted people in line, too. Win-win situation all around.

The key here is knowledge—people can do so much more when they have the right facts at their disposal. Not every restaurant can be a Blue Ginger, but with the right basic protocols in place, they can certainly be as prepared.

4 comments:

Paul Levy said...

I love Blue Ginger.

So, a relative who was both gluten-allergic and lactose intolerant got breast cancer and went through chemotherapy. Lo and behold, both problems went away. A hard -- and not recommended way! -- to get rid of these issues. But at least she had some good news from the whole episode!

Alicia said...

It's awesome that Ming Tsai is making such efforts! I really need to check out Blue Ginger. Maybe I can actually eat out with little to no fear.

Andrea said...

You should check out foodiebytes.com--it's a new search engine that lets you narrow down restaurant options by dietary restrictions...might be a fun way to find new places that will accomodate what you need!

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