FARE has teamed up with certified Chef Joel Schaefer to bring you this insider’s take on managing food allergies in restaurants.
If you do your research, communicate your needs with the restaurant staff and review your meal before taking your first bite, you and your family should have a wonderful dining experience over and over again.
When You Arrive
When you get to the restaurant, check in with the host or hostess. Since you called ahead to let the restaurant know about your or your child’s allergy, ask if there is a note about the request on your reservation.
If there is, this is a good sign someone communicated your information to the restaurant team. If there is not, this should be the first “red flag”—but do not be discouraged. Ask them to inform the manager that you have arrived, and tell them you would like to talk to him or her when you are seated.
As You Sit Down
When you arrive at your table, check the cleanliness of the table and chairs. It is very important that your seating area is clean and sanitized, particularly if you have ever had a reaction from touching your allergen.
Speaking to the Manager
Even if the server confirms they are aware of your dietary request, let them know you would still like to speak with the manager or the chef on duty. You should always deal directly with a manager or chef to ensure the right information is getting to the kitchen.
When the manager arrives, show him or her the written menu option you discussed with the restaurant before arriving. (See Calling the Restaurant for more information.) If the manager seems attentive and genuinely concerned, go over your request in further detail.
Ask if they can handle your food themselves so that there are no mistakes. If they agree, you are on the right track.
Dealing with Servers
While servers can play an important role in tending to your needs, they should not prepare any part of your meal. Server areas can be very busy, with many servers working on many orders at the same time. Ladles and tongs used for serving soups and salad ingredients can be inadvertently placed back with the wrong food. This can cause your meal to come in contact with other foods you may be allergic to—also known as cross-contact.
First, make sure the person who delivers your food is your server, a manager or the chef. If it is someone you have not spoken with, this should be another red flag. Ask for a manager to double-check your order, as this person may have picked up the wrong food.
Secondly, your meal should be delivered separately from the rest of your party’s. Many restaurants teach the technique of “plate stacking,” where several plates are balanced on the server’s arm and delivered to the table. You do not want your plate next to another guest’s plate that might contain an allergen.
Third, confirm your order with them. Have them describe how your meal was prepared and listen for anything unusual. Did they mention an ingredient or cooking technique that was not discussed earlier?
Then look at the plate. Are there any garnishes? Is the item cooked correctly?
If anything looks wrong, ask questions and assess the situation. Only you can make the final decision. If anything is wrong and you feel uncomfortable, send the food back. Better safe than sorry!
Joel Schaefer is a certified Chef de Cuisine with the American Culinary Federation and a Certified Hospitality Trainer with the American Hotel and Lodging Association. His company, Allergy Chefs, Inc., specializes in culinary education, food allergy and special diets training, recipe and menu analysis, and product development. He is the author of Serving People with Food Allergies, Kitchen Management and Menu Creation. Previously, Chef Schaefer was Culinary Development and Special Dietary Needs Manager at Walt Disney World Resort, where he developed a program that helped thousands of families enjoy a dream trip to Disney World in Orlando, FL.
What to Read Next
FARE works with individuals, policymakers and restaurant industry groups to advocate on behalf of families managing food allergies.
The Food Code is a summary of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) best advice for uniform systems and practices that address the safety of food sold in food service and certain retail establishments and is revised every 4 years.