Chef Weiner is no food-allergy expert, nor need you be, he says. The fact is, students must know all the ingredients in all dishes everyone on the team prepares. When they become professional cooks, their wait staffs must also know. Otherwise, guests could be in severe danger.
By Adam Weiner, CFSE
From the moment they begin their career, professional cooks need to be mindful about food allergies. Allergies can do everything from just causing a minor rash to killing someone. We need to teach our students from day one that they need to be careful, and be informed.
Before we get much further, I would like to make two initial comments:
First, I am not talking about people who are “free” of something. Being gluten free is a choice, and it should be honored. Having Celiac disease is not a choice, and serving gluten to someone who has Celiac could seriously injure him or her.
Many students don’t take allergies seriously because they have heard all the stories of people claiming they were “allergic” when they weren’t. My two favorites are:
- At a recent dinner party, a guest at a nearby table complained to the manager that she told the server she was allergic to all gluten products and was appalled to find rice on her plate. She said this while holding a beer in her hand.
- A number of years ago I was catering a 50th birthday party for a man. The party was thrown by his wife and sister, who told me it was critical to not use eggs in any dish. The guest of honor, Bob, was violently allergic to anything with eggs in it. Around 6:00 p.m., Bob came into the kitchen, said his sandwich was too dry, reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the jar of mayo and put a large glopping spoon on his sandwich. I watched in amazement, astonishment and horror as he horked it down and walked back to the party. Three hours later when we left he was still fine.
But it is not up to us as cooks to decide who is and is not allergic to what. Many people have real allergies with real consequences. From the first day of your class you need to start training your students on these issues. Here is why:
- At a recent trade show I tasted a low-calorie raspberry coulis. After tasting it I was asked what I thought and was told that low-fat milk had been added to bring creaminess and uniqueness (and cut back on the sugar) to the dish. I am very physically intolerant toward milk and cream. I told them I wasn’t suspecting there would be milk in a raspberry coulis. They couldn’t figure out why I was miffed.
- I had brunch at a high-end restaurant. I ordered the eggs Benedict. Four hours later I was in bad shape; eight hours later I was in the emergency room. When I called the restaurant a few days later I was told that they add heavy cream to their hollandaise to give it “the creaminess of the eggs and extra impact.” They were startled that I was upset. I told them that cream is not supposed to be in hollandaise, and that’s why I ordered that dish.
- A few weeks ago I ordered a pasta dish in a tomato sauce. I asked the server if there was any dairy product in it. She looked at the menu with me and told me that it came in a tomato sauce. When it came to the table I looked at the sauce and knew—as a chef—that the color indicated milk or cream had been added. I sent her back to ask in the kitchen. She came back and said that the relief cook that evening thought that it was too boring with just tomato sauce, and had added cream.
- A friend of mine is allergic to eggs. He ordered a steak and mashed potatoes at the same time as the incident above. Halfway through his potatoes he found an eggshell in it. What in the world was it even doing there in the first place?
- I swear I am not making the following up. I was out with a friend who has a nut allergy. He told the server he was allergic to “tree nuts.” He ordered a salad and it came with pecans on top of the salad. He told her that she was informed that he had a tree-nut allergy. She replied, and again I am not making this up, “That isn’t a tree nut, that’s a pecan.”
- “Is there any milk or cream in the crab ravioli,” I asked. “No sir.” The ravioli came with a sauce around the plate. I called the server over. “Is there milk or cream in the sauce?” She replied that she didn’t know. I had to ask her to check. She came back and said yes, there was. She seemed puzzled why I unhappily asked her to take the plate away.
- At a recent reception, the cooks were doing the serving. I went to one station and asked if there was milk or cream in the dish. “I don’t know, I didn’t make it. I’m just serving it.” My students know that everyone in every group must know ALL of the ingredients of all dishes. On Wednesdays I teach in the local jail, and all of the inmates know the same thing. If people in jail who have never cooked or served a day in their life know this, why would cooks at a high-end event NOT know?
Finally, instruct your students that they have to know not only the ingredients in their dishes, but in the ingredients within what they use. For example, if they make chocolate cake but use a store bought frosting, do they know what’s in the frosting?
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation.