Are Restaurants Responsible for Your Food Allergies?

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He might not like tomatoes, but we bet he isn't allergic to them. Photo: iStockphoto

The proliferation of restaurants that say, in no uncertain terms, they won't accommodate food allergies is relatively new. Of course, so is the proliferation of diners who travel with food-sensitivity cards that explain in strongly worded language exactly what they can and cannot eat. Suddenly people aren’t just allergic to nuts and shellfish — not even to dairy and wheat. It’s garlic, mushrooms, bananas, and rice. Or combinations of things. Or two foods eaten within a certain window of time. Lately, it's as if both sides — kitchen staffs and customers — have done much to exacerbate what should, in reality, be a relatively minor dining issue. What happened? And are restaurants actually responsible for accommodating the allergies of their guests?

The reality is that between one and 6 percent of the population is truly allergic to a food item. (Different sources estimate different numbers.) But allergies, which cause immune-system reactions, are different than food intolerances, which cause digestive reactions. In other words, a lactose intolerant person can often handle a touch of butter in a sauce, whereas a person with a nut allergy might not risk a piece of sourdough resting on a slice of walnut bread. Yet estimating how many people have intolerances proves challenging; it’s no wonder the New York Times called the current approach to food allergies a “squishy science.” The numbers most often cited say that somewhere between 30 to 60 percent of the population suffers from food intolerance.
 
Could some of this be generational? I can’t imagine my grandmother, who grew up in the Depression, expecting a chef to re-create a dish for her. (The woman once tried to eat her soup with a fork because we had forgotten to set a spoon at her place and she didn’t want us to “go to any trouble.”) I wonder if food sensitivities are another trait of the Me Generation: an example of viewing individual happiness as paramount, and thinking that it is our right — duty even — to fight for it.
 
Years ago I worked with a chef whose wife had a slew of food intolerances. He’s since left the restaurant business and the marriage. Maybe it was his freedom from both institutions talking when he called these intolerances a “sign of rampant prosperity.” I’ll admit to having similar thoughts when I waited tables, usually in the face of some blatant incongruity like the "lactose intolerant" person who scarfs down his wife’s ice cream after demanding the kitchen create a dairy-free meal for him.

It's easy to assume that restaurants that don't accommodate allergy requests just aren't willing to go through the sort of trouble of dealing with them. But really, those proclamations are helpful, because they clearly tell customers who do have food allergies that this isn't the restaurant for them. Eliminating part of the potential customer base is a risky move, but it also eliminates confusion. I'd say that restaurants are obligated to inform any guest, allergic or not, exactly what is in his food; but they don't have to deal with the allergy if they don't want to.

But the reality is that every chef isn't David Chang, and few restaurants are willing to be so definitive. So it's the responsibility of diners to let kitchens know their needs. Which is no doubt why some customers who are actually afflicted have resorted to carrying those food-sensitivity cards. Offering something in print does make it more difficult for staff to discount a customer's ailment, and instead of having to go into a lengthy discussion with your server about whether couscous has gluten, you can just hand over a card. But I'd imagine plenty of people don't want to head out to a nice meal with a printed card in hand. It's kind of square, right? So most people need to tell their servers about their ailments, in a way that won't sound entitled or demanding, but in a way that will also get their points across. Writer Shauna James Ahern, a.k.a. Gluten Free Girl, went through her spiel with me: It begins with “Here’s what’s going on. I can’t eat gluten. It’s a medical condition.” Then she stops and makes sure they know what gluten is. If they don’t, she orders a salad (which she says will probably come with croutons). She also goes to places with one-page menus, preferably those that cook seasonally, because it’s a clue that the kitchen cares about food sources and has a deeper care for the guest’s experience; the ten-page Greek diner menu is sure to be full of canned ingredients of unknown provenance.

But allergy requests, no matter how nicely worded or printed, can put a restaurant in a tough spot (especially on a busy Saturday night): If a guest says she is allergic to something, the kitchen has to assume that it is life threatening — not that the customer might develop a rash — and scrub every pot, remake the sauces, and rethink the composition of the dish on the fly. And by all means they should — when it's necessary. Which is just another reason why all those people who say they have an allergy to a specific ingredient when they really mean that they simply have a distaste for an ingredient should think twice before potentially forcing the kitchen go through all that trouble. “Those people give the rest of us a bad name," says Ahern. And I have to agree. I have a serious intolerance for them.