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If you have an allergies to nuts, you don't want these anywhere near you. (Image: Frank Guanco)

We need to talk about dining out with allergies

Imagine this scenario; you've made plans to have dinner with friends in a few weeks. You've scored reservations at a new restaurant with a style of food that warrants buzz and excitement. When the reservations are made, you've mentioned to the restaurant to include the note that someone in your party has an allergy to nuts. All should be status quo for making a reservation to the restaurant accounting for allergies.

The day of the dinner arrives and you're excited to eat out. You get to the restaurant, settle in, and look over the menu. When your server comes by, you mention to them that someone in your party has an allergy to nuts, to reiterate the note when the reservation was made, and that you'd like to be steered in the direction of dishes to try (or to avoid) for dinner. You also mention that you understand the challenges that restaurants have with being dedicated at removing all allergens from your meal. Which is fine, as long nuts don't show up in a dish for the eater with the allergy.

Your server is helpful with navigating the menu and you order with relative confidence. The main course arrives. It's served to the group, but something is amiss. The diner with the nut allergy notices something is off. She stops eating and starts to chug water to flush out her system, but notices a feeling on her tongue. There are nuts in this dish. You leave the restaurant and hightail it to the emergency room. You find out that cashews were in sauce of the dish. Cashews are one of the two nuts that this diner is deathly allergic to. You wonder how did this breakdown occur at the restaurant and how did this dish make it to our table when we mentioned the nut allergy? The hospital takes great care of the diner and steers the ship back to relative normalcy.

Can you picture this scenario? Because this happened to my wife and I this spring. It got me thinking; what can diners and restaurants do better to make sure that this high leverage and scary situation can be avoided?

For eaters with allergies, be it dairy, soy, nuts, gluten, etc., the prospect of eating out can be stressful and frightening. Depending on the severity of the allergy, it can dictate where you eat, or if you should even go out to eat at all. It can be a minefield where something can go wrong at any moment. For restaurants, they want to be welcoming and serve their guests, but after our episode, I wanted to find out what restaurants do to accommodate those with allergies.

I spoke with two local chefs about how they manage allergies at their restaurants; Ethan Stowell, Chef-Owner of Ethan Stowell Restaurants and Chris Schwarz, Corporate Executive Chef at Tom Douglas Restaurants. The big thing I took away from our talks on allergies was that communication is paramount for the dining experience. It is important to communicate with the restaurant staff, so that the server can note the allergy on the dining ticket to alert the kitchen crew of the allergy. Open communication between the diner and the server is key for enabling the restaurant to accommodate the diner. Stowell mentioned that in the past, people didn't really speak up about allergies, but with so many allergies now prevalent, allergies are now a major consideration in his operations. He encourages customers to speak up and to not feel bad about this inconvenience, which it shouldn't be. (You know what's inconvenient? Death.)

Noting the allergy on the dining ticket is a best practice that Stowell expects out of his restaurants. The dining ticket is how the kitchen becomes aware of the allergy, so that they can prep the dish accordingly. Also, Stowell expects that the chef and server both check the finished dishes to make sure the allergy accommodation is adhered to before it is served to the diner. As a precaution, Stowell and his team do not fry food in peanut oil and construct most of their menus either without nuts or with the easy possibility to remove nuts from the finished dish. This was confirmed by Chef Alvin Go of MKT. when I spoke to him about allergies during our recent Washington Beef tour. Additionally, Stowell and his crew make sure to repeat the orders to diners when the finished dishes are served, to confirm that the allergy requests were followed appropriately. They also feel it is imperative to list on the menu any ingredients that are a part of the common allergy spectrum for diners.

For Schwarz and the Tom Douglas Restaurants (TDR) group, they've made accommodating allergy considerations a part of their service standards throughout the company. For instance, they've switched their fryer oil from peanut to a canola blend. Like Stowell, Schwartz mentioned that because menus are an early touch point for diners, they make sure their menus state the common allergens that are included in each dish. The TDR team aims to be mindful of dietary restrictions and, when possible, an on-duty manager will check with diners to understand whether allergies should be considered and relay this information to the kitchen so that they can adhere to safety protocols. In some cases, this may include the need to switch out cutting boards, clean knives, or use a freshly cleaned pan. Additionally, Schwartz mentioned that their restaurants try to achieve as much manager interaction and involvement with diners as possible, with the intent that the manager serve finished dishes to diners with allergies as a way of showing that extra care has been taken with each dish.

Given my wife's allergies, I always take into account food allergies with where we go out to eat and make sure to note them when I make a reservation. The time I spent with Chef Stowell and Chef Schwarz made me understand how restaurants and diners can have a safe, successful, and satisfying dining experience, but it all starts with communication; it is of utmost importance for the process. With open communication, the chain between the diner to the server to the kitchen can be linked. However, this shouldn't just be the case with big restauranteur groups in Seattle (or anywhere), diners should have these same high expectations for any restaurant eating experience. Consider Pete Wells, the restaurant critic for the New York Times; he reviewed Mario Batali's La Sirena, his latest restaurant in New York, and discussed an issue of accommodating allergies with his meal, and Batali and team worked on doing a better job of managing allergies as a result. Or look east to Boston, where chef-restaurateur Ming Tsai goes to great lengths to address allergies at his restaurants.

Diners should be adamant about communicating their allergies and restaurants should prioritize the need to take these requests seriously, as the repercussions can be catastrophic. While I don't enjoy always thinking of where the closest hospital is to where we eat, we do our part and bring up our allergies as soon as we can when we're at a restaurant. Anyone with an allergy should.