Trying not to kill with food.

There are tragedies that hit families around the world every day, though some seem more tragic than others. One such case is the recent passing of Scott Johnson in Minnesota from an allergic reaction after eating out. I imagine only a pop-culture definition of a psychopath wouldn’t be horrified for such a loss, but it especially caught my attention. Such a thing is my absolute nightmare, but not because I fear for my kids – I don’t have any – but because I am a chef, and actually harming people can be a constant threat.
This is a case that is going to court, so we can’t say for certainty what exactly happened at this point; the summary is rather brief. In the end, this could be a case of gross misconduct by the restaurant – they were wrong about the batter, either because they didn’t double-check the recipe; the server didn’t properly notify the kitchen which table it was, a cook grabbed the wrong batter… there are plenty of reasons the restaurant would be at fault and those responsible need to face consequences.
However. However, I do want to say this as a general lesson to be taken away from this loss. Having severe allergies, especially to a common ingredient, dining out carries risks, and one should really consider the risk before eating out in those cases.
Take a look at boxes of food or just ingredients at your local grocery store. They’ll almost always note which major allergens are in the packaging. ALLERGENS: SOY, MILK. That sort of thing. But on many, you’ll also find something along the lines of “This product was processed at a facility that also processes tree nuts.”
We are used to lawyer speak and over-warning of dangers. But this is one to be sure to take note of, because it is telling us something. No matter what precautions we are taking, food contamination can happen, and it is very difficult to swear to 100% certainty that none occurred when items are in somewhat close proximity.
Take Gluten-Free items. I’ve worked places where the pastry department made their own gluten-free items. They scrub down the area well and work with freshly cleaned equipment before baking. But I’ve always been slightly nervous about it, because there is flour used in the kitchen. Pre-packaged gluten-free items? I’ve felt much more secure about that, and it has nothing to do with extra precautions or the like. It is because those companies that produce that do not ever use flour – there is no reason for it to be anywhere in the facilities, and thus, so, so much harder to cause any contamination.
With a dairy allergy, in any of my kitchens, there are a lot of the products – milk, cream, butter, cheese, sour cream, pastries and so on. Tell me there is a dairy allergy, and I will double check the recipes. Even if I created the recipe myself, I’ll look it up to be sure. And I’ll check with the cook who made that batch to be sure they didn’t use any. And I’ll ensure only clean, non-contaminated equipment is used. And then I’ll say one more thing – “I cannot absolutely guarantee it.”
I suppose saying so is, in a way, covering my ass legally. But at the moment, I really am not thinking that. I’m simply stating that I can take a lot of precautions, but there is no way I can state that there is no way anything bad can happen. I’ll be open and honest about it. Peanut allergy and ordering a pasta? “Peanuts are not an ingredient on that station; in fact, the only peanuts in the kitchen is peanut butter, and that’s always kept about 70 feet from where the pasta is cooked.”
I am dubious of cases where such trace amounts can cause such problems – if I had to put money on it, something happened where dairy contaminated the young man’s dish. But that is a real risk one is taking. Cooks are human. We have not been replaced by robots, much less robots with some sort of spectrometer that can check for any allergen contamination. Doing a task enough times, a mistake will be made. The key is to limit those risks.
If one is dealing with such a severe dairy allergy, consider when eating out bringing one’s own product that you know is safe from experience at home – not just because the product is known to be safe, but handling it in the kitchen will get even more attention and have much less chance of being contaminated. Or consider vegan establishments. As with the mass-produced gluten-free items, dairy is something that wouldn’t even make it in the back door of such a place, again reducing risk of contamination.
In the end, those in white will do whatever we can to ensure when told of an allergy that we provide a dish that is safe and tasty. But none can really say it is 100% guaranteed, unless the allergen never comes into the kitchen. We are human, and mistakes go get made. The key is to do everything you can to limit both the chance of getting exposed, and the fallout when you do.

On Chefs as Artist

“With my food, I’m really trying to tell as story.”
Ugh! There is probably no sentence that will make me cringe nearly as much as that one. From cooking shows to newspaper articles, that seems to be the phrase every chef is expected to say, and say it they do. And many, I suspect, believe it.
I’ve long rejected the notion of the chef as an artist. An artist makes a one-of-a-kind work. Sure, it can be reproduced endless times, like postcards of the Mona Lisa, but DaVinci only created one, and that’s the one people clamber to see. No, I’ve tended towards likening chefs to artisans – skilled craftsmen who know the material they are working with, and can create something beautiful out of it. And do it again and again as demand warrants. It is a comparison I first thought of in culinary school, 7 years into my career and already with a lot of impressions.
But, firm distinctions do soften as one ages. Two things led to me making an exception – I dated a girl who was into art, so I was re-exposed to it in a way that was much better than the required “appreciation” classes in high school. I started to see art as often just posing a question or a challenge. Take the famous Campbell’s Tomato Soup print Andy Warhol did. It was an ordinary object, something people passed day-in and day-out in the aisles of their grocery store. By blowing it up and putting it on a wall, a challenge was posed to reconsider this item, its look and aesthetics. He is posing a question. (of course, we’re dealing with art here… that’s my interpretation of what the artist was trying to do, I’m sure there are those that will disagree).
And then I saw “Decoding Ferran Adria”, an Anthony Bourdain special that was filmed to be part of a series that was canceled, and later incorporated into his “No Reservations” series. He was, if not the father of, then the popularizer of, molecular gastronomy, using science and techniques and chemicals to manipulate food into whole new ways. We’d seen some version of that trickle over to the United States, people like Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz who popularized it State side, and were followed by hundreds of copy cats. It seemed like a nice trick with the food, but nothing more than that.
Then, in the middle segment, Adria took Bourdain to his lab, where he would work for 6 months on ideas and concepts and try to make them workable in the kitchen. And one that he was working on was with a peach, trying to manipulate it to create a sensation very much like foie gras, the fatty, rich duck liver. And he explained (through a translator there and my memory here), “If I can make this work, then the question is why is foie gras ‘better’? If I can take a 10 cent peach, and make it just like a $100 lobe of foie gras, is the foie gras better just because it is more expensive?”
Bingo! That was the moment. He was posing questions, trying to use his food to challenge the preconceptions of the diners about what it is they are consuming. I finally found it, the chef who was an artist.
It also made me appreciate the whole field of molecular gastronomy, or at least see it in a different light. When Adria and Achatz and Dufresne create something, they are posing a challenge. But like with Warhol, once it is out there, it is out of their hands, and many, many people try to copy it without fully understanding. Putting up a giant Progresso Chicken Noodle soup can is in no way doing the same thing as Warhol; a can of soup wasn’t the point. But that’s the sort of thing the imitators end up doing. They take the cool trick they see one of the leading chefs do, like apple “caviar”, and redo it over and over again, not with any real thought behind it than “hey, look what I can do.”
And so, there are a couple chefs, the highest-of-the-up-on-high chefs, who I might call an artist. But that list is slowly being added to, not because more people are cooking like Adria et al., but rather I find my vision for what is a challenge growing.
Currently, the big names, the trend-setters, are Scandinavian chefs. As a half-Swede, this certainly catches my attention. One I’ve been fascinated with is Mangus Nilsson, through Anthony Bourdain’s “The Mind of a Chef” PBS show (there he is again, A.B., pushing my assumptions about chefs). His restaurant, Faviken, is on my bucket list, an overnight trip up to the northern areas of Sweden. Everything is as local as can be, from the farm or down the street. Some from a little further, but all of the land where one is eating. And he’ll create a dish of crab leg, a touch of butter, and a burnt cream, and that’s it. Or baby new potatoes boiled in water flavored with leaves that had been decomposing under snow all winter, with a touch of butter. Pick it up with your fingers, crush the potato and eat. The aromas and associations from the dish are the challenge to the guest. The food is of a time and a place, very separate from the way people in the modern world acquire their food and consume it.
Hopefully this will be a trend that keeps on growing, or at the very least sustains itself. If this, this surge of chefs who really think deeply about their food and how they can use it to change, or at least challenge, the thinking of their guests, if it is all just a fad, that would really depress me. I’m not one to have a lot of faith that people will gravitate to items that are challenging, especially with food. The vast majority’s focus, in the West at the least, is on immediate gratification and satiation. And there are plenty of chefs out there who make a good living giving people that very thing. But hopefully, there are enough of us out there who can, on occasion, see a chef as and artist and put ourselves into their hands. To say, show me what you have to say, I’m open to it.
Just so long as what they’re saying isn’t called “a story.”

The Chaff is Ruining It for the Wheat

Alex Gallo-Brown wrote a piece in Salon called “Why do you care whether I’m really gluten intolerant?” It is a fair enough question to ask the public in general. There are bits like from Jimmy Kimmel, asking people on te street if they follow a gluten-free diet, and following up with the question, “What is gluten?” Of course, we aren’t shown the ones who got the answer right, and people not understanding a basic part of a diet they say they follow is where the humor lies.
At the end of the day, what difference does it make for the people in the Kimmel audience or at home? It is somewhat the same thing as mocking someone for being a huge Nickelback fan, or even for who they are dating. The difference is, people do put a lot of judgment over someone based on it, though they have no dog in the fight. It is people making decisions they feel affect their health, and while that argument is also made by people who are anti-vaccers, this has no consequence on the health of those that are doing the judging.
But I do have some concern about it. Because as a chef, this is my job, feeding people in a way that they have a good time and not make them sick. And the truth of the matter is, there are a lot of people out there screaming “No Gluten!” that are ruining it for those who have a serious health concern.
To begin with, the very real “Gluten Allergy” is called Celiac Disease. It affect less than 1% of the population. And what it does is not pretty, and I’m glad I’ve not experienced it or even seen someone else experience. In simplest terms, it shut down the small intenstine, so one cannot absorb nutrients. Not a pleasant thing on a system or cellular level.
Now, as a chef, when someone says they have Celiac, it is Red Alert time. Just as when someone says they have a shellfish allergy or the like, every aspect of the dish get scrutinized. What they are actually ordering, is there any chance it was next to shellfish? If so, grab new ingredient to be safe. Use cleaned and sanitized utensils and equipment on that dish, which can be a lot more work for a cook who is working a half-dozen dishes along with the Celiac patient’s dish. Want French Fries? We’ll fire up a pot of fresh oil since we fry chicken wings that have some flour on it in our main fryer. The chance of cross contamination is minimal, but why risk it?
And even if it is just the question of ‘is this item safe’, I am grabbing the recipe book of recipes I created (and use flour products rarely if there is a non-gluten equivalent) just to confirm – and specifically asking the cook whose initials are on the container to be sure they didn’t vary it at all.
In short, it takes a lot of work to make sure we’re 100% certain the dish we make is safe. Because one big reason I am in this business is to make sure people are having a great time. Sick in bed or even having to see a doctor, that is a huge no-no, the sort of mistake that I personally would not want to live with. And that’s not counting the possible legal liability of making someone sick in the restaurant or banquet hall.
But then we get into people with gluten intolerance, which, as Gallo-Brown acknowledges, may not even be a disease. It may be another item in the food causing it, so that we can make a gluten-free dish that still has the same effect on our guest.
And then you have the people who are simply on a ‘gluten free’ diet because an article somewhere said it would be healthier. I am fairly well convinced that the term “gluten free” has replaced “low carb” in people’s diet requests, with them seeming the same thing in people’s minds. Gluten? That’s like bread and pasta? That’s the same as Atkins, I guess.
So, professionally, we get requests for gluten-free, which you later realize wasn’t a real issue. After a while, it does wear on one’s perception.
I’m sorry, we can’t do the crab cakes gluten-free, there is some breading as a binder. “Oh, that’s fine, a little won’t hurt me.”
The fish has been marinating with soy sauce. “I’ve never had any problem with soy sauce before, I eat sushi twice a week.”
And so on, and so on.
I have no issue with Mr. Gallo-Brown or anyone else who need a gluten-free diet not because of serious health risks, but because it makes them feel better physically. The issue is the people for whom it makes them feel better mentally, because they’re smart enough to self-diagnose, or be on the latest trend. The people who have no idea that saying “gluten-free” is like crying out “Fire!” in a crowded theater… when the fire brigade comes, they better see some flames, otherwise, not only are they going to be upset, they may not be giving others the attention they need.
We cannot, for lack of a better term to describe this gluten situation, the wheat from the chaff. The chaff ends up making the whole group look bad, makes every claim seem suspicious. I would never stop taking all the steps I need to in order to ensure safe food is served, but it does make me grumble about it a bit. Until the fad of the diet passes, and we’re left with the people who truly need to limit their gluten intake, someone asking for “gluten-free” will naturally get a suspicious eye. And a gluten-free plate.