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.

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.