Some people eat to live, but most of us live to eat. Dining is not only an integral part of our existence, but both special and ordinary moments also take place during meals. When you have a food allergy, dining experiences have a different flavor—these customers need to ensure that what they eat will also let them live. Dining out, therefore, can be daunting because trusting an unknown kitchen (chef, food preparers, service staff) outside of your home is scary. There is hope, however, as more restaurants, especially those with discerning and talented chefs, see the food allergy customer as an opportunity, even a challenge, to deliver their brand of culinary rapture to a customer who rarely experiences anything beyond the bland or familiar.
Each year at the NYC Food Allergy Ball which raises funds for Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), we bestow a lifetime achievement award to an outstanding chef or restaurateur who has demonstrated their commitment to excellence and compassion for the food allergy community by training their staff to be food allergy aware. The honored Chef creates a special menu for the event that represents their passion for food, and that is free of tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, or any oils or derivatives of these foods (gluten-free and vegan (dairy-free, egg-free) options are available upon request).
As co-chair of this year’s Food Allergy Ball, I was privileged to participate in a tasting – where we sampled dishes cooked by our honored chef and selected the choices we thought our audience of 400 plus guests would enjoy. The tasting is special because the planners of this event get to sit and talk with the honoree. This year’s honoree is Charles Masson of the restaurant Majorelle in New York City. I was in for such a treat as the food was not merely delectable, but the beauty of the dishes and the stories behind them gave rise to an unexpected delightful sensory dining experience.
I was riveted as Charles spoke of his family, his history, how art (specifically painting) influenced his ingredient choices and plating of food. He spoke about mixing colors, shapes, and textures to produce visual joy. The dishes that he served us were indeed an edible work of art, heightening our pleasure before we savored a single bite. One of the dishes ultimately selected was an endive leaf with chopped root celery remoulade. As he explained to us how it was crafted, I was impressed by the thought, care, planning and creativity that went into creating a single dish. I had never thought of food as art before. But if the analogy is true, our chef is Picasso.
Charles spoke about his desire to delight and nourish all patrons. Precautions must be undertaken to provide sustenance to a customer with a food allergy, including training all staff in allergy awareness, using separate utensils, cookware and undertaking rigorous ingredient checks. Our chef is not daunted by any of them. When you walk into Majorelle, from your greeting, to your table side service, all the way to dessert, you can be certain your food allergy will be taken seriously. The restaurant is upscale, but that can be a good fit for a special occasion dinner for someone with food allergies. The personalized attention brings the comfort of knowing, the staff here care as much about your safety as the taste and beauty of the cuisine.
There are many restaurants that simply don’t want food allergic customers at the table. Some restaurants post signs in their windows saying “We can’t guarantee your safety here with food allergies”, put disclaimers on the menus and even encourage you in not so subtle words to leave. Such attitudes are both financially shortsighted and woefully out of touch with customer needs. Food allergic customers are the most loyal patrons any restaurant could wish for.
The chefs and restaurateurs honored at the past Food Allergy Ball are amongst the best in the world. They are not intimidated by food allergy. Indeed, their talent is what allows them to reinvent a dish that is safe for food allergy diners. While other chef’s stick to their culinary dogma and do not welcome food allergy customers, these chefs take up the challenge and create mouthwatering masterworks. Past honorees make up an impressive list that includes Gabriel Kreuther, Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, Jeff Zalaznick, Geoffrey Zakarian, Nick Valenti, Ming Tsai, Alfred Portale, Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse, Marcus Samuelsson, Jacques Pépin, Alain Sailhac, André Soltner, Danny Meyer, Mario Batali, Thomas Keller, David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Drew Nieporent, Alex von Bidder, Julian Niccolini, and Sirio Maccioni.
There are 15 million Americans estimated to suffer from life threatening food allergies. However, that grossly underestimates the number of potential diners. In our extended family, when we choose a restaurant to celebrate, its over 20 of us who dine. If it’s not safe for my food allergic son, it’s off the table for consideration. Paul Antico who runs the website Allergy Eats once told me he calls this the “veto vote”. The person with the food allergy actually determines which restaurant will be selected.
Today’s consumers have many restaurant choices, and a study shows that 70% of restaurant customers never make a return visit. Restaurants that nourish and make a food allergy customer feel safe often instantly create repeat customers. Repeat business is vital to both a restaurants’ success and longevity. So, it would be wise for other restaurateurs to emulate our honored chefs and restaurateurs and set a place for us at the table.