The Allergy Chef is changing the world, one bite at a time

By Jessica Brill

Restaurants work hard to create and serve delicious dishes, but with ever-changing consumer habits and diner preferences, this can be a challenge. When you add food allergies to the equation, chefs can really have their work cut out for them when crafting dishes that are available to a broad range of customers.

Kathlena, The Allergy Chef, knows this challenge well and has made it her mission to educate parents and professionals about the world of allergies and food prep.

“Food brings families together, it’s the heart and soul of family gatherings and to experience exclusion in those moments can be heartbreaking,” she says. This is a familiar story for Kathlena, who has more than 200 (contact and airborne) food allergies and intolerances.

We spoke with Kathlena, who has spent much of her life figuring out ways to overcome dietary obstacles and raise awareness, to get her insight on menu creation and the secret to restaurants increasing inclusivity on their menus.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the most common food allergies or sensitivities that restaurants need to take into account?

“Free-from” foods are foods made without specific ingredients like gluten, dairy, or nuts, making the dish or product suitable for those with allergies or intolerances. There are many government sources that provide lists, but most include wheat, eggs, soy, peanuts, treenuts, coconut, fish, shellfish, and sesame, though these lists vary from country to country, including additional items like celery, mustard, and more.

Now, this list is long, but it certainly does not mean that everything on the list needs to be excluded from menus. It means that chefs and serving staff need to be aware of them and where they hide in your menu. For example, a lot of people forget that vegetable stock contains celery, and that can be a problem for someone who is allergic, if that stock is used in the risotto, and celery is not listed on the ingredient list.

What steps can restaurants take to make it easier for guests with sensitivities or allergies to enjoy their menus safely?

It’s crucial to recognize that there are no absolutes, and that makes it really complicated for restaurants to try and cater to people’s needs when they’re all different.

There are many things that restaurants and chefs can do to promote transparency and inclusivity. The first thing is addressing menu clarity. The best example I saw of this was when a restaurant I visited had assigned a number for each top allergen and a legend to explain the numbers. They then labelled each dish, including every allergen (by number) that was in the dish. This made it easy for people with allergies to spot a restriction and make a simple menu choice.

I also suggest using brand names on the menu. Often restaurants don’t want to include that information, but it can make it easier for a customer who knows and uses a brand that they know is safe for them.

Next, make guests aware if a dish can be easily modified. You can simply use an asterisk or a symbol so people know that there is an alternative available that guests with allergies may be able to enjoy. Be careful with this one not to promise something you can’t deliver, though. As well, providing a menu with very basic choices that never change and accommodating people with the most common allergies will guarantee that there is something for everyone on the menu.

Be honest about your limitations. I have been to a few restaurants where the staff has flat-out said they cannot safely accommodate my allergies and that’s so important. People can’t always be accommodated and it’s vital for restaurants to be realistic and honest about what they can and cannot do.

Really, the easiest and best way to address this with guests is to have a complete ingredient list (available upon request) for every recipe and dish – this allows people to know exactly what they’re ordering, with the added perk of encouraging restaurants to focus on quality, rather than quantity. Transparency benefits everyone.

You mentioned a basic menu available to “free-from” guests, what does a menu like that look like in a restaurant kitchen?

 Sometimes restaurants think they need to make fancy meals to make customers happy but, in this case, inclusion is the key and having options that these customers can enjoy is the most important part of the process.

Keeping it simple in the kitchen with cost-effective options means making dishes in advance and separately from the rest of the dishes in your kitchen. For example, plain rice or quinoa with baked chicken and steamed veggies would be accessible for 95 per cent of the “free-from” community.

Another choice would be chili made with basic ingredients with fries or onion rings made in a dedicated fryer. This is a great one to make ahead and freeze portions so it’s available whenever you need it without going bad and getting wasted.

There’s even the possibility of creating a simple “free-from” pizza. There are companies that make allergen-free pizza crusts that can be thawed out, add a basic sauce, a dairy-free cheese (or no cheese), a few toppings as per customer needs, cook it on a clean tray and your customers can enjoy some dishes from your restaurant.

“Free-from” pasta is another simple option. Use a dedicated pot with its own water, create a simple tomato sauce, and chefs can even make meatballs in advance and freeze them individually, so they are easily pulled out and thawed as needed.

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Are these options available to every restaurant? Of course not, but they can provide a possibility for guests with allergies. if there is an unavoidable risk of cross-contamination, then even these will not be safe options for your “free-from” guests. Allergies can be really isolating and if chefs and restaurants can provide a place for guests with allergies to gather and celebrate safely, then that’s a game-changer.

How can diners help improve their own experience?

Customers need to be responsible for their own safety as much as they can by doing the research to have a safe and enjoyable dining experience. Diners should talk with a chef or manager, clearly communicate their dietary needs, ask questions about ingredients, and so on. One of the worst things a diner with food allergies can do is to simply show up without having communicated with the staff in advance.

There are also resources out there to help, like apps that contain user-generated reviews of restaurants and brands for the “free-from” community. Some even include filters so people can plug in their allergies and the information is targeted specifically to the user’s needs, serving as a simple reference for diners.

Do your due diligence though, after you find a possibility in the app, call the restaurant to confirm their ingredients and what they can do to avoid disappointment and enjoy your experience safely.

What’s the most important takeaway for chefs and diners when dealing with allergies?

It needs to be a team effort, driven by customers, it’s not a restaurant’s responsibility to manage your health. By the same token, restaurants are responsible for providing safe experiences and if they claim something is “free-from,” then it needs to be. There needs to be effort on both sides.

If you are a “free-from” customer, make it easier for a restaurant by dining during the off hours which gives the team the time and space to get your order right. Be thoughtful. Go into all of this with eyes wide open, customers need to be reasonable with their expectations and restaurants need to be truthful with their promises.

And both sides need to get educated. Take training, learn as much as you can. The more I can shed light on this subject and help share information, the happier I am. This situation is ever-evolving and

inclusion is not perfect, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.