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Allergic to Special Requests? Read On
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Jan 15, 2019

Allergic to Special Requests? Read On


One Hospitality Professional’s Dietary Awakening

Words by Katie Bell
Illustration by Cesar Diaz

I did what I have done for close to twenty years in diners, in coffee shops, at friends’ apartments, and at truck stops. A mug of steaming coffee was placed in front of me, and with pure muscle memory, I grabbed a sugar packet, shook, ripped, and tipped it in, then went for the closest dairy product. Once the color became comforting and familiar, I immediately pushed it away from me, sunk into the booth, and said, “shit.”

This was all following a long and uncomfortable conversation with the incredibly kind waitress about ordering a scramble sans eggs and cheese. And, with my skin crawling, I also had to ask if there were gluten-free bread options, a query unsurprisingly met with a no; but with her same gracious manner, she offered me corn tortillas. The server’s thoughtfulness was impressive, even to this hardened hospitality professional. Which is why there was no way I could possibly tell her I accidentally put milk in my coffee because I forgot I couldn’t have dairy.

I’ve been a vegetarian since age four and a pescatarian since twenty-five, so sitting at a table where others are enjoying things I can’t eat is not new to me. I have also spent the greater part of two decades in restaurants talking about, thinking about, warning about, and training others to be aware of allergies. I lecture and quiz about bivalves and crustaceans, alliums and nightshades, kosher and halal. I make sure my team knows the right questions to ask, the proper terms to use, that bitter almond does not contain nuts, and hell hath no fury like when one of my team members lists a peanut as an example of a tree nut.

So this situation right here—me staring wistfully at a cup of diner coffee with milk? I know better.

Two years ago, I started having chest pains. I have always experienced late-night, stress-induced heartburn, and this just seemed like an extension of that. I was opening a restaurant, and therefore under more pressure than usual. But the pains turned into these painful, world-rocking hiccups that made my breathing uneven. I casually mentioned all this to my doctor, who said it sounded like I was eating too fast. Given that I was taking most meals in the upright position from a plastic quart container three minutes before a pre-service meeting, that seemed logical to me.

But at some point my issues evolved into trouble swallowing.

And as uncomfortable as all this was, it was never so much about what was happening to me physically—which was weird, although not incredibly painful—but the embarrassment of my dining companion knowing something was happening. I became very good at sensing it coming on and sometimes I could breathe through it, but increasingly I would excuse myself to the bathroom and basically spit up the food that wouldn’t go down my throat.

The tipping point came during a lunch with an old friend at a tiny Japanese restaurant. Almost immediately I felt that tightening in my chest. I put down my chopsticks and thought I could drink some tea and breathe through it. I couldn’t, so I excused myself to the bathroom. I returned, but was still hiccupping, so I excused myself to the bathroom a second time. “You ok?” she asked and I searched her face to try to determine how weird, bulimic or ill she thought I was. That afternoon, after placing a call to my doctor, I learned the term gastroenterologist.

When I finally sat down with the specialist, and after trying to explain why it had taken me two years to come in, I learned another term: dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing.

An endoscopy and a couple thousand dollars later, the determination was that my esophagus was significantly swollen. She sent me to an allergist, who discovered I had a type of white blood cell that had traveled to my esophagus and was attacking something I was eating.

The strategy was to try an elimination diet. For three months, I would have to completely eliminate wheat, eggs, dairy and legumes, at the end of which we would reintroduce each item and hopefully identify the culprit. She did not write this down for me. There was no handout that explained what a legume was, or how wheat was different from gluten. There was only a big smile and an appointment for a follow-up ninety days later.

I left the allergist’s office in shock and called my mum, who put into words the question echoing in my mind since I started my walk up Park Avenue: but what are you going to eat? As a pescatarian, those four off-limits categories pretty much define my diet, and definitely the majority of my protein intake. Our conversation only emphasized just how much my nutrition relied on legumes.

“Hummus is good protein,” she offered.

“Chickpeas are a legume. Peanuts, too,” I explained.

“Right. Lentil soup?”

“Legume.”

“Forgot that. Oh my god.”

“What?”

“That means you can’t have tofu, soy sauce, miso, seitan…”

I started the diet diligently and a little indulgently, buying protein shakes and granola bars from very hip websites with young, impossibly successful and healthy founders. But once they arrived, I realized many also contained pea protein.

I started cooking barley soups, roasting vegetables around the clock, and beginning each morning with a large bowl of oatmeal—the one part of my diet that hadn’t changed. I also began consuming nuts at a rate that was almost concerning. Milk became almond or coconut milk, flour became almond flour, cream cheese became an almond milk version, and eggs became—well, I won’t lie and say I have any idea what vegan eggs are made of, but I do know what they are not, and that’s dairy.

I began reading ingredient lists, something I have never done despite being a health-conscious, organic shopper who is fairly educated about food.

Eating at home proved fairly easy, although expensive. I was looking forward to my first meal out, and when my dining companion chose a Japanese restaurant, I whooped with joy. Many Asian cuisines were the best for my new diet, but when the server placed a bowl of edamame between us he slid them toward me, offering me the first piece. I took one and held it in my hand, frantically trying to figure out what to do with this thing in my hand that just last week was innocuous. As the length of time became awkward, I ate it. I chose to eat three edamame rather than interrupt the conversation to deliver a very long-winded explanation about why I could barely eat anything.

I realized something significant with those three beans; I really had no problem with the diet from a culinary perspective. I wasn’t tempted by cheese and pizza and pasta. And thank god I could still drink wine, beer (although no wheat beers) and negronis. What I had a problem with was the social side. I had to plan ahead in order to avoid being forced to explain my inflamed esophagus.

Dining is a social act, and for me and many others, it is the only social act. I meet my friends for dinner on the weekends and my business meetings are generally over breakfast. When friends and family come to visit I create an itinerary that reads like a hotel lobby menu: breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, afternoon wine and cheese, early dinner, late dinner, pizza. Breaking bread is not a euphemism for Norman Rockwell-esque scenes. It is the spine of my life; it’s how I connect with my parents.

Breaking bread, pouring wine sloppily across the table, passing around big plates of anything to share—this has always been where I am most comfortable. It is where I can support a great night and shared experience, where conversation is easy, laughter is often, where miscommunications and conflicts have always seemed to work themselves out. A dining room table—my own, the corner of a bar, a white tablecloth, or a couple stools in the kitchen—has always been my home. To complicate that has made the table—once a comfortable place—a difficult and different one.

I also had to ask more of servers than I have ever wanted to—someone who requests multiple changes to dishes and is just generally being “That Person.” At restaurants, in the kitchen and the dining room, dietary restrictions fall into one of two categories: actual allergy (religious or physical), or dietary preference (intolerances, dislikes, or diet-based requests like low-carb). If you are celiac, we will go get a new knife, cutting board, and pair of gloves and cut your gluten-free bread in a different area; we will also let you know if it was made in a bakery where there would have been flour in the air. We keep separate stocks, sauces and purees without dairy, shellfish or nuts. A significant portion of the chef’s menu planning, the cook’s prep time, and the dining room staff’s training goes into being able to safely and deliciously feed our guests with allergies.

When I navigate a menu now, I do so with concern for making trouble for the kitchen over something that is not life threatening for me. Which makes me consider those people in my life who are amending their diets to address their blood pressure, lose weight, or because eggplants make their mouths itch. All these years I thought the most hospitable thing was to give you the chef’s best version of your meal. I am now acutely aware of how many people see a menu as a minefield, falling in the grey area between anaphylactic and low carb. We work in the hospitality profession and yet so many people have trouble talking about how they need to or want to or should eat.

A pet peeve was someone who didn’t understand their allergy or would clearly tell us their restrictions, only to break them shortly after. I now have empathy and understanding for both. When I walked out of that doctor’s office with a mental list of things I couldn’t eat for three months, I also had a responsibility to better understand what those four things were and where they were. Do most people know that peanuts are a legume? Lentils? Chickpeas? Soy?

In week six, halfway through my three months of elimination before I can begin adding in each item and find out which one my body has overly enthusiastically begun to attack for no good reason I have gotten a good routine down at home; I know how to shop, which oat milk I like, which rice and corn pasta taste pretty normal. I know how to cook and what are my new go-to dishes, replacing other meals that used to be standbys and now feel like the epitome of indulgence (bean and cheese burritos! In flour tortillas!). I can steer a group decision about restaurants toward Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, or other cuisines that are most amenable.

I am grateful for this experience, and how it has helped further shape the hospitality professional I am. I truly thought I understood allergies. I lectured on the importance of knowing the correct terms so guests would trust my team with their safety. Someone with a serious allergy puts their health in the hands of the server and cooks at each restaurant and we take this responsibility very seriously. I hadn’t, however, taken the time to think what it’s like for someone else, someone eating for certain reasons that maybe they don’t want to discuss at every meal, in front of their business guest, or all their friends. It is our responsibility to make that conversation easy. To make people feel comfortable asking for their meal a certain way, to address each guest’s specific need. We don’t need to judge, as I now realize I did, if something is important or not based on an anaphylactic reaction.

There may be a difference between the guest who asks a chef make a multi-course meal without any dairy, only to cheat and have the ice cream at dessert. Or the guest who doesn’t communicate their allergy clearly to their server. But who am I to judge? As a hospitality professional working in fine dining restaurants, I can only borrow a line from my wonderful server at the diner when I thanked her profusely for accommodating my requests:

“Of course. I’m here to feed you, honey.”

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