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You are here: Home Features  Allergies



t’s a Saturday night and a four top sits down at your restaurant. Between them, they’ve got a peanut allergy, lactose intolerance and celiac disease. Your kitchen is in the middle of the dinner rush, and your waitstaff are overextended. Is your restaurant prepared to accommodate these diners?

“It’s not a rare thing – chances are that there’s someone in the dining room daily with an allergy,” says Dr. Stuart Carr, president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. “It’s a common problem that’s only becoming more common.”

The consequences of ignoring an allergy or intolerance can be severe, as a Travelodge in Melfort, Saskatchewan discovered last June when a waitress ignored a customer’s nut allergy and served him caramel apple cheesecake without checking the ingredients. A court ruling fined the restaurant $25,000, and they also had to pay the customer’s hospital bills when he was admitted for anaphylactic shock. And a chef at New York’s Tavern on the Green enraged diners when he posted on Facebook last year that he reportedly fed celiac diners pasta containing gluten because he thought that the diners were lying.

Although these cases can be attributed in part to an inhospitable lapse in the hospitality business, even the most conscientious of operators can be a bit nervous about liability and allergies.

Over the last 10 years or so, there’s been an increase in people with allergies and sensitivities in restaurants, says Chris McDonald, chef/partner of Cava Restaurant in Toronto. “I’d say that this has increased more than their understanding of what the kitchen has to do to accommodate these special requests, especially without notice. We take these things very seriously, and at times this will backfire on us, when we say that they can’t have anything from the grill if it’s a shellfish allergy, or that the deep fryer was used for food containing gluten, and the guest doesn’t always quite understand that.”

Zero8 bars priority allergens from entering the building.
“Restaurateurs now understand that food allergies and gluten-free dining is a new reality,” says Brian Duffy, sales manager at HACO SWISS/Girard’s Dressings Canada, which produces a line of allergen-free products. “Before, we only saw one or two dishes on a menu that offered gluten-free or allergy-conscious dishes. Today, menus have gluten/allergy conscious sections.”

With the growth of allergy conscious and gluten free options in restaurants, the consumer now has the choice of leaving a restaurant where their concerns are not assuaged. “It is so important that employees are aware of the ingredients used in each dish,” says Duffy. “My son has food allergies including peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, soy and kiwi. We are extremely careful to ask the right questions when we dine out.  If we do not feel comfortable, we are always prepared to leave and go elsewhere.”

Terrine and rillette duo from Zero8.
When it comes to allergy and gluten free dining, sometimes a straightforward approach is best to win the customer’s trust. “Quite often, chefs are trying to make a splendid meal, but the allergic customer is sometimes looking for simplicity,” says Dominique Dion, president of Zero8 Food. “Don’t add risk for the sake of making something spectacular. The customer will be happier with the simple, safe meal than one they don’t trust.”

Montreal-based Zero8 restaurant operates on the unique concept of examining its supply chain to ensure that the top eight priority allergens (wheat, or other
Churros and chocolate from Zero8.
grains containing gluten, fish, seafood, milk, lactose or casein, eggs, soy, peanuts, nuts, and sesame) don’t even make it into the kitchen. The restaurant uses lab testing to ensure suppliers’ products meet their allergen-free standards, as well as visiting the plants themselves and looking at the processes.

The idea came about five years ago when Dion became gluten intolerant. “All of a sudden, it became a nightmare to go out to a restaurant to eat,” he says. Dion hopes to expand the concept through franchising to every major Canadian city, plus some U.S. presence, in five years. “There’s definitely a growing market in allergen-free and gluten-free dining,” says Dion, who estimates that the 80-seat restaurant (with another 25 seats on the terrace) has served more than 120,000 meals since it opened three and a half years ago. “But it’s something very hard to do right.”

In order to keep the kitchen and front of house working in tandem when it comes to the allergy conscious diner, systems and checkpoints are key. Restaurant News talked to chefs in different areas (such as small plates, banquets, and catering), manufacturers, dieticians and allergists to explore the best ways to incorporate these systems into your service without it grinding to a halt during a busy rush period.

Sometimes simple is best for allergen conscious diners, like this beef with ratatouille dish from Zero8.
Checks and


Although eight of the top allergens are eliminated from the Zero8 kitchen, customers will still come in with additional allergy requests.  “It’s a matter of making sure that every single piece of communication in the serving process is clear and has double checks,” says Dion. At Zero8, the manager, server, expediter and kitchen staff will know which table has the allergen, and one cook is dedicated to the preparation of that meal.

When considering how to approach the allergy-restricted meal, the style of service is an important factor. Although food is typically labelled in a catering kitchen, Nicole Rumball, executive chef at All the Best Fine Food, who handles the store’s catering business, stresses that it’s important to mark the allergen-restriction right away with the initial order, and send restricted items in a separate container for customer peace of mind. “Always aim towards the more severe end of the spectrum,” she says.

However, it’s necessary to find a balance and try to make as many people happy as possible, says Rumball. In a meal that will consist of passed appetizers, for example, if there are a couple of allergy-conscious diners, it may be easier to prepare everything as safe for that restriction. If it’s a sit down dinner, on the other hand, it might be easier to keep the protein similar and vary the side dishes so that people feel special, but not left out. For example, if diners order a vegetable galette, says Rumball, a vegetable terrine can be made gluten free and have a similar flavour profile.

 “Try to match the alternative meal to the other offerings, such as a roasted chicken rather than a panko-crusted one, so that people don’t feel that they’re an inconvenience,” says Kevin Prendergast, executive chef of Hilton Toronto, who is seeing allergen-conscious and gluten-free dining become more popular in banquet scenarios.

“For banquets, there are sometimes a lot of restrictions, so we get the catering manager to call the client and ask what they would like. It’s so much easier to make the guest what they want rather than trying to eliminate items from what you cook,” says Prendergast.

Since banqueting information comes in a week in advance, there is more possibility for pre-planning. A traditional banqueting event order at the Hilton Toronto has a menu with banquet notes that list each person by name and their dietary restriction. It also allows the kitchen to decide whether to make the entire menu allergen free or prepare separate meals for certain diners.

“If it’s a component like garlic, we decide whether it would impact the group as a whole to omit it. I’d rather just make one or two dishes rather than compromise the taste of the dish,” says Prendergast.

The banquet event order is then broken down into kitchen departments, with each component’s production notes on each section’s board for the different preparations. “We want each sub department or station chef singing from the same song sheet,” says Prendergast. There’s also interaction between the chef on duty and the banquet manager to verify the list in a prefunction meeting. A card system is used when the food comes up to the pass with a colour code for each restriction, and the allergy restricted dish is then confirmed again by front of house staff when the guest sits down.

The tuna poke dish from Blue Ginger does not have any gluten-containing ingredients, and a rice cake is pan seared rather than deep fried to avoid cross contamination. Photo by Emily Sterne.
At Cava, because of the small sharing plates style of food, the kitchen tends to work around dietary restrictions one table at a time, says McDonald. If one person is allergic to a component of the dish, it’s removed from the whole table unless there is a guest at the table that vehemently objects.

Ming Tsai’s Wellesley, MA-based restaurant Blue Ginger has won acclaim for its kitchen practices in allergen-free cooking (Tsai is also a vocal advocate of allergic legislation in Massachusetts.) Blue Ginger’s system involves seven checkpoints of the allergen, all the way from the front of house staff checking the “allergy bible” before entering the order, to the runner announcing the allergen again at the table when presenting the plate. Expediters and chefs also initial the ticket during the plate’s progression to the window. “When you introduce this, it’s all in the mindset and attitude to make it work,” says Tsai. “If you approach it as a burden, no one’s going to do it either. It’s three to four minutes added on in total, most of which lies with the front of house.”

Ming Tsai's miso-sake marinated butterfish does not contain dairy, eggs, peanuts or tree nuts.
Due to the volume of information available for allergens, it’s best to have someone take charge. “When it comes to subjects like top priority allergens, anaphylaxis and other information from the government of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, designate someone in the company that’s responsible for this type of information,” says food and nutrition consultant Rosie Maclean, president of Maclean Food Consulting Inc. “Like HAACP, have someone in charge in each unit to have access to this information, and have one person that is in charge of keeping a central database with this information and is capable of interpreting it as needed.”

Tools of the trade

When it comes to preparing food for an allergy-conscious or gluten-free diner, cleanliness and separation in the kitchen are crucial. It doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated, however.

“When cooks prep raw chicken, they know what they have to do to clean up – it’s a no brainer,” says Tsai. “It’s the exact same mentality for prepping for allergies: clean your utensils, your board, your hands, etc.”

Some common kitchen equipment can be trouble areas for allergens, says Dion. “Take a look at your dishwashing machine. As long as it washes properly, it’s fine, but if not, how do you know that it’s removing allergens effectively?”

Specialized items, such as woks, are never washed through a dishwasher and thus have a potential for molecules of allergens such as shrimp to remain after cleaning. Tsai recommends a wok kept specifically for use without shellfish, or when preparing allergen restricted meals to use a separate sauté pan that’s been through the dishwasher.

The grill can also pose problems, as proteins will linger for a long time. “Don’t assume time is a safe way to remove allergens. Gluten protein can stay in flour, which has a shelf life of years,” says Dion.

Also be sure to have separate media for cooking allergen- or gluten-free food. Don’t reuse cooking oil or water for preparing dietary restricted meals.

Identify your ingredients

Preparation is a crucial component of a system to deal with allergy- and gluten-restricted diners, and a little consideration when menu planning and sourcing ingredients can prevent headaches down the line.

“Allergy-restricted dining is a day-to-day request. As chefs, we need to remember this when we write our menus,” says Hamid Salimian, executive chef at Vancouver’s Diva at the Met.

“It’s up to the chef to plan ahead,” says Tsai. “Once you break your dish down by component, you’ve got a lot more control.” Tsai recommends using allergen components to a dish as a garnish. “Don’t marinate meat in peanut oils, use it as a sauce,” he says. This maintains the flavour profile for regular preparations and is easily left out for allergen-free diners.

When looking for allergens, look to items that may not be as obvious, such as baked goods, spices or sauces, says Maclean. “Restaurateurs need to increase their knowledge of items that they can purchase that go across these allergy restriction requirements. All that information is out there from the manufacturer/supplier, just ask them for it.” Be aware, however, that often a manufacturer must trade one allergen for another in terms of production. “Trying to replace one allergen often means adding another one. Removing dairy, for example, will often require adding soy,” says Marthe St-Cerny, director of research and development at Laval-based
Produits Alimentaires Berthelet Inc. Texture and taste also pose problems in substitutions. Sometimes, when it comes to producing dietary restricted food, texture can be a challenge, says Rumball. “If you want to have hors d’oeuvres that have something crunchy without flour, you have to think about alternatives, and sometimes that’s not easy with time constraints.”

In your preparation for these types of diners, taking a critical look at your mise en place can be helpful. “When an allergy-restricted request comes in and you have to run to the walk-in for ingredients, you’ve lost a lot of time—something you can’t afford to do on a busy Saturday night,” says Tsai. “Prep those ingredients in advance and have those components ready to go – pre-blanched, chopped, and part of your station – so that it doesn’t become a burden during service.”

Also consider your available storage. When it comes to kitchen prep for allergy-conscious or gluten-free requests, space may play a factor, says Salimian. “I think in some cases it comes down to the space of keeping extra prep for the gluten-free covers that restaurants might do.”

Dealing with the customer

With a small kitchen and a heavy shellfish component to the 40-item menu, McDonald says that allergy accommodations without warning can create problems, especially during a busy dinner rush. “A customer that springs an allergy on the kitchen last minute can compromise their own and possibly other diners’ meals, because they’re taking the kitchen’s attention away.” He emphasizes the need to bring the whole team into the discussion of allergies in an afternoon meeting pre-service, and also educating front of house staff. “Our waiters are very well trained to know what’s in every dish,” he says.

“When someone calls with food allergies, hear them out – if they’re calling well in advance, pick a slow time and ask them to stop in and discuss,” says Gwen Smith, editor of Allergic Living magazine, who has soy, shellfish, peanut and other allergies.

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“Ask them to tell you specifically what they’re trying to avoid if they start getting too long-winded,” she says.  

McDonald also recommends making use of the restaurant’s reservation system and sites such as OpenTable to log allergies along with other preferences for regular guests, such as one customer to Cava who has a life-threatening nut allergy. This ensures that different shifts of kitchen staff will all have access to that information.

When it comes to an allergy, the first responsibility is the diner’s to explain the problem, the second is the server’s to translate to the kitchen and the third is the kitchen’s to execute, says Niels Kjeldsen, executive chef and director of culinary of Prime Restaurants. In some restaurants in the Casey’s chain, they use separate gluten-free deep fryers, and each item is marked with allergy or gluten stickers at the pass.

Casey's Shrimp Pad Thai, which is featured in its gluten-free menu in some of its locations.
“It’s the individual person’s responsibility to make sure that they don’t eat something that upsets them,” says Maclean. “But restaurants need to be able to publish this information and have all staff have access to it.  It’s in their best interest to do this – down the road, more and more people are going to be asking about this, and they should be able to provide this information.”

Keeping your front of house staff in the loop is crucial, says Prendergast. Have tastings and give them a description of each of the components, and keep a binder at the cooks’ station so that both front and back of house have access to that information if they’re in a rush.

“The biggest thing is the training – the staff has to understand the gravity if they don’t do it,” says Kjeldsen. “It has to be policed by management, because you can’t say one thing and not deliver.”

“The servers need to know their menu syllabus breakdown,” says Salimian. Be sure that they can speak knowledgeably about items on your menu, and clarify things with hidden ingredients, such as marinades, salad dressings and desserts. And make sure they’re not pushing dessert on allergic people, especially those with nut or peanut allergies if desserts are coming from outside the restaurant, says Smith.

Also train your staff to be aware that allergy restrictions are sometimes sensitive topics. “At a business lunch or work situation, oftentimes a diner who brings up an allergy suddenly becomes the topic of discussion for the whole table, and sometimes it can be perceived as a weakness if a business person is trying to close a deal with a client,” says Smith. Teach your front of house staff that a long discussion of allergies may not be appropriate in front of all guests, and may be better done away from the table. “But always err on the side of asking the question,” says Smith.

Sometimes, the chef needs to go out to the dining room as well. “If you go out there and tell them how you’ll alter the dish, nine times out of 10, they’ll accept it. It’s easier to go out and talk to the diner than go back and forth with front of house,” says Prendergast.

Instead of waiting for the customer to request it, try putting a dish on your menu that will satisfy some or all requirements of the priority allergens, advises Prendergast. If the budget allows, perhaps get special menus printed for families with allergy conscious diners, especially small children, that list special allergens and/or items that do not contain some or all of the top priority allergens, suggests Carr.

“These menus would add a comfort level for the customer, and the market will reward the restaurants that provide this level of service,” he says.

And consider providing this information online as well, says Smith, who says allergic diners often use a restaurant’s website to determine whether the menu will be appropriate. Some sites, such as, list restaurants by willingness to comply with allergies.

Also, consider being flexible with food brought in for small children if the restaurant cannot accommodate an allergy, advises Carr. “Sometimes multiple allergies, especially if they’re to staple foods, can be beyond a restaurant’s comfort zone. If you can’t accommodate, be upfront about it.”

At the end of the day, the allergy- and gluten-conscious market is one that is only growing, and making accommodations for this market can reap rich rewards for the restaurateur. Don’t be afraid of cooking for this audience, advises Rumball. “It’s important to see it as an exciting challenge rather than an annoyance,” she says.

Keep in mind that this market also extends beyond the diner with food restrictions. Rather than putting big lights around something saying it’s gluten free, it can just be delicious, says Elena Carson, catering sales manager at All The Best Fine Foods. She advises that making the allergy restriction a seamless part of the process can expand the market for allergen-free or gluten-free dishes to other diners.

On the manufacturing side, there’s also value in catering to this market. “For the food manufacturer, the gluten-free trend is there to stay,” says Béatrice Martin, corporate dietitian at Berthelet Inc. “And the foodservice operators, on the restaurant side, are looking at food products which have the least allergens as part of their purchasing criteria. So there is an added value for a manufacturer to offer as many as possible allergen-free products.”

For the operator, the key is keeping the business of the allergy conscious diner, as well as their dining companions. “The thing about allergy- conscious diners is that they seldom go out alone,” says Kjeldsen. “We’re good business people – we cater to their needs so that the other six or seven people are still coming in the door with them.”

Tsai estimates that the system at Blue Ginger has generated around 15 to 20 per cent more business to the restaurant. “Although it takes extra time or care, it’s worth it,” he says. “When a four top’s going out to dinner and one person has an allergy, I guarantee that they’re making the decision as to where they’re eating. Kids also drive a lot of restaurant decisions, especially ones with allergies. There’s a good business reason to be doing this.”

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