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Faking food allergies?

Posted by Devra First  April 29, 2011 09:48 AM

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"You're not allergic to me! Stop faking it!"
In a post on, New York chef David Chang lists faking food allergies as one of his Top 5 most annoying things customers do. (The other four: 1. Say they're right when they're wrong. 2. Make special food requests. 3. Dine drunk. 4. Be or say they are bloggers.)

I'm sure customers do occasionally claim to have food allergies when they don't, for their own reasons: avoiding things they don't like, minimizing caloric intake, being freaky control freaks, whatever.

But I think it is downright dangerous to be suspicious -- never mind scornful -- of customers who say they have food allergies. These are real, and on the rise, and often life-threatening.

I myself have been a Top 5 annoyance for Chang's team. A few months ago, a friend and I arrived at Momofuku Ko to enjoy our hard-won reservations. As we took our seats, the chef behind the bar (not Chang) asked, "Do you have any food allergies?"

Well, honestly, I'm not sure. I have an issue with skate. I think it's delicious, but when I eat it, my throat gets itchy and I feel somewhat ill. When I need to taste a skate dish in reviewing a restaurant, I take a bite or two and hope for the best. On my own time, I avoid it.

So, when this chef inquired about food allergies, I said, "I'm allergic to skate." Which, I suppose, is faking a food allergy, in that I have never had a dramatic reaction to the ingredient.

He stared at me in silence for a few seconds and then said, not too nicely, "You're joking."

"No. Is it a problem?"

"That's our main course for the night," he said, then turned away.

Was I supposed to leave? It was hard to tell. I would have been more than happy to simply skip that course, as it's a set menu and I was the one bringing the limitation to the table. I wouldn't have gone hungry -- it's a long meal with plenty to eat. But I had clearly given the wrong answer, one he didn't want to hear.

The chefs ultimately prepared the course for me using lobster. My friend eating the skate said my version was better. The protein was a small piece, the course was the last of many, and it wasn't a big deal either way. But they gave us the cold shoulder throughout the meal. Early on, in an attempt to soften them up, we tried to buy them a round of drinks. They turned us down.

It was difficult to enjoy the expensive, hard-to-come-by experience feeling as though I had wronged them. And although I have since visited, and enjoyed, Chang's Ma Peche, I likely won't return to Ko. The evening left us with a sour taste.

In its May issue, the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy published a British survey investigating restaurant staff members' knowledge of food allergies. The participants were owners, chefs, managers, and waiters at restaurants in Brighton, England. Among the findings: 33 percent of respondents had food allergy training and 56 percent were able to name three or more food allergens, but 81 percent said they were confident they could provide a safe meal to someone with food allergies.

Respondents reported many mistaken beliefs about food allergies: 38 percent believed someone having a reaction should drink water to dilute the allergen; 23 percent thought it was safe to consume a small amount of an allergen; 21 percent said removing the allergen from a finished meal would render it safe; 16 percent said cooking food prevents its causing an allergic reaction; and 12 percent were unaware allergy could cause death.

Of course one hopes that restaurant workers in the US are more informed. Want to bet on it? Not if you have a severe food allergy, you don't. (See this terrifying thread on Chowhound about a shrimp dumpling mix-up at Boston restaurant Myers + Chang [no relation]. The restaurant since seems to have fixed the problem by introducing new dumpling shapes to differentiate among varieties. But if this is what happens at an establishment that is thinking about people with food allergies, imagine what can happen at one that isn't.)

Chefs look up to David Chang. It's fine for him to get riled up about bloggers looking for special treatment, pretentious foodies who don't know half of what they think they do, high-maintenance prima donnas, alkies, and anyone else who messes with his vision of exactly what his food should be. But it's dangerous to be dismissive of food allergies, and to send the message to his acolytes that this kind of bluster is cool. It's not.

When someone tells you they're allergic to something, don't even wonder whether they're faking. Take their word for it.

About Dishing

What's cooking in the world of food.


Sheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.

Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.

Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.

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