Cooking with Mise en Place that Can Kill You
As Carla Pellegrino prepared to cook her Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner while competing on Throwdown with Bobby Flay, she brought 100-year-old family recipes from the Rao’s restaurants in New York and Las Vegas, along with something equally important: an Epi-Pen. Pellegrino has a life-threatening allergy to shellfish. But although she could not taste the lobster Fra Diavolo she was preparing, she was confident: she cooked professionally for 15 years before developing her allergy, knew how the dish should taste, and how to “eyeball” her seasonings. She beat Flay without tasting a bite.
With the meteoric rise in food allergies—there was a 50 percent increase in food allergies among children from 1997 to 2011—chefs like Pellegrino have become skilled at accommodating diners with allergies. But diners are not the only ones affected by this growing epidemic; restaurant cooks are diagnosed with food allergies with alarming frequency. What happens when the food you work with every day makes you sick, or even worse, threatens your life?
There are chefs with food allergies in every segment of the hospitality industry. And since you can develop a food allergy at any age, many of these chefs were blind-sided by diagnoses at the height of their career. Pellegrino developed her shellfish allergy at age 33, while working as the executive chef at New York City’s Baldoria. It started innocuously; she became sick one day after eating an oyster. She thought it was food poisoning, but a month later, the same thing happened again, and this time, her throat closed up and she went into shock. Pellegrino was taken to the emergency room and given epinephrine.
After she recovered, Pellegrino followed up with an allergist who diagnosed her with a severe allergy to shellfish, which was her favorite food. She asked the doctor how to fix the problem and was told there was no treatment or cure. Her doctor advised her to find a new career, but for Pellegrino, that was not an option. “I had a restaurant—I didn’t know how to do anything else,” she says.
For the next few years, she continued to cook the shellfish dishes for which she was known, but now with extra precautions. She wore gloves when she handled shellfish and stocked multiple Epi-Pens in the kitchen. Despite these safeguards, she had several allergic reactions—once from attempting to taste (but not swallow) a dish containing shellfish, and other times from cross-contamination and from inhaling the steam when her staff prepared shrimp.
Seven years ago, however, Pellegrino found an allergist who would give her monthly shots that wouldn’t cure her allergy, but could reduce its severity. This treatment is very costly (she estimates it costs tens of thousands of dollars a year), and most insurance companies do not cover the cost. But for Pellegrino, it has been worth it. Even though she still cannot eat shellfish, the shots have allowed her to breathe easier, literally, when there is shellfish in her kitchen, and she can even handle it now without wearing gloves.
What could have caused Pellegrino, now the chef-owner of Bratalian in Las Vegas, to develop such a severe allergy as an adult? Doctors do not have a definitive answer, but some evidence suggests that overexposure to a common allergen like shellfish can lead to an allergy. Pellegrino, who had environmental allergies as a child, thinks her allergy is the result of her immune system overreacting to years of eating shellfish. Scott Riccio, senior vice president of education and advocacy for the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) says that the nonprofit is investing money and resources to researching the connection between prolonged exposure to a food and developing an allergy. This research that could have important implications for the restaurant industry.
Other chefs, however, have lived their whole lives with food allergies, and chose a culinary career nonetheless. Todd Somma, former chef of Denver’s Hop Alley (which features regional Chinese cuisine) falls into that category. Despite his lifelong peanut allergy, he gravitated toward a cuisine in which peanuts are an important ingredient. But Somma insists that he doesn’t feel limited by his allergy. “Peanuts don’t always have to be [part of Chinese cooking,” he says. “I’ve never had anyone complain that there weren’t enough peanuts on the menu.” While Hop Alley always had at least one dish with peanuts on its menu, Somma found that he could substitute cashews or almonds in most other dishes without any negative feedback from his customers. Still, he keeps up his guard while prepping and tasting dishes. “If you’re working with food and some of it can kill you, you better be on your toes at all times,” he says.
Whatever age they were when they learned about their food allergy, chefs admit that it is a handicap when working in a professional kitchen. The biggest issue? Not being able to taste the food that they are preparing. Most rely on their colleagues to taste for them. Others trust their gut. Those with less severe allergies can handle and prepare the offending food so long as they do not taste it. But for a young chef applying for a first job out of culinary school, that distinction may not be something they want to have to explain to a potential employer.
“If you’re working with food and some of it can kill you, you better be on your toes at all times,”—Todd Somma
For some cooks, even being around the allergen is enough to cause a reaction. When Pellegrino was first diagnosed with her allergy, she would react simply from inhaling the steam when her staff prepared shrimp. Since then, she insists on working in an open kitchen—but she was at a stage of her career when she could do that. For those lower on the totem pole, without that kind of control, that may not be an option.
So why do some chefs insist on preparing the food that they are allergic to? Pellegrino says that she doesn't want her problem to become an issue for her customers. Rebecca Hassell, the owner of Empress Chef Services in Washington, D.C., admits she was tempted to leave her allergen, fish, off of her menus during her years as a restaurant chef, but customers demanded it: “People want to eat fish at restaurants because they are intimidated to prepare it at home,” Hassell points out. “Leaving it off would have been hard.”
In culinary school, Hassell, who developed her allergy as a teenager, cleaned fish with gloves on, avoiding tasting it, and learned to cook it properly by relying on touch and visual cues. When she began working, she did not even mention her allergy to employees. “Line cooks aren’t supposed to eat the expensive fish anyway,” she jokes. Today, Hassell guest-chefs at a Japanese bed-and-breakfast in northern Virginia and regularly prepares fish as part of a traditional Japanese breakfast. She relies on her staff to taste for seasoning.
Zoe Schor has taken a different approach. Schor has a nut allergy and her new restaurant, Split Rail in Chicago, is completely nut-free. While Schor worked with nuts without incident at her previous restaurants, she wanted Split Rail to be a “breath of fresh air” for diners with allergies. Schor says that when she tells diners with allergies that she herself has a nut allergy, she can sense their relief at knowing that the kitchen will take their concerns seriously.
Schor’s approach begs the question: are there advantages to having food allergies for a chef? Chefs with allergies understand firsthand just how serious food allergies are. Somma worries about cross-contamination with peanuts when he dines out, so he is especially careful to prevent it in his own kitchen. And certainly, having allergies themselves can make chefs more compassionate towards diners with allergies and even other kinds of dietary restrictions. Hassell says that she has been made to feel unwelcome as a diner because of her allergies; she does not want any of her customers to experience that feeling. And Schor says she has “zero tolerance” for line cooks who complain about guest requests, allergy-related or otherwise, in her kitchen.
There may also be business opportunities for chefs with allergies: Schor is hoping that by making her new restaurant especially friendly to diners with allergies, she will tap into an underserved market.
Another possible advantage? Limitations inspire creativity. At Schor’s nut-free restaurant, the bartender can’t use orgeat, the almond syrup, in cocktails, so her general manager created a similar syrup using oats. Similarly, with a stone fruit allergy that includes avocados, Cleetus Friedman, executive chef of Chicago’s Theater on the Lake, thought he was done eating guacamole. One day while working at the restaurant The Fountainhead, he decided to roast some parsnips and substitute them for avocado in a guacamole-like spread. The result was so delicious that Friedman added the parsnip guacamole to the menu, where it became one of the most popular dishes.
As much as he likes his parsnip guacamole (recipe), Friedman says he misses the fruits and vegetables he can no longer eat. However, he refuses to let allergies limit his approach to food. When he wants to work with stone fruits, he does, such as a recent experiment with smoked peach barbecue sauce. Friedman will develop the recipe, prepare the dish and describe the goal to trusted stuff. “I tell them, ‘This is what I am going for. Taste it. Give me your thoughts.’” But is he ever tempted to try it himself? Not anymore. “There have been plenty of times I ignored my allergies to taste something,” Friedman admits. “It’s not worth it.”
While chefs with food allergies may still be somewhat unusual today, that is likely to change. One in thirteen children in the U.S. has a food allergy. The generation of children for whom allergies are so prevalent is just beginning to enter college. It is inevitable that some of these young people will, like Somma or Hassell, choose a culinary career in spite of their allergies.
As well they should, says Friedman. “An allergy is somewhat of an handicap,” he admits. “But it shouldn’t stop you from doing anything except eating [the food you are allergic to.]” Schor thinks having more chefs with allergies can only benefit the industry: “If you get into this industry with restrictions, you will be that much more compassionate,” she notes. “Being aware of your own weakness creates empathy for others.” And isn’t that what hospitality is about?