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Restaurants explore ways to serve patrons with nut allergies

Restaurants are devising new procedures to accommodate diners with food allergies as awareness of those sensitivities grows.

Using a combination of strategic menu development, careful handling of ingredients and communication with diners, restaurants are finding ways to keep customers safe while boosting business and building reputations as leaders on health and food-safety issues.

More than 12 million Americans experience food allergies, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, a nonprofit organization based in Fairfax, Va. And while there remains some debate about whether these allergies are on the rise, customers are nonetheless scrutinizing their meals more carefully.

Nuts, which can trigger allergic reactions in more than 3 million Americans, according to FAAN, is one key area of focus for chefs.

When the Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based Cheesecake Factory chain was developing its Carlton salad, for example, Bob Okura, the chain’s vice president of culinary development, knew that some guests would be sensitive to the dish’s toasted, glazed pecans. But there was just no substitute for the taste and texture of the salad’s nuts, he said, so he developed a specific procedure for the dish, to make it safe for all patrons.

The chain now stores “individually proportioned pecans in sealed containers,” Okura said. The salad — which is made with romaine, arugula, cranberries, pears, feta cheese, grilled chicken, citrus-honey vinaigrette and pecans added at the last minute — is about to be rolled out at each of the chains 148 locations. It will cost $11.95.

Okura said the chain was not concerned about any additional operational costs created by the added step. 

“We don’t consider [that],” Okura said, “because it is the right thing to do.”

Flavor and flexibility

Philippe Massoud, executive chef and owner of Ilili restaurant in Manhattan, said if diners give enough advance notice, he can make almost any dish hypoallergenic, even if it normally contains nuts. He also gives customers planning private parties the option to remove all nuts from the menu. About 20 percent of the dishes on Ilili’s Lebanese-inspired menu contain nuts.

That flexibility is necessary, he said, because about 20 percent of his diners report to have allergies. It’s a chunk of business that he said he could lose if he didn’t cater to their needs. 

“It is to the benefit of the business,” Massoud said. “Allergies seem to be going through the roof. And we’re in the hospitality business.” 

For Maggie Leung, the new executive pastry chef at Masa’s Restaurant in San Francisco, creating a safe experience means carefully selecting which varieties of nuts she uses.

“I think that [peanuts are] the biggest offender and the most deadly,” she said. “There are so many nuts in the world, so I stay clear of peanuts.”

Peanuts are not true nut, but legumes, so many people who are allergic to them are not allergic to tree nuts, a group that includes walnuts, almonds and pistachios, among others.

Leung says she’s a big fan of nuts in general and incorporates them in many of her desserts.

Her menu also includes some dishes that just can’t be made nutless, such as the chocolate-caramel-walnut tart with fleur de sel, chocolate-orange sauce, chocolate-walnut strudel and earl gray ice cream. The cake itself is baked with the nuts in it. Her desserts are one or more of the three- to seven-course menus priced between $69 and $129 a person at Masa’s.

In cases where nuts cannot be removed, she steers guests to such nut-free items as the strawberry “pain perdu” with pink peppercorn meringues, Tahitian vanilla-scented strawberries and rose-geranium crème anglaise.

To further ensure that there is no cross-contamination when serving someone with a potentially fatal allergy, she cleans off the plate and washes the already clean tools used for plating.

Allergies in the spotlight

Meanwhile, some national chains are taking steps to address allergic reactions to other common trigger foods, including gluten and shellfish. 

The nearly 700-unit Red Lobster chain is creating an “allergen” menu, which is currently being tested in select markets. It is scheduled to be available nationwide this fall. Red Lobster is a division of Darden Restaurants Inc., which rolled out a gluten-free menu two years ago at its Olive Garden chain. 

Carrol Symank, partner and vice president of food safety and training at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc. in Chicago, said identifying allergens directly on the menu is a good idea, as he has noticed a decrease in consumers notifying his staff about their food allergies. So it may be best if diners get allergy information they need without making a public statement.

Currently Lettuce menus include a request “encouraging” guests to notify servers of any food allergies. But Symank recalls two incidences at the more than 80 locations and 40 concepts he oversees where guests failed to tell staff of their sensitivities, ate what they thought didn’t contain allergens and wound up heading to emergency rooms. 

When made aware of an allergy, though, Lettuce servers have an “alert” button to push on the POS computer system, and a notification of the issue is printed on the ticket. Then they handwrite a special order form on bright pink or green fluorescent paper indicating what the allergy is, the desired food and where the person is seated. 

This paper is handed to the chef who determines how to handle the issue along with a manager, who is responsible for approaching the table and signing the brightly colored order sheet before the food is delivered.

Lettuce’s system was lauded in the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe food
handling materials, Symank said.

Rich Vellante, executive vice president of operations and executive chef of the Boston-based Legal Sea Foods, said the chain’s gluten-free menu that is available at all 31 locations has received positive feedback from guests and portrays a safe and caring image. To ensure safety of guests, Vellante requires that managers deliver all dishes to guests with food allergies. 

“We wanted to make sure there were checks and balances,” in the process of serving those diners, he said. “It makes a statement to the guest that says, ‘We care about this.”’

Contact Pamela Parseghian at [email protected]

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