Before going into the practical details about calling ahead and exercising the appropriate caution as to whether cutting boards have been properly cleaned, I would first like to point out two things that I personally consider very important.
- This is about our own health and that of our family. We are taking responsibility for our health and making our own arrangements. Only we know our personal degree of tolerance and that of our family. This requires a bit of planning and organisation a few days before going to the restaurant, but you can also go whenever you like.
- Many restaurants cannot adapt to the needs of all types of allergies and intolerances. Ordinary restaurants are often not knowledgeable enough to accommodate them. But we can help others to become more informed, or at least more aware. The situation is different for restaurants that identify themselves as allergy friendly or, better yet, have been certified with a credible quality seal. It can be assumed that these restaurants are familiar with many allergies, intolerances and specific diets, and that one can simply go to there on the spur of the moment. But the same rule applies even at these restaurants, and that is: communication is key. It is important to spell out the specific and relevant criteria again once you are there.
Here are my three rules of thumb:
- Listen to your instincts when you go over your situation with the restaurant staff. If you feel uncomfortable, forget it and go to another restaurant. You will get a better sense of this over time.
- Speak as briefly as possible, but in such a way that anyone unfamiliar with your specific needs is able to understand them. You can refer to your diagnosis – for example, ‘cow’s milk allergy’ or ‘coeliac disease’ – but it is much more important to let the staff know which foods are off limits due to your allergy or intolerance. In the end, you are providing this explanation because you can’t rely on the restaurant staff to ask you what your diagnosis entails. This is why you need to speak as assertively as necessary and in the simplest terms possible.
- If the restaurant staff is unable to provide much information about the products they use, don’t order them or ask to see the packaging and read the ingredients list yourself. You know best what you can tolerate. Explain briefly why you want to see the packaging. Always keep in mind that your health is at stake. And it is completely understandable that you don’t want to come to any harm, even if others have to put in a little bit of extra effort to ensure your safety.
Here are my tips for planning a visit to a restaurant you have never eaten at before:
- Choose the restaurant and check out the menu on the Internet to see if there are any appropriate items. For logistical reasons, restaurants are often unable to purchase extra ingredients. But it is usually not a problem to combine existing dishes and side dishes, or to exchange one basic ingredient for another. For example, if there is a main dish on the menu that is served with chips and another with rice, it shouldn’t be a problem to switch the side dishes. This also applies to sauces, salads and all of the various menu items. For dairy allergies, the cream can be left out of soups. The best approach is to come up yourself with ideas for how the dishes can be adapted.
- Once you have chosen the dishes, the first thing you should do is call the restaurant and ask to speak to the person in charge. Explain the situation as briefly as possible (see above tips). In my experience, most restaurants have been helpful in accommodating my needs. Of course there are sometimes misunderstandings and my requests are interpreted as criticism. Even then, these misunderstandings can usually be cleared up. If not, then I know I wouldn’t feel safe at that restaurant anyway. Calling in advance is an important step for a successful restaurant visit, in my opinion. The following issues should be clarified beforehand:
- If contamination is an issue (by nuts, gluten, etc.), it is easiest to bring this up first. For severe allergies and coeliac disease, there should be no contamination going on in the kitchen. etc.)
- In the kitchen, used cutting boards carry a high risk of contamination if they are not thoroughly cleaned after coming into contact with each food. This also applies to dishes, knives, bowls, pots and pans, etc. This should be mentioned in advance.
- If something is baked, the subject of contamination in the oven needs to be discussed.
- This is actually self-evident, but it doesn’t hurt to mention in a friendly way that the foods need to be cooked in separate pots and pans. It could happen that gluten-free pasta ends up in a separate strainer but was cooked in the same water as gluten-containing pasta, or that both types of pasta were stirred with the same spoon.
- Now confirm with the person in charge that the dishes can be put together as per your request.
- Has everything been discussed to your satisfaction? If so, you can now send an email to the restaurant, indicating the date and time of your reservation, write the menu and a short, concise summary of all of the relevant points that were discussed (such as salad without croutons, if gluten is an issue – standard procedures are followed in a kitchen and the croutons can wind up on the salad faster than you think ? ). This is all about your health, and this procedure shows the restaurant staff how important it is and also makes it easier for them. Ask the restaurant to confirm that they have received your email.
Here are my guidelines for an unplanned restaurant visit:
- In general, the above-mentioned points apply but you do the preparation on the spot, right at the Restaurant.
- It is recommended that when you go in, you should briefly say that you would like to find out a few things because you have allergies. Just ask whom you should speak to about it.
- Then proceed as described above, but carry out the discussion in person. More often than not, you will end up right in the kitchen speaking with the chef.
After the meal:
Were you satisfied with your experience? Let the staff know right away and thank them for accommodating you. This will encourage the team to address the special needs of other customers with allergies.
Perhaps things did not go as well as you had hoped. If so, you should also inform the staff. But be specific about what they need to do differently.
We can all do our part to help restaurants become more knowledgeable about how to serve people with allergies. Food service training rarely includes instruction on how to handle allergies and dietary restrictions.
Did you know? Since 2006, ECARF has been certifying allergy-friendly hotels, restaurants, fast food restaurants and staff restaurants that are able to demonstrate that they have adapted to the needs of allergy sufferers. The certification criteria have been developed by an international, independent advisory board and tested under everyday conditions. You can read more about the criteria here.