By Chef Michael Weisshaupt, Executive Chef at Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club in Bedminster Township, N.J.
Food allergies have become a big issue in the hospitality industry and something that we take very seriously at my club, Fiddler’s Elbow. Serving guests and members who suffer with food allergies is a daily occurrence for us. On average, we cook for two to three people with allergies during each meal period. Most are simple to handle, but some need more attention. This greatly depends on which food is the enemy.
People with food allergies experience an abnormal response to food triggered by their immune system. Common foods that most often trigger an allergic reaction in adults include fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts. For children, problem foods can include eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and dairy.
Food allergies can be very difficult for those living with the allergy—not to mention their families and caregivers. Food allergies can be life threatening, and avoiding allergens, particularly those frequently used in food preparation, can be challenging. Food allergy prevalence is rising, and scientists are working to better understand why.
So how do we address this issue and minimize the risk? First of all, we make every effort to accommodate those with allergies, which begins with identifying any members and guests who are at risk. Upon joining, each member is asked to supply us with specific information via a “preferences” form when they initially join the club. A list of foods that they are allergic to is added into our point-of-sale system. When a member or guest arrives, this information pops up so servers can link it as they send a ticket to the kitchen. At the time orders are taken, the allergy question is re-posed to ensure nothing is missed, and guests who are not in our system are accounted for.
Even our menus today are geared to inform at risk guests which menu options contain potential triggers. And we make special efforts to offer. For example, gluten free options such as gluten free buns, dinner rolls, soy sauce, wraps, chicken tenders and others.
It is a priority to serve safe food. Again, communication is a two-way street between the member and the culinary staff. For instance, I know a member with hyper-sensitive celiac disease. Even a little dusting of flour can make him sick. Therefore, we take care of him by taking all precautions to avoid even a bread crumb falling onto his plate.
Staff education and training is another key and it starts at the front of the house and how they communicate with the kitchen. Our entire culinary team is trained on this issue under my personal supervision. I have heard stories of line cooks or servers who simply take nuts off of a pre-prepared salad when a customer requests no nuts. This is dangerous and unacceptable, since even the dusting of nuts can be enough for someone who is hyper-sensitive. At my club every team member understands the consequences and knows the elements that make up each and every salad dressing, glaze, and sauce. One that contains a walnut or peanut oil could be a hidden risk. The simplest solution is to offer a substitute.
During pre-shift meetings, servers are informed daily about new menu roll outs, daily seasonal specials and their ingredients and potential allergies are highlighted. We want our members to be happy and to enjoy their food, so we are prepared to offer substitutes. One example is garlic. Not every sauce needs to have garlic. Not all foods are complimented by garlic. It doesn’t need to be in everything. As chefs, we need to realize this. We can always accommodate our guests without negatively impacting the flavor profile.
It is very important that kitchen staff follow proper procedures. This applies to chefs and cooks who may be very creative, yet must always follow pre-approved or standardized recipes. This helps avoid the risk of human error in food preparation. At Fiddler’s, we only move away from the standard recipes with our a la carte daily specials. We have several a la carte dining venues and frequently service large banquets and weddings. Consistency is vital. For example, our sauces are all standardized and we try to limit them to just a few ingredients.
In the kitchen, once we know of an issue we address it with our full attention. And we always make every effort to avoid contamination. This includes washing and sanitizing items such as cutting boards, utensils and of course wearing gloves. Cross contamination is a constant challenge. We are fortunate to have two fryers at our pool so we can also produce gluten free french fries for those who request them.
Obviously, it is imperative to know where the food comes from. This includes purchasing food and ingredients only from reputable and trustworthy vendors. As a matter of policy, I have the highest standards and expect nothing less from my vendors. I also believe in full transparency so that members and guests know exactly where their food is sourced if they are so inclined to ask.
I don’t see an end in sight to this growing issue. Therefore, it is imperative that restaurants make every effort to be aware, educate all involved and ensure clear two-way communication with the guest. At Fiddler’s we take great pride in “wowing” our members and guests, but never at the expense of their health.
Chef Michael Weisshaupt is the highly regarded Executive Chef at Fiddler’s Elbow, a private club in Bedminster, N.J. He has been recognized internationally for his culinary excellence having begun his career in the Black Forest region of Germany where he attended culinary school before an apprenticeship in Switzerland. Weisshaupt has worked at many acclaimed restaurants including in New Jersey, The Manor in West Orange, Bernards Inn in Bernardsville, and Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg. He also has worked at The View atop the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City.