So You Want To Be A Waiter

The best book on waiting tables that you have never read – yet

On allergies Part 2

In part one, we covered allergies and the waiter.

Allergies usually aren’t covered during training and the waiter usually only thinks about it when someone mentions that they’re allergic to something.  Not liking to be taken out of our comfort zones, sometimes it seems like an inconvenience to deal with it. After all, we’re juggling tables, trying to get greets, having the restaurant go down in flames around us and, according to Murphy’s Law, this is exactly when someone with an allergy issue is going to speak up. It can’t be the first table of the night; it’s got to be a 7:30 on a Saturday night.

So, what’a poor waiter to do?

Well, first thing that they can do is educate themselves about allergies. Find out the most egregious allergies – the ones that can cause a guest’s head to explode. You don’t want to have to wipe brains off of the walls, after all. Start with triage. Realize that shellfish and peanut allergies are the ones that seem to have the most serious consequences. Therefore, you need to know what can trigger these allergies. Obviously, you’ve not going to serve a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to someone who says that they have a peanut allergy. But what about that “Thai salad” with the “Thai Dressing”? Did you know that peanut oil is part of the dressing? How about the fact that the chef uses peanut oil to fry his polenta cake that comes with the lollipop lamb chop dish? Did you know that they fry the french fries in the same oil as the fried prawns? Or that the great Thai Tom Yum soup that’s so popular has shrimp paste in the curry paste?

In some restaurants, the waiter is required to know every ingredient in every dish. If you do, then you’re a step ahead. However, just knowing the ingredients isn’t enough. You’ve got to flip through your mental rolodex on the spot and this can be difficult when you’re in the middle of the rush. So, a quicker, more efficient way is to simply triage. Find out which dishes trigger those two really bad allergies and then associate them in your mind with a red flag.

This works for new waiters as well, especially those who are already overwhelmed with a mass of information that they have to memorize.

Don’t guess about this stuff. If you aren’t absolutely sure, check with the Chef. There could be something lurking that you’ve forgotten about. Fortunately, peanut oil is being used less and less in restaurants because of these issues (well, not fortunately from a culinary standpoint because good peanut oil is great for cooking with).

And, even though you know all of the ingredients, you might not know how food is handled behind the line. So, unless you absolutely know that they won’t be using the same cutting board for all seafood, or that shellfish is deep fried separately, it might be a good thing to verify with the Chef because, if they Chef or head kitchen person knows about the issue, they can take particular care in the cooking of the food. Will this make you popular with your Chef? Of course not. But he or she doesn’t want someone to die from their cooking either. It’s bad for business. I’d go so far as to say that, even if you know everything about ingredients and food handling in your kitchen, you still need to notify head kitchen person when you have a guest with an allergy so that they can assure food safety. Not only is it simply common sense, you should cover your ass.

Also, it’s good to know which dishes can be altered to assure safety. This is going the extra mile, but it’s worth it.

Every waiter should know the hidden time bombs lurking in their kitchens, even if it’s something as mundane as garlic, because people are allergic to just about everything under the sun. How do you do this? Simply make sure that you know your ingredients even if you aren’t compelled to know all of them as a job requirement.

According to The Daily Mail, this Australian lady is allergic to water, believe it or not:

5 responses to “On allergies Part 2

  1. Pingback: What are the Dog Allergies Symptoms? | Allergies Update | Blog Like A Dog

  2. vandervecken January 18, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    narrowing it down to the two allergies and knowing the menu are great advice. coming up with “hidden gotchas” for an allergy table and steering them to something else/advising changes will also vastly improve your tip! people with serious dietary restrictions appreciate not being treated like lepers.

  3. Pingback: So You Want to Be a Waiter – on Allergies, pt. 2 « World (and Lunar) Domination

  4. ellieg January 28, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks for writing this–it warms my allergic heart a little to know that waiters are thinking about this stuff.

    Just one thing–you say that shellfish and peanut allergies are the most dangerous, with the implication that one should pay more attention to them. This may be true in general… but really has no bearing on an individual customer. If someone says they’re allergic to something, you really have to trust that it’s serious unless they say otherwise. I have a sunflower seed allergy that’s absolutely life-threatening–and yet I’ve had waiters time and again hear “sesame” because it’s a more commonly dangerous food.

    • teleburst January 28, 2010 at 1:20 pm

      That’s a good point.

      A good waiter has to listen closely at all times, but especially when there’s an allergy issue involved.

      It’s important to know that there are things that can really mess up a person. Sunflower seeds are something that I was unaware of, and it’s important because sunflower oil is sometimes (but rarely) used in cooking. This would be something that most waiters would probably need to check with the Chef about, since it isn’t common knowledge that sunflower seeds are a problem for some people. It’s doubtful that, even if you knew every ingredient on your menu, that you would single sunflower oil out as a dangerous component. It might just be rattling around in the brain somewhere. I happen to know that we don’t use it because we only use olive oil, canola oil and blended oil (a combination of both). And I’m pretty sure that we don’t have any “basic ingredients” that include it. but I’ll bet that it can be found in more than a few “processed foods”, so a more mainstream waiter would have to really make sure that it isn’t found in some premade dressing or something. I’ll bet that even the Chef would have to look at packaging to make sure.

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