So You Want To Be A Waiter

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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:

On allergies pt. 1

What would you do if your guest’s face got red, he started gasping for breath and his face started swelling up? Would you give him the Heimlich?

Well, guess what? It might not work. It might not work because your guest might be going into anaphylactic shock because of a toxic allergic reaction to something that they ate.

When I was growing up, allergies were mostly annoyance. Personally, when I was in my very early teens, I  found that I was allergic to tomatoes and chocolate, among other things. My face would break out (not in acne but in a bit of a rash). I seemingly grew out of it, probably because I couldn’t stay away from the things that I was allergic to.

However, there seems to be something going on in the past few years that have affected people far more violently and sometimes fatally when it comes to allergies. Is it environmental? Nobody definitively knows. Is it some genetic breakdown? I dunno.

But it seems to be affecting a pretty wide swatch of the population. Maybe it’s always been there in the same numbers, but I suspect that kids dying from incidental contact to peanuts would have been big news in my day as well.

As a waiter, have you thought about this issue? sure, we grouse about people who claim that they’re “allergic to garlic”. But, believe it or not, there are actually people who are actually allergic. I’ll bet that most people really aren’t – that they either just don’t like it or might get some gastric distress from it in the way that some people bloat when they eat beans or broccoli. This isn’t really “allergy”, just a “sensitivity”. Well, technically it might very well be a mild allergic reaction, but I’m not really dealing with mild discomfort. This might cause people to complain that, “Yes, bloating is serious – to ME”.

I’m talking about people who have an abnormality in their immune system which causes anything from a significant to a serious and possibly fatal reaction to common substances that don’t affect most people. Some people, like me, outgrow allergies. Their immune systems develop a tolerance or resistance to the substance. Others have allergies develop later in life. Things that didn’t bother them growing up suddenly cause problems in adulthood.

Few of us have bulletproof immune systems. Whether it’s stuffy noses in spring when the car is covered in pollen, or itching because of dyes or something as serious as swelling, rashes or even respiratory distress if a lobster is handled, it’s obvious that allergies are an important issue for those of us in the restaurant business, because some of the most life-threatening allergies come from food.

This is something that every waiter needs to consider.

I was prompted to write about this because of a guy named Eric who blogs occasionally about his severe seafood allergy. You should check out his blog, “world (and lunar) domination” :

Here’s what you might consider – if your restaurant deep fries shrimp or other shellfish and you sell him some french fries, you might very well kill him. Hot oil isn’t a barrier to the compounds in shellfish that he’s sensitive to. If your restaurant boils lobsters and vegetables in the same pot, you might find him gasping for air after he eats his broccoli. If the grill is used for a burger and to grill calamari, he might be reaching for his epi pen as his eyes bulge out.

We have a waiter in our very lobster friendly restaurant who has to have others take her lobsters to the table because even if she just brushes against the shell, her hands will swell.  I had a guest’s wife who we had to keep a list of things that she was allergic to (garlic, vinegar, nuts, etc). It was especially important when she developed cancer and was going through chemotherapy (ironically enough, her husband ran one of the largest health care HMOs in the country).

So, what does a waiter need to say or do when a guest mentions that they’re allergic? Well talk about that in part two, but the bottom line is, as a waiter, you must take it seriously. Sure, the guest might be either lying because they just don’t like something, but what if they’re deadly serious? Allergies are real, dear friends.

Stay tuned for part 2, coming in a surgical theater near you.