Allergies – Real, Imagined, Convenient: a Restaurateur’s Rant
In my early twenties I developed, seemingly overnight, a deadly allergy to fish. My family is Scottish and I had grown up eating fish frequently: kippers for breakfast on Saturday morning, whole roasted salmon for Sunday lunch, smoked cod poached in milk for dinner now and then. Plus, smoked mackerel or sardines on toast, battered and deep-fried haddock or – better yet – halibut and chips, line-caught trout or bass cooked over an open fire at the cottage we rented one summer, very rare seared tuna on one of my first dates with my husband, sushi or dim sum Sunday brunches and, of course, Scottish smoked salmon squished with fresh lemon and rolled up into a cigar.
I arrived home from school one evening and my husband was braising whitefish in tomato broth. It smelled divine. We sat down to eat at our tiny table in the tiny kitchen of our tiny first apartment. After a few bites, my teeth felt itchy. What a strange sensation! I continued eating and then my tongue became itchy too. I asked my husband, “What did you put in this? It’s making my mouth all itchy.” He replied, in typically testy chef fashion, “if you don’t like it, don’t eat it.” “No, no, I like it, my throat just feels kind of tight.” Within moments I am having difficulty breathing. It feels like I am having an asthma attack while being sat on and strangled. My husband, no longer insulted, realizes once I start gasping for air and turning blue that this is serious.
Leaving our dinner half-eaten on the table, my husband scoops me up and races to the car. We careen the thankfully few blocks to the hospital. Bursting through the doors of the emergency room he shouts for help. “What did she eat?” asks the nurse, rushing over to us. “Fish”, replies my husband, “this has never happened before.” Man, if you want to be first in line at the emergency room, just have a serious allergic reaction. Gunshot wound? Have a seat please. Eyeballs dangling from your eye sockets? Back of the line. Axe to the skull? Hang in there. Anaphylaxis? Step right up.
I don’t remember much of what happened after we got to the hospital. Apparently a shot of epinephrine, some steroids, and the devoted attention of the emergency room doctors and nurses. I left the hospital the next day with a handful of Benadryl, a prescription for an epi-pen and a brand-new, life-threatening allergy.
The moral of the story here is that I ‘get’ allergies. My husband, a chef, ‘gets’ allergies. If you, the customer, says you are allergic to something, we take that very seriously. Any restaurateur or chef who pooh poohs your allergy is a moron and definitely someone who doesn’t deserve your patronage. But, and this is the point, don’t make me go through every menu item, ingredient by ingredient, and don’t ask my husband to whip up something unique, customized and safe from cross-contamination in the throes of a Saturday night crush for your imagined or convenient allergy. If you don’t like mushrooms, that’s not an allergy, so don’t ask for the mushroom soup to be made without mushrooms.
In addition to my fish allergy, I have also developed, over the course of my restaurant career, an allergy to bullshit. Allergic to salt? I seriously doubt it. Water? Highly unlikely. Pork? I don’t think so. And, my all-time favourite, allergic to big pieces of onion but not little pieces? C’mon now.
People with deadly allergies, like me, assume a risk every time we leave our bubbles to go to work, take the kids to school or dine out. We take your allergy seriously, and we do our very best to protect you but, at some point, you need to shoulder some of the burden. As one chef told me, “I’m a chef, not a doctor. Please don’t put your life in my hands.” Don’t ask me to jump through hoops or expect the chef to bend over backwards to accommodate your imagined or convenient allergy. I’m allergic to that bullshit.