Dining out with Food Allergies: A Sit-Down with Chef Jeffrey Brana
With smoldering good looks, an easy laugh and a deep commitment to feeding his guests safely and well, executive chef Jeffrey Brana of The Raleigh Hotel in South Beach Miami sat down with me recently to discuss food allergies and dining out.
The Chef is on very intimate terms with allergies: he has a severe allergy to the entire fungi family. As a child, he avoided mushrooms because they made him feel "funny": eating them incurred a stomachache but nothing worse. Over the years that "funny" feeling progressed into an anaphylactic allergic reaction that presented itself while he was in a New York hotel for a cooking demonstration.
This recent experience drove home what Chef Jeff learned as he worked his way up the ranks at some of Miami's finest restaurants. He was taught to take the guests' special needs seriously as well as create a wonderfully fresh, interesting meal: both are a priority.
I wondered how the Chef and his wife (she's allergic to shellfish, spinach and plums) dine out safely. It helps that here in Miami, Jeff knows who cooks from scratch versus who uses commercially processed products. However, he said if they are making a reservation they will talk to the staff about their allergies. Mainly, they stick to healthier, casual restaurants that make their own food in house and have dedicated fryers; popcorn shrimp in one, fries in another.
I asked because I know there are many of you out there that are scared to eat out, worried about cross contamination and nervous about how a restaurant will be able to serve you safely. I feel somewhat safe in my hometown of New York but when I travel, I feel exactly the same way as you do: wondering where my next allergen-friendly meal will come from.
The Chef has a handy guideline when dining at a new restaurant: Pay close attention to your server. Your server is the front line, your key to the kitchen and the kitchen's key to your needs. If your server understands your needs, and has a open, clear communication with the kitchen then that is a great indicator that their management staff has trained them well about food allergies and intolerances and how to handle them. If you get the eye-roll, odds are the staff has not been trained well about how to handle your needs and you're taking a big risk eating at that establishment.
At the Raleigh Hotel, Jeff and his management staff have trained their team to pay close attention to food allergies, food intolerances and a guest's special need or request. Even if a server doesn't know what "gluten intolerance" is, or which "nuts" are tree-nuts and which are legumes, the chef and management team will.
He says he can prepare "anything for anyone", especially with some forethought, planning and clear communication from the guest on their special needs. The Chef's outlined some excellent tips for how you can eat safely the next time you dine out or if you are heading to Miami Beach and want to stop in at the Raleigh Hotel for a meal.
- Call ahead. Let the restaurant know your needs. Given a day's notice, many Chefs can create a custom menu for you.
- Bring an allergy card. Have your needs spelled out in black and white. Chef says: "Tell me everything, the more I know the better!"
- Talk to your server clearly, respectfully, patiently. They may not know every term or every allergy but your Chef will.
Chef Jeff's mantra is: "Everyone sitting at the table in his restaurant is entitled to the same dining experience." It is his mission to ensure that a diner with any special need doesn't feel marginalized. He never wants to see a diner apologize for having a medical need.
This was a revelation.
I still struggle with feeling apologetic to my server, or to my fellow diners for the barrage of questions I need to ask. I know I'm not alone in feeling this way, I'm sure we all have some lingering shame associated with having to ask for a special meal made separately. After speaking with Chef Jeffrey Brana, and many other Chefs who feel similarly to him, I'm further empowered to communicate my needs to a caring, compassionate restaurant such as his. With food allergies diagnoses rising rapidly -- 12 million Americans and counting -- these Chefs are at the forefront of what will be a growing movement to feed all Americans safely while dining out.
Read Sloane's interview with Robert Fisher -- Food Allergic World Traveler -- to find more tips on dining away from home with food allergies.