Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dining Out

Dining Out.

Not necessarily an impossible feat.   But one that now requires preparation.

Yes, in advance -- preparation after-the-fact is called an ER visit.

First, find a restaurant that is able to tell you all of the ingredients in each of its dishes.  Fast food  and extremely small restaurants might not be able to disclose all ingredients, or could have compound food components which must further be broken down into subcomponents (that may or may not be available) before you can determine your risk.  Your goal should be places that can a) provide full ingredient disclosure, b) have facilities that enable them to segregate your food for uncontaminated preparation, and c) have service staff who are genuinely interested in accommodating you.

Three simple steps can tip the odds of a safe dining experience in your favor: 

  • Call to Arms:  Call the restaurant and speak to the manager in advance of your visit.  
    1. Inform the manager of your restaurant reservation day and time, or the day and time you plan to show up for a meal -- this allows them to identify the chef and staff who will be on duty at that time, so that they can prep the staff prior to your arrival, and make the necessary modifications in their kitchen practices on that day.  In some instances, they will even do the day's shopping with your constraints in mind.
    2. If they believe they can accommodate you, move on to step two.
  • Disclose & Review:  Verbally review your list of allergens with the restaurant manager (use your Allergy Flash Card to ensure that you have mentioned everything).  
    1. Offer to email your list of allergens (Allergy Flash Card) and ask for the manager's email address.  In some cases, the manager will offer his/her mobile number.  Start making that Key Connection now, with further intention to strengthen and broaden this connection when you visit the restaurant.
    2. If they put you in touch with the chef, confirm that this chef will be on duty when you plan to be there; then go through the details of your allergens with the chef. 
    3. If there are small things that you could assist with, like bringing your own soy-free butter or organic coconut oil, make the offer in this conversation -- you should be working together to ensure success.
    4. You might wish to ask if they have ever served anyone with a deadly food allergy.  The answer might (or might not) give you a further sense of comfort or discomfort with this restaurant.  
    5.  After the detailed allergen discussion, get verbal confirmation that they will provide a safe dining experience for you.
  • Flash & Bon Appetit:  Bring your Allergy Flash Card to the restaurant.  When you enter the restaurant and approach the maitre d'/host/hostess, identify yourself as the person who called in advance to discuss accommodations for a deadly allergy.  If they have assigned staff to accommodate you, the hand-off will be clear.
    1. Once seated, hand your table server your Allergy Flash Card and form that Key Connection with your server -- some of this work may have already been done as part of the staff prep that took place prior to your arrival -- but cementing it always rests with you, so don't forget.  
    2. Chances are that they will already have a printout of your email in the kitchen, and the chef might even come out to have a pre-dinner chat.  
    3. The manager and/or chef will most likely touch base one or more times during your meal to ensure that a medical emergency has been circumvented.  Try not to feel uncomfortable -- they have appreciated the seriousness of your requirements, and have partnered with you to ensure a successful social experience. 
    4. These are the places that deserve repeat patronage... and a tip that shows your appreciation for having honored your specific survival requirements.

Most importantly, as you leave, share your appreciation for their extraordinary service verbally.  Let your body language agree with the verbal gratitude -- a look in the eye and a genuine smile goes a long way.

Now, hit the town with gusto -- Bon Appetit!


Evelyn Chua said...

Sad to say, this is impossible in MAlaysia. Most of the time, they would not know what I am trying to say when I say that I am allergic to chemicals and salicylates. Even explaining allergy is difficult what more a sensitivity issue which could result in an anaphylaxis!

Simran said...

I am sorry to hear that -- my heart goes out to you, Evelyn. Unfortunately, there were no pioneers in Malaysia before you -- there didn't need to be because it used to be that food was what was found in nature, with naturally-occurring substances used as preservatives. Now, the food substance is a fraction of the total content, since the food industry is more into chemistry (profit) than agriculture -- it is the same everywhere, I think. I am fortunate that there have been pioneers in the US who have already perilously paved the way for me.

Living with anaphylaxis forces us to educate everyone we come into contact with on an ongoing basis. But, from some of your articles, I understand that this is a daunting task -- that people have a 'traditional' approach to understanding your health concerns. If healthcare practitioners think this is a fabrication, how will anyone else understand? You are the alpha.

Here is an idea... Is there one restaurant that you go to often? Could you possibly try engaging the owner or manager, one on one? Or is it that your list of allergens exist in every food being prepared? If it is in the food, then it will be most difficult. If it is the ingredients added in the cooking process, there might be an opportunity for the owner/manager to begin to understand. It might not be enough to begin eating there right away, but it could begin the process creating a safe opportunity in the long term.

The way I see it, if you can prepare it at home, then it is doable -- perhaps you could discuss specifically what they will need to do to accommodate you in the future. On occasion, I have actually told people exactly how to prepare my food, how to ensure non-contamination and specifically what ingredients to use. You might even give them the challenge of being able to safely serve you one, simple thing -- like a piece of bread -- a month down the line.

All that said, you can only dine outside if you feel assured of safety -- much better safe than sorry. I really do hope that Malaysians will start to develop a deeper understanding of anaphylaxis. Until then, you will continue to bring home-cooked food into restaurants, depriving them of revenue... and those of us with these health concerns will not be able to enjoy the beauty of the country, depriving them of potential tourism revenue.

Globally, greed has indirectly contributed to our development of these conditions; it's ironic that it results in our having to drop out of those revenue streams, sending us flocking back to nature.

The Multiple Chemical Survivor said...

Have you tried doing this anywhere? Which restaurants have you found actually do this? I can't imagine any typical restaurant agreeing to go to so much trouble unless one is willing to spend lots of money on private dining with specialized catering. Private catering and renting the whole building for your dining pleasure would be very spendy just to go out to eat. It would work, it's just not realistic for the average sensitive person.

If I don't rent the whole building, isn't there a risk someone else might want to come in for a meal and their sensitivities are different from mine and they would have as many restrictions? And what about food stuffs that you might not be eating, but would be floating in the air? Vinegar comes to mind.

I have a hard time getting anyone in life to be fragrance-free, let alone a whole restaurant who would cater to my specific food needs as well. I've had doctors offices tell me to go somewhere else. Of all businesses you'd think a doctor would comply to some very simple health-oriented practices. Most public businesses operate on the democratic principle: they cater to the majority, not the minority. The rest of us don't normally get special treatment. I count myself lucky I can find food I can eat.

Aside from money, I don't know if going to a restaurant is worth the stress with what it takes to make it safe. What I like about your idea is it does educate people. Knowledge promotes change and tolerance.

Evelyn Chua said...

The thing is every dish is saturated either with MSG, coloring, preservatives, flavorings, or additives. Sauces are used in almost every dish. And sauces have hidden chemicals. Yes, even the organic ones. So it is a daunting task to eat outside as even the smell of the food being cooked in recycled oil can make me feel 'sick'.

Even if they do follow instructions, where do they buy the meat from? Is it from the supermarket where chemicals have been added to it to preserve its shelve life? Or how about the wok or utensils? Did they wash them so that they do not cross-contaminate from all the sauces? How about the oil? Is it 'fresh' oil? Too many questions to consider as of now. Too risky.

So it is best for the time being to eat from the house. Until I am stronger. And I am PATIENTLY waiting for that day! :)

I read somewhere on the internet that there is a hotel which specially caters to people with allergy! It only takes guests who have allergies. That is an interesting point to keep in mind! :) Hopefully it does not cost a bomb though.... :P

Simran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Simran said...

Yes, I have actually tried this -- this is how I negotiate the probability of danger, and I have met with a good measure of success so far (after a couple of near-misses in the beginning). This list is basically the result of a decade of my experiences -- cautiously experimenting, adapting and refining my approach so as not to have to give up all vestiges of my previous lifestyle. I have not had to spend an inordinate amount of money, or rent a building. I have felt the need to tip more generously due to the fact that extra care was taken on my behalf -- and they did so without making me feel like a Martian. These restaurants tend to be mid- to upscale establishments... Fast food had been eliminated from my diet at least 15 years before I developed anaphylaxis.

The chemicals mankind has created are killing us. More and more people seem to be developing deadly sensitivities, which seem to be forcing restaurants in the United States to adapt to be able to accommodate customers with special needs. If you go anywhere on the Disney campus in Orlando, Florida, they will go so far as to bring you the ingredient list for each meal to get your approval or understand your exact needs so that a safe experience can be provided. I have also encountered the same approach in the city of San Francisco. As a New Yorker, I can dine out regularly. In my travels throughout the US, I have been blessed with great waiters, waitresses, managers and chefs who went the extra mile to accommodate me. Travel abroad will most likely be sketchier -- right now I limit it to spending time with friends so that most of my dining is home-cooked.

As both Multichemical and Evelyn stated, sensitivity to particles in the air make restaurant dining non-negotiable. Barring sensitivity to smell, the method detailed in this blog entry could be an alternative for some.