FeaturesJun/Jul 2012 Issue

Inside Look at Eating Out Gluten-Free

Former Disney food-allergy chef shares the secrets to safe restaurant dining

Don Hammond/Design Pics/Maxximages.com

Living with a food allergy or intolerance changes your life forever. But being food allergic and a chef can really set your world on fire. I was diagnosed with a severe sensitivity to milk when I was attending culinary school in San Francisco. The diagnosis was a shock—but it made sense. For years, I’d been living with breathing problems, migraine headaches, diarrhea and I had trouble gaining weight. At 23, I was 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. (I looked like a walking toothpick when I wore my chef’s uniform and hat.) With my milk sensitivity, I couldn’t eat half the foods I prepared in culinary school. If I did, I suffered for days.

Fast forward 15 years to my career at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, where I was working as a catering chef at Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resort. Disney had been serving people with food allergies for ten years and the number of food-allergic guests was growing so quickly that it was getting difficult to manage. So they opened a position for a Culinary Development and Special Dietary Needs Manager. With my experience as a chef instructor and my food intolerance, I was a perfect fit for the job.

Developing a program for one restaurant might be easy but creating one for over 450 food operations with different styles of service was going to be a challenge. I put together a team and started working. It took six months to collect information from Disney servers, cooks, managers, chefs and the folks in communication and procurement before the best solutions could be devised. It then took another six months to develop and implement the program. Of course, Disney differs from other food service operations in the sheer size of its scope but there was great support at all levels and this program became the gold standard in food-allergy service.

Through the lens of this experience, let’s go “beyond the pass” (behind the kitchen doors) to the inner workings of a restaurant kitchen, because the more you know about how your food is prepared and the ‘red flags’ along the way, the greater your chance of dining out safely.

Next: The Inside View

Comments (3)

Day2 of recovery from being glutened! Kitchen staff cross contaminated, used tongs that had touched a gluten containing food to remove my food from the grill top. Whats really scary is one on my symptoms is reflux and when that's happening in the middle of the night and wakes you up, you think you are having a heart attack!

Posted by: Chef Deb, dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator | June 2, 2015 2:44 PM    Report this comment

Over the last 5 years I've learned the following. Untrained and/or careless restaurant workers have cause repeated allergic exposures. After medical treatment and surgery that was necessitated due to the impact from months of G-M-O product consumption, I have no desire to eat out anymore! One gentleman with similar success stated; "if I don't cook it, I don't eat it". Perhaps the G-M-O acronym should be changed to G-M-D Genetically Modified Death.

Posted by: LS | June 2, 2015 2:13 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for this thorough & informative article. Many waitstaff have expressed how appreciative they are when I provided them an allergy card they can give to the chef.

Posted by: Chele | June 2, 2015 1:53 PM    Report this comment

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