Cooking Allergy-Free for a Change

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A nut-allergic student hungers to become a special-diet chef

Cooking Allergy-Free

Tessa Nguyen wants food-allergic people to know what it’s like to delight in crispy, homemade chicken nuggets or savor a steaming bowl of fresh pho, a traditional Vietnamese beef and noodle soup. Since she was a little girl, Nguyen of Cary, North Carolina, has loved to be in the kitchen, preparing family meals side-by-side with her father. Pho, her favorite dish to make with her dad, is the culinary classic that helped spark in her a real passion for cooking.

Nguyen [pronounced NOO-yin] is severely allergic to tree nuts and her younger brother, Conrad, is highly allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, dairy and eggs. Growing up surrounded by these serious allergies gave Nguyen an insider’s understanding of special dietary needs. Now she wants to advance her cooking skills to become a personal chef for families just like hers.

“This is my goal, not only because I love to cook but because I love to cook for people like my brother who have multiple food allergies,” Nguyen explains. She wants to get the word out: Food-allergic people have every right to eat delicious meals that are safe for them.

Nguyen, 20, is currently an honor student at Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts, where she is training to become a professional chef. She plans to graduate in 2012.

Life-Altering Discovery

Nguyen will never forget the day she learned she had a food allergy. She was 8 years old and she and mother were attending a party at a friend’s home. Reaching into a bowl on the coffee table, she helped herself to a handful of mixed nuts. Immediately, she sensed something was terribly wrong.

“My mouth felt like it was on fire. My eyes were swelling shut and my skin began itching from hives that were popping up all over my body,” she says. Within minutes, her throat had tightened up so much that her voice became high pitched. Her mother rushed her to the hospital where she was given epinephrine. “Even after treatment, my eyes stayed puffy for days.”

The incident was the start of a lifelong education on reading food labels and vigilance about cross contamination, now an everyday part of her college life.

“Living on my own away from my parents, it’s even more crucial that I’m self-aware and cautious of what I am eating and the ingredients that go into making certain food items and recipes,” Nguyen says.

Her reaction to tree nuts is so severe that she is careful to avoid even touching them. Bringing this level of food allergy into a formal culinary program is a challenge, Nguyen admits.

Before making her decision to attend Johnson & Wales University, she thoroughly considered all sides of the issue and talked at length with her parents. In addition, she was forthright with the school about her allergy during the application process. Once she was accepted, she wondered about the best way to inform individual instructors: Should she talk to her teachers before each class started or wait until they featured a recipe with nuts?

Wisely, she opted to tell her instructors before classes started.

“This way, the chefs are able to take my allergy into account when preparing their classes. They’re also careful to inform fellow students. If tree nuts are on the menu in a cooking lab, they make sure my group works in a designated area away from other classmates,” Nguyen says.

Nguyen’s ability to advocate for herself was put to the test during the winter term of her freshman year. A chef instructor in one of her cooking labs didn’t understand the severity of her allergy, insisting that she handle and taste food containing nuts.

“I was flabbergasted,” she recalls.

She declined to follow the instructor’s request and reported the incident to Susan Flaherty, director of the university’s Center for Academic Support. Flaherty worked with Nguyen and the chef to better communicate the young woman’s special dietary needs.

Cooking Allergy-Free

According to Flaherty, her job is to provide students with “reasonable accommodation,” advocating for them under the Americans with Disabilities Act while upholding university standards.

The university tries to accommodate students with celiac disease and food allergies. “These students do miss out on what others learn through tasting the foods but they are not required to taste them,” she says.

In a program launched last year, Johnson & Wales gives all food-allergic students a blue card that lists their allergies and describes the severity of their condition. (For example, a student cannot ingest a certain food but can safely be in the room with it and touch it.) The card includes information about the medication the student carries and appropriate treatment should there be a reaction. The food-allergic student uses the card to inform every instructor of an allergy, Flaherty says, adding that the card also helps students better explain their special-diet needs in university dining halls.

“It’s essential for food-allergic students to be vigilant and to speak up about their needs in class,” Flaherty says. “These chef instructors focus on about 20 students at a time and multiple dishes are cooked each day. Students should be proactive in disclosing their allergies, reviewing recipes and anticipating the effect of their exposure to foods in class.”

As more food-allergic students attend Johnson & Wales, Flaherty sees varying degrees of vigilance. Unfortunately, some students downplay the severity of their allergies. “This not only puts their lives at risk, it also means they are not being realistic about their future,” she says. She advises students to be honest about their allergies when they first talk to the school about a culinary degree, to take a good look at the required classes and to be cognizant of the actual working environment in restaurant kitchens. “You want to be sure the expense of the education is validated by a career in cooking.”

The obstacles have caused some food-allergic students to switch majors, Flaherty says. But others, like Nguyen, have learned to self-advocate. Once they’re able to maintain their safety, they can flourish under the guidance of the university’s chefs, says Flaherty.

“It’s wonderful that it has worked out for Tessa to move forward.”

College Life

Nguyen now tests her skills outside the school kitchens by working off-campus with one of her instructors. The chef understands her nut allergy so Nguyen says she can relax and enjoy the work.

For safety, Nguyen prepares many of her own meals in her apartment. In cooking lab, she eats off a plate designated “tree nut free.”

There’ve been a few instances when a student has joked about adding tree nuts to Nguyen’s food—she says she doesn’t see the humor—but for the most part, fellow classmates are supportive. Her friends help provide a safety net, with some even learning how to administer an EpiPen, the self-injecting epinephrine Nguyen carries with her at all times.

“It has been very comforting to know that if there is ever an emergency, my friends know how to react in a timely and appropriate manner,” Nguyen says. “It’s nice to go to class with friends, classmates and teachers who are working together in trying to keep me safe.”

Family Bonds

Kiet and Theresa Nguyen admit that their daughter’s severe nut allergy heightened the ordinary apprehension they already felt about sending their child away to college.

“We were always concerned about her condition and certainly about the fact that she would be working with food,” says Kiet Nguyen. “However, Tessa is well aware of her condition and knows all the precautionary measures, the result of her mom educating her ever since we discovered her allergy.”

“As a parent, you hope what you’ve taught and instilled in your child over the years stays with them,” adds Theresa Nguyen. “We feel that she’s very mature in handling the situations presented to her.”

Happy and proud that she is pursuing her dream, Nguyen’s parents see their daughter as a role model for other children with food allergies and sensitivities.

“Tessa’s experience destroys the myth that you can’t enjoy higher education in a college environment, particularly in the food service industry, if you have a food allergy or sensitivity,” her father says. He predicts his daughter will use her culinary skills to develop allergy-free meals that are “tastefully second to none.”

Nguyen is all for it.

“I hope to become a chef who’ll not only cook great meals that are allergen free but who will also teach others that simple substitutions make the difference between a meal someone can’t eat and a meal that is safe, healthy and delicious,” she says.

Her advice to aspiring young chefs?

“If you love to cook, don’t be frightened to apply to culinary school. It may be challenging at first until you develop a system at your school that suits you, but working through these challenges makes reaching your dream that much more meaningful in the long run,” Nguyen says. “You can’t let food allergies stand in the way of making your dreams come true.” 

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