Food allergies are silent menaces.
Looking at a person physically, you will not be able to know if that person has a food allergy, let alone WHAT kind of food causes the allergic reaction.
Which is why it makes planning events a complicated task. How do you hire a chef and a kitchen team who will make sure that food allergies are taken into serious consideration?
I have had many wonderful opportunities to serve in various business events here in Perth and other parts of the world, and I can safely say that proper preparation usually results to successful events. And since we all know that food and events go hand in hand, hiring a chef and his team for big events or private chefs for simple ones is an important step to consider.
Therefore, if you want to have a successful event, you must hire a chef and a kitchen team that will deliver outstanding food and service to your guests. And beyond the usual preparations to serve delicious well-cooked dishes that are safely prepared and beautifully presented, a chef and his kitchen team should take one critical issue seriously – serving food to guests with food allergies.
Ideally, it is the responsibility of the event host or event planner/organizer to know who among the expected guest have food allergies and this information should be known in advanced. This step is important to know in the planning stage because most often than not if the scale of the event is big and there are many expected guests to attend, the menu items are pre-prepared or “prepped” before the arrival of the guests.
When a food allergy list is considered during the planning stage of the event, you can create separate menu, meals or offerings prepared in advance. You can offer a wide variety of food to accommodate all allergies and restrictions.
If you are hosting this event and you are hiring chefs/catering services to prepare the food, be sure to ask them of their knowledge and ability to accommodate special dietary needs.
Getting information from guests of their food allergy in advance will be useless if your kitchen team does not have any knowledge and training to address this. Do not hesitate to ask them. Getting this information should be a part of your screening process before getting their services.
It is crucial to take precautions when serving food to guests with dietary restrictions. And for this, there is one primary goal — AVOIDING CROSS CONTAMINATION.
This should be a no brainer to a responsible chef and kitchen staff because food safety and cross-contamination procedures should already be a basic knowledge. They should already be knowledgeable of the microbes and pathogens that can cause food poisoning, and dealing with food allergies is just taking things up a notch.
The Chef and the rest of the kitchen team should know that even a trace amount of an allergen can cause a reaction. They have to have an understanding of the severe effects brought about by food allergies. And if in case you urgently need a chef to take over or as an additional hand, short term hire chefs should also be knowledgeable of this.
Not all food allergies result in plain rashes, and even THAT is nothing to be shrugged off. I am talking about severe swelling and inflammation that happens all over the body — in particular, swelling in the airway of a person which causes difficulty in breathing. In some cases, it leads to death. Nobody wants that!
It should be a standard for chefs and kitchen staff to understand the rules of safe food preparation, but with regards to cross-contamination of an allergen with the rest of the food, this is not always considered. This is because when preparing for a large gathering, chefs are most likely cooking multiple dishes simultaneously in the same kitchen. If there is no information given to them in advance, how can they know what to prevent?
Members of the kitchen team must have protocols for dealing with food allergy, as well as thorough training. The training should include communication, label reading, knowledge of hidden ingredients, prevention of cross-contact and cleaning techniques and processes for promptly dealing with allergic and other medical emergencies. Yet if unavoidably, you hire people without certifications on food allergy management, this should not limit them from providing a professional service to your guests.
Which is why here’s what you and your team should know to manage food allergies in your next event.
1. Preventing Cross-Contamination in the Kitchen
Some chefs assign groups or separate stations to avoid cross-contamination. That is because, in the flurry of activities happening at the same time in the kitchen, it is easy to overlook these things. But if this is not possible due to space restrictions or availability of staff, then an overall knowledge of how to prevent cross-contamination should be a general rule.
Handwashing before and after coming into contact with the allergen. This should be protocol in the kitchen, whether working with allergens or not.
Allergy-friendly dishes should be cooked first. Then immediately after cooking, have it covered and labeled properly.
If unable to prepare allergy-friendly dishes first, make sure that no sharing of pans happen during the preparation of the particular version of the recipes. This is because the heat from the pan does not destroy allergens. If the same pan is used, any lingering oil can be transferred. Same can be said for cooking utensils or chopping board.
If there are not enough utensils and they needed to be reused to cook allergy-friendly dishes, make sure that they are thoroughly washed in soap and running water. Dipping in water is never considered as washing!
Use separate towels when wiping spills and hands, or best, use paper towels and dispose immediately after use.
If in a restricted or shared space, keep foods covered during cooking to avoid cross-contamination through splatter.
Thoroughly clean all surfaces. Transfer of allergens and microbes happen when you place a clean item on a shared or dirty surface.
When storing foods in the refrigerator, label them properly and keep allergen-free foods on the top shelf.
2. Preventing Cross-Contamination in the Buffet Area
Now that the food is out of the kitchen, the responsibilities lie on the rest of your serving staff. Cross-contamination on buffet items happen with utensils as well as placements.
• Create a separate buffet station specifically for allergy-friendly dishes. Not only this will be easier for people with food allergies, but it will ease the flow in the buffet area since guests will not flock to an area at the same time.
• It is a common practice that the buffet area has name labels for each dish. To address issues of food allergies – your team should create buffet labels that either includes the list of ingredients or is labeled with dietary needs – gluten-free, vegetarian, dairy-free or contains nuts, soy, and egg. Labeling buffets with ingredient list help guests with special dietary needs feel more comfortable selecting items to eat. Since not everyone gets to tell their food allergies in advance. This is also helpful for those with certain food preference, which while not life-threatening as food allergies, being able to provide options to your guests show that you care. Plus, it reflects on your level of preparation and professionalism.
• Use separate properly labeled serving utensils for each dish.
• If you have roving staff who offer food, make sure that their trays are also labeled.
3. Creating Alternatives and Solutions
This is important because most often than not, most especially if the scale of the event is big and there are many expected guests to attend, the menu items are pre-prepared before the arrival of the guests.
• Have a list of simple dishes that can be prepared from scratch for specific guests. This usually applies to children who prefer simple dishes as most do not have mature palates.
• Have a separate station, with pans or blenders for those with food allergies. For example, a pan used exclusively for gluten-free pasta or just for shellfish. If serving smoothies, a separate blender used to make smoothies without yogurt or milk.
• Have pre-packaged food items or fruits on hand.
4. Keeping Communication Open and Clear
In a busy event, keeping open and CLEAR communication is essential. This open communication should be initiated right from the beginning of the planning process, and then the concerns are repeated at every step of the planning process. Sounds too tedious I know, but details like these are what make or break an event. Or in this case – cause an accident.
Encourage the team to be honest. If any of the staff doesn’t know what’s in a particular dish, remind them not to hesitate to say so. If they need to check with the chef, do so. If they still have any doubts after consulting with the chef, speak up professionally.
While in the kitchen, there could be lots of shouting that’s happening, just to get heard. So, if the staff is not sure he/she is not heard at all, he/she should speak louder until acknowledged.
Have serving team observe professionalism when dealing with food ingredients inquiries. A serving staff who has undergone training and certification on food allergies will know how to communicate with guests with regards to getting requests and responding accordingly. If you do not have any certified staff, then at least have them deal with guests in a patient, respectful and professional manner.
If you are unable to accommodate a guest with multiple food allergies, especially if they arrive during peak hours, acknowledge that honestly and let the guests know respectfully.
Ensure banquet staff knows what food and beverages are being served.
Make sure the team passing the trays and working the buffet stations know the ingredients in the food and how it was prepared. It’s also a great way to elevate the presentation level of your service staff.
5. Having the RIGHT attitude and mindset
I believe that beyond the knowledge, what is essential is the chef and staff attitude with regards to this specific concern. A chef or a kitchen staff may have the required training, but if they have a dismissive manner, it will be all for nothing. Say you have a chef or staff who is just there for the pay and not caring about the welfare of the clients and guests, that is risky.
Having even just one staff with this kind of mentality is dangerous to a team who aims not only to provide spectacular service but to also care for their clients and guests. Imagine a scenario where a staff brings a usually prepared dish and then is asked to go back to make a new one because the dish on his hand has an offending allergen to the guest. Even with the knowledge that a minute trace of allergen is dangerous to the guest, he may choose to pick out the allergen from the dish… say a nut or two…and then present it back as a new one. Or having a staff who does not want to double check or confirm food allergen in a dish when asked.
Remember this when hiring chefs or catering teams on your next event:
Communicate with your hired chef and team well ahead of the event.
Don’t hesitate to ask how they will be addressing dietary requirements of guests
Ask what solutions can they offer if a problem arises, strategies or alternative options.
One last note: avoiding accusations
Now even after doing your utmost best to ensure that cross-contamination of allergens is avoided, you may still encounter guests who complain about your food. Worst, these guests could threaten to sue you either for causing food allergies or food poisoning. A food poisoning accusation will put your reputation on the line, and may even jeopardize your entire business.
As a precaution, it’s a good idea to keep a sample of the food that the guest or customer believes made them sick so that health authorities can test it. Better yet, keep a sample of every dish served in big functions – tray vacuum sealed and frozen! There have been cases where guests or customers have been somewhere else before going to your event or your restaurant – eating, let’s say shitty ice cream, and then went for a swim or did a significant physical activity and later on would complain of abdominal pains and threaten to sue you. This way, you can prove that your food was absolutely fantastic. You can avoid being in the silly news or newspaper which can potentially kill your business.
The success of your event revolves around your team working as a whole and since events are busy times, make sure to cover these areas in advance to lessen your worries, and you can fully focus on your guests.
Ciao for now,