An episode of Rotten, a Netflix documentary series exposing corruption and the dirty truths of the food-production industry, looks at the rise in allergies and how restaurants may, or may not, properly handle situations where patrons need their food prepared a certain way. Westchester County restaurateurs grapple with that issue as they endeavor to keep their customers safe while admitting that it can put strain on their kitchens.
Since 2008, Westchester County restaurants have been required by the Department of Health to put written notices on their menus, stating: “If you have a food allergy, please speak to the owner, manager, chef or your server.” But even if nothing is said by patrons, restaurants owners and managers say servers are the first line of defense.
“Knowledge is key,” says Peter Liu, owner of Hartsdale’s O Mandarin, who does a good deal of training to make front- and back-of-house staff aware of all the ingredients in the restaurant’s dishes. “During weekly meetings, we have the chef tell the staff how newer dishes are created,” notes Liu.
If it’s a high-traffic night, and a patron questions a dish, causing the server to go back and talk to the chef, it wastes time, he says. Keeping allergies in mind, Liu does not use peanut oil at the restaurant, and peanuts are not cooked in any of the woks. There is also a wok in which seafood is never cooked.
As with other restaurants, O Mandarin has a point-of-sale system that highlights allergy requests directly on the meal ticket. Servers generally take a second step, by also communicating directly with a manager or chef.
At City Limits Diner in White Plains, “We want to make sure there’s no miscommunication,” says Bill Livanos, an owner and partner in the Livanos Group. An allergy request prompts different steps in the kitchen, he says — using separate bowls and cutting boards, changing gloves, and using utensils that have been in disinfecting liquid. Then there are steps taken to avoid any cross-contamination.
At Armonk’s Moderne Barn, also part of the Livanos Group, GM Marissa Zeolla says every server is given a workbook noting all the dishes on the menu and allergens they may contain. The workbooks are also found at every station on the dining floors. If requested, a manager or the executive chef will come out to reassure a customer. “People want to know that they’ve been listened to and that we’ve taken that extra level of precaution,” she notes.
“We’re here to make everything easy for our guests; we want to make sure they have an enjoyable and a safe experience,” adds Edwin Montoya, owner of Port Chester’s Capers Restaurant. He and other restaurateurs agree that it does make the process easier when a guest either calls ahead or notes on an online reservation that there will be a guest with an allergy.
Both Montoya and Sheryl Dennis, director of media relations for Pleasantville’s Mission Taqueria, focus on today’s dietary needs when crafting menus for their new restaurants. “Without changing the core of the menu, we were able to make it 90 percent gluten-free,” Montoya says, whose menu at Capers includes only one dish containing nuts.
“There are ingredients that will not have a huge impact on a dish but will have a huge impact on someone’s experience,” Montoya says. Dennis’ team was aware that childhood allergies are on the rise and fashioned a mostly gluten-free restaurant. “We also appreciate when a guest reaches out prior to dining here if there is an allergy; it allows us to communicate with the chef and make sure we can make accommodations,” she notes.
Brian Candee, an owner of a few restaurants in the Village Social Group, speaks for a number of restaurateurs when he says, “The system is only as strong as its weakest link.” He says when somebody comes in with an allergy, it gets noted throughout everything they order: “If the guest has a shellfish allergy and orders a brownie for dessert, we note the allergy again.” Servers and managers have to act as fact-checkers when a guest requests a change in a dish and must take all requests seriously, he adds.
Restaurant diners have also become more diligent; some even give out cards to servers indicating their allergy. With two daughters, one with a number of food allergies, Sharon Stern of Armonk says, “The customer has to be very clear with explaining their allergies.” She notes that even if the server has been given the ingredients in every dish, “there is an extra level of comfort when the server double-checks with the chef.”
Abbe Wichman is a Katonah resident who writes about food and drink. Having a niece with celiac disease, she knows how important it is for restaurants to take food allergies and intolerances seriously.