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How Chefs With Food Allergies Make It Work

As restaurants become more accommodating of diners’ dietary restrictions, chefs are still navigating how to stay safe in the kitchen

Jessica Largey, now chef and co-owner of Los Angeles restaurant Simone, didn’t know she was allergic to seafood. She was rarely exposed to it at home and it wasn’t until culinary school that she began eating it in earnest for the first time. Largey recalls her mouth getting itchy and thought it was strange. “But I figured that’s just what eating seafood was like,” she says. It wasn’t until she took a job at Providence, the seafood-focused LA restaurant, that she realized seafood didn’t give everyone an itchy mouth or make them break out in a rash — it was an allergy. And Largey had just been put on the seafood line.

Largey worried that if she told anyone about her allergy, they’d likely keep her from working with the ingredient. “I didn’t want this to be a hindrance for my whole career,” she says. “I wanted to learn from the best.” In conversations with her coworkers, she alluded to the fact that she “didn’t like fish” and would joke about how funny it was that she — the lead seafood cook at Providence from 2005 to 2008 — hated eating the ingredient she cooked with all day. “I made that the story everyone knew,” she says.

When Providence chef and co-owner Michael Cimarusti brought her dishes to taste she’d either eat a small bite and take a Benadryl or spit it out without him seeing. She feared that if she told the truth, he would never have put her on the seafood line, much less let her be in charge of it. She didn’t admit her allergy to Cimarusti until years after she’d stopped working in his kitchen. Largey says she feels good about her decision to hide the truth for so many years because she was able to learn so much in the process.

“I think because I can’t eat it, I’m attached to it in a different intellectual way,” Largey says. She loves working with seafood so much that she continues to prepare it now in her own restaurant kitchen, even though she could easily delegate the task. “It’s very technical, and the margin of error in seafood is very small,” she says. “You have to be an incredibly sound and savvy cook to be great at seafood.” Perhaps it’s even more of a badge of honor to prepare a great fillet you can never enjoy yourself.

While she’s open about her seafood allergy with members of her staff at Simone, Largey says it was a big deal when she told them she was finally going to “come out about the allergy” for this article. As Largey explains, “I’ve never had any anxiety or issue about being openly gay, but I’m very closeted about my seafood allergy.”

Once it was common to see restaurants of a certain caliber proudly tout that they would not alter recipes for any reason; today, it’s more likely for a server to ask if there are any allergies at the table before taking an order. It’s been well documented by the media that food allergies are on the rise. Schools have “nut-free” zones, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are no longer the go-to lunch on field trips. There’s an entire genre of food allergy cookbooks. Yet while there are plenty of resources for diners with allergies, the increasing number of chefs allergic to the very ingredients that they work with for a living are left without a guidebook. If it’s acceptable for the kitchen to go out of its way to accommodate a diner’s needs, should chefs with allergies get the same treatment?

Allergies affect people differently. A common nut allergy might result in a mild rash for some people while others can’t even breathe the air from a bag of mixed nuts without reaching for an EpiPen. Some people can cook with the ingredient but not eat the food. Others may not have an allergy — which causes an immune response and a risk of anaphylaxis — but instead suffer from food intolerance, more commonly associated with what is politely referred to as “gastrointestinal distress.”

When chef Zoe Schor was in her early 20s and in the midst of culinary school, she developed a nut allergy. “When I started working in restaurants, I was worried it would be an issue,” she says, though she’s been pleasantly surprised. “For the most part, people have been understanding.” She’s encountered some light teasing from her peers, but, Schor says, that’s not uncommon when it comes to “anything perceived as a weakness in a young cook.”

The biggest takeaway from her allergy has been discovering just how poorly the hospitality industry still handles them. She’s had incidents where she’s been assured by waitstaff that her meal didn’t have nuts, only to find out that an ingredient like orgeat (an almond-based syrup) had been used in her cocktail. But she says people are more understanding than they used to be. “Ten years ago there was a lot more of this griping of, ‘Oh, this diner has a so-called “allergy.”’”

Schor has made it a mission to do what she can to accommodate her guests’ dietary restrictions — whatever the reason. “In my last restaurant, diners would say they had a nut allergy and the server would tell them, ‘Well, so does the chef.’ They loved that because they knew I would take it seriously.”

When Schor opened her Chicago restaurant, Split-Rail, in 2017, it was as a totally nut-free establishment. “I realized how great it was to walk into a restaurant and discover that you won’t find a nut,” she says, noting that they do use some ingredients processed in facilities that also process nuts. Since she overhauled Split-Rail this summer to focus on fried chicken, she and her team also added a dedicated gluten-free fryer, which has been a big hit with guests who usually can’t eat fried foods because of the risk of cross contamination.

But food allergies aren’t always a recipe for success among people who cook for a living. A lot of the conversation around food allergies has centered on children. Between 1997 and 2007, the CDC found that the prevalence of food allergies increased 18 percent for people under the age of 18. But one study found that half of adults with food allergies developed at least one additional allergy as an adult. For some chefs, a new allergy can spell the end of a career — at least as they’ve known it.

Kim Cozzetto Maynard taught at Seattle cooking school the Pantry for five years but was recently diagnosed with celiac disease. Maynard, who is of Italian descent, was a pasta specialist at the school. At first she hoped she could continue with her specialty and just avoid tasting the food, but she also reacted to inhaling flour and getting it on her skin and clothing. “Eventually it came to my attention that if I’m going to keep cooking, I need to do it in a gluten-free space,” she says.

Initially, Maynard thought she could teach gluten-free classes at the school, but she realized gluten “is everywhere in a space where you’re producing glutenous foods.” Maynard explains, “Random things you wouldn’t think about, like wooden spoons, can absorb gluten particles.” There was no way she could create a gluten-free space without building a bubble inside the classroom and using a completely different set of equipment. When I asked if gluten-free cooking schools existed in town, she laughed. “As far as I know there’s no dedicated gluten-free [professional] kitchen,” Maynard says, though she’s still hoping to find one where she can teach classes. She adds that even with all her culinary knowledge, it was really difficult for her to go on a gluten-free diet. “There’s a huge need for people to learn how to deal with all that,” she says, “and I’d like to be part of it.”

Today, so many chefs have food allergies that culinary schools are trying to find ways to accommodate students allergic to certain ingredients. A few years ago, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) created a committee charged with finding better ways to serve their students with allergies. Dean Brendan Walsh estimates that as many as 10 percent of the student body suffers from some type of food allergy. Even one of the school’s instructors has a severe pumpkin-seed allergy. “And that’s not even in the top eight,” Walsh says, referring to the eight most common food allergens: Milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybean account for 90 percent of all food allergies in the United States.

A seafood class is required to graduate from the CIA, and at first, the staff wasn’t sure how to deal with students with fish allergies. “What can you do to expose them to those competencies?” Walsh says. While some students choose to work with the fish without tasting it themselves, those with severe allergies can now use live video feeds to watch the instructor from another room. He suspects many students still neglect to tell the administration about their allergies. “Even in a dining format, students don’t want to identify themselves as someone with allergies or special food needs,” Walsh says. “They want to be like everybody else — not feel like there’s a special table they need to sit at.

“Why would someone with such a severe allergy embark into an industry where they’re facing it all the time?” Walsh asks. “It’s an unbelievable question, but the fact is [these allergies] are here to stay.” Yet he sees chefs with food allergies as a potential asset in a dining space where increasing numbers of diners have allergies too. “Someone with allergies is going to be a lot more cognizant and proactive in the kitchen space,” he says.

In some cases, allergies can make for creative chefs. “How do I take something like garlic, that’s so important to food, and reverse-engineer it?” That was one question Becky Selengut, a Seattle-based cookbook author and private chef, asked herself when she learned that a garlic allergy was the reason she was often vomiting or breaking out in hives.

Selengut thinks she developed the allergy in her 40s. While she can cook with garlic, she can’t taste the finished food, and in addition to a garlic allergy, she has an onion intolerance. “I started a blog because I thought I’d have to stop cooking,” she says. “It was an allergy no one had heard of at the time really. I was a private chef and had lots of clients and it felt like I couldn’t do my job anymore.”

Selengut compares being cut off from these basic ingredients to having her “hands cut off.” But she managed to find workarounds — often involving willing recipe tasters. “I don’t want to make garlic- or allium-free cookbooks, so I develop recipes, taste them, then add the allium back in and have friends taste it,” she says. “Now I can approximate garlic — not to someone looking for that exact flavor, but close enough that I’ve never had any of my clients know I wasn’t using garlic.” She adds, “We over-rely on it in the kitchen.”

Back when she still worked in kitchens, Selengut says that “other than peanut or something, we didn’t really believe in allergies.” Unfortunately, change has not been uniform in the industry, and while kitchens are better at taking allergies seriously, she still regularly finds garlic in her food when she goes out to eat. The only way to make things better, Selengut says, is to have “a serious overhaul of quality control and management from the chef de cuisine to the busser.”

Selengut says she now has more empathy when people say they have an allergy or intolerance. “It spurs on my creativity — I look forward to it because I like the challenge,” she says. She believes her food has only gotten better since her allergy started. “It’s a pain in the ass when I travel,” she notes, “but it didn’t end my career.” In fact, her career took off thanks to her now-defunct blog about being a chef with food allergies. Selengut got her first book deal after an editor whose daughter had food allergies approached her at a conference. “As long as people are open to the challenge,” she says, “[a food allergy] can be a good thing.”

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Zoë van Dijk is a freelance illustrator living and working in Brooklyn, New York.
Editor: Monica Burton