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Eat Out Without Distress

05/09/2010 in news

When Linda Freeman of Marlboro wants to eat out, she picks a restaurant serving good food in a pleasant atmosphere. Most important, she chooses a location that can provide her with a gluten-free meal.

Crystal Carolan of Rhinebeck seeks establishments that make foods free of dairy, soy, egg, peanut, tree nut, sesame, seafood and fish.

Freeman has celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disease. Even trace amounts of wheat, barley or rye could cause her to become extremely ill. Food allergies affect two of Carolan's three children, so she needs to find meals free of those offending ingredients to ensure her children's health.

These two women are part of an increasing number of Hudson Valley residents seeking restaurants to accommodate dietary restrictions well beyond "dressing on the side.", Recent estimates put the incidence of celiac disease at 1 in 100 Americans, about 1 in 25 have food allergies, so chefs are working hard to serve these growing markets.

Though it takes some effort on both sides, with plenty of communication it is possible to get a meal at one of the valley's restaurants that's not only delicious, but safe for someone on a restricted diet as well.

Go local

Freeman, the president and founder of the Hudson Valley Celiac Support Group, suggests diners with food allergies or celiac disease go online first to check out a restaurant's menu.

"If everything seems focused on healthy eating - an emphasis on local foods, independently owned - then chances are they will be able to accommodate you."

Debra Maisel, co-owner of the Tivoli vegetarian restaurant Luna 61 with her husband, Peter Maisel, agrees.

"We know every ingredient in our products. People come in all the time and say, 'I can't eat this or that' and we go back and forth with the kitchen. There is so much on our menu we can do."

Call in advance

Once you've found a place you think might work for you, call ahead to talk about your needs. Many chefs say that can make all the difference. Without it "a restaurant may be very limited, but if they know ahead, they can plan a lot", said Chef Richard Coppedge, a Certified Master Baker at the Culinary Institute of America and author of "Gluten-Free Baking with the Culinary Institute of America."

"Don't just drop the bomb when you show up. If we have advance notice, we can do so many more things for you", said Charles Fells Jr., who along with his wife, Megan Fells, is the chef/owner of the Artist's Palate in Poughkeepsie. When customers let him know about a dietary restrictions before coming in, Charles Fells Jr. goes out of his way to make sure he has something for them, even if it means making an special trip to the store for additional items.

When you call, explain what you can, and cannot, eat and ask if the restaurant will be able to feed you a meal that's safe for you. Some restaurants, because of their small kitchens and limited staffs, may not be able to safely serve someone with food allergies or celiac disease. That is good information to know ahead of time.

Talk to the waiter

Jeanann Schneider of Tivoli has gluten intolerance, and her son, Beckett, is allergic to egg whites and strawberries, so she always tells the waitperson about the allergies.

"That way I'm able to double check allergy information", in a particular dish. She's also found waitstaff can speak with a chef about modifying recipes.

"Be as thorough as possible with your server(s), they are your go-between", adds Jenny Teague, the owner (along with her husband, Adam Teague) of Soul Dog, a Poughkeepsie eatery featuring homemade gluten-free specialties.

Many diners provide servers with a "chef card", for the kitchen explaining their condition and reminding everyone handling their food to be mindful.

Don't be shy

Plenty of people on restricted diets are hesitant to dine out. They're fearful of getting ill and aren't always sure how to make it clear to a restaurant that even a tiny bite of something may cause serious consequences.

Be polite, but absolutely speak up, Teague said.

"Don't be embarrassed about letting the restaurant know about your needs. They work for you." Also know you're in good company.

Jennifer Purcell, associate dean of restaurant education and operations at the Culinary Institute of America, said the institute has seen a rise in food allergies and celiac disease in its customers and students, and has no problems making accommodations at its restaurants.

If you don't get a good feeling from servers or chefs, perhaps they are impatient with your requests or seem confused about what's in a sauce or dessert , you have every right to walk out rather than putting your health in jeopardy.

But avoiding a food you're allergic to when it's the main ingredient in a dish usually isn't the main problem, said Dr. Prashant Ponda, an allergist with ENT and Allergy Associates LLP practicing in Newburgh and Fishkill.

"A greater challenge is avoiding the same food when it is a minor ingredient in a dish or when utensils or pans are shared from an entirely different dish during preparation in the kitchen", Ponda said.

A cutting board, knife or other tool may retain enough trace amounts of a previously prepared food to make a customer sick if it's not carefully washed down. Even eating a food fried in the same oil used to cook something a person is allergic to can trigger a reaction, Ponda said.

Coppedge agrees, calling contamination the No. 1 problem for celiac disease suffers. That's why it's so important to make sure the cook understands the severity of your condition.

Essell Hoenshell-Watson runs the Alternative Baker in Rosendale. Besides more traditional fare, he offers a variety of wheat-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free and vegan items on a rotating basis because so many of his customers have severe allergies or celiac disease.

His team makes sure tongs, hands, the counter, gloves, apron, utensils and bowls are all clean if he's preparing something for customers with food allergies. At Luna 61, Maisel said if someone comes in with a peanut allergy, for instance, they'll scrub the boards, wipe counters down and make sure the knife being used hasn't previously touched a peanut.

Give feedback

If a restaurant accommodated your requirements, be sure to let the owners and staff know how much you appreciate it. Making a safe meal can be extra effort, so food preparers appreciate positive feedback.

"It is very satisfying to bring joy to people. That is my motivation", Hoenshell-Watson said about his willingness to modify dishes for his patrons at The Alternative Baker.

The same steps also apply when diners with food restrictions eat at friends' or family members' homes, a situation with the potential for hurt feelings on both sides. To avoid this, let your hosts know how excited you are to join them and explain your health issues. Offer to bring a dish for everyone to share, so at least you know there's one thing available you feel comfortable eating.

Ponda said education is paramount, so the more you can explain to your hosts about the seriousness of your situation, the greater their understanding will be.

"We are not going to miss an opportunity to be with friends because of food allergies", said Melissa McNeese of Red Hook, whose 12-year-old son, William, is gluten-intolerant and dairy, soy, peanut and wheat allergic.

"I feel comfortable going out, because either I know the person will be making something safe, or because I know I'm bringing enough for William to have as good a time a everyone else."

Andrea Pyros • For The Poughkeepsie Journal •

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