The owner of an Indian restaurant in North Yorkshire, England, was sentenced earlier this week to six years in prison after being convicted of causing the death of a customer with a nut allergy. The customer had ordered chicken tikka masala to go from the restaurant, Indian Garden, and specified the order was to contain no nuts. He had ordered from the restaurant in the past without incident.
But prosecutors in the case, which is detailed in this article from the New York Times, had argued that because the owner was deep in debt he had started to cut corners. He had replaced an almond powder with a cheaper blend of ground nuts, and, perhaps more significant, he had hired untrained, undocumented workers to cook at his six restaurants.
That last part is key. Restaurants cannot be complete allergy-free zones. I’ve always advised customers that it is incumbent upon them to communicate their allergies to the server, who must then be trusted to tell the cooks, who must then be trusted to understand the possible severity of the situation and the possible consequences of not following the request to omit ingredients that could cause sickness or, as was the case in Britain, death.
The owner of the Indian Garden was cutting corners, but other owners, servers and cooks have become more cavalier with guests’ claims of allergies because they don’t take them all that seriously. Take the issue with people who prefer to stay gluten free in their diets. Precious few of them can actually claim a diagnosis of celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to react differently when gluten is ingested.
That’s not to say that people who have eschewed gluten from their diets don’t actually feel better. Yet a lot of people will simply tell the server that they’re allergic to gluten, just to ensure they are served items without any. Some servers may not believe them and don’t pass the note along to the kitchen as serious.
And some dietary requests are not related to health concerns. At Le Bernadin last week, I overheard the waiter greet the couple at the next table and ask if there were any dietary restrictions. The man, apparently a muslim, told the waiter “no alcohol or pork.” Though more a spiritual concern than a health one, the elimination of those items from the man’s diet was important to him.
Is it important enough to the waiter to communicate that to the kitchen? If he knows that the seafood dish the man just ordered is flambeed with brandy, does he tell him? Or does he assume that because the alcohol gets burned out of the sauce it doesn’t matter?
The key part, as I said above, is having staff you can trust, and having management that instills the sense of seriousness regarding dietary restrictions of all types.
What about you? As a restaurant guest with a food allergy, are you concerned about trusting the restaurant to honor your restriction? And if you’re a restaurant owner or chef, how do you educate your staff about such concerns to keep the restaurant’s reputation intact — and you out of prison?
Leave a comment below.