Ask Hot Dish: Where can I eat out if I have food allergies?

Strategies for eating out when some foods could kill you

Strategies for eating out when some foods could kill you

We at the Hot Dish love helping eaters find the perfect dining or drinking experience. In a new ongoing series, we'll be answering your most pressing food- and drink-related questions. If you've got a query, email us and you might see your question and our answer here.

My grandson has a peanut allergy. Is there anywhere safe to take him?

Dining out is a time to come together with friends and family, a chance to relax over a plate of delicious food. When you're dealing with a food sensitivity that can result in inconvenient discomfort or something much worse, how do you know where to eat? 

It's estimated that some 15 million Americans are afflicted by food allergies and 1 in every 13 children suffers from some form of this potentially deadly aversion. We put the call out to local chefs and sufferers of food allergies to learn more about safe dining when dealing with dire dietary concerns.

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We spoke with chef Molly Herrmann, co-owner of Kitchen in the Market and owner of Tastebud Tart Catering, where she often cooks for clients with food concerns. Her degree is in nutrition, and Herrmann is also the mother of a son who suffers from peanut and tree nut allergies, among others. Her son AJ is a happy kid with a sophisticated palate who loves to dine out, so they have some strategies:

Thomas Kim, chef and co-owner of the Rabbit Hole (along with wife Kat Melgaard) understands the needs of diners with food sensitivities as he suffers from them himself. He even keeps an EpiPen on hand in case of an emergency. "Because of the prevalence of peanut allergies, we don't use anything that contains them," Kim says.

Not all chefs are so quick to embrace all claims of allergies. In an interview with the Pioneer Press, chef Bryan Morcom of Restaurant Alma claimed he wished the gluten-free dining was a trend that would die. What was an off-the-cuff glib comment stirred up a hornet's nest of reactions, leading the restaurant's owner and executive chef, Alex Roberts, to release a statement that said, "We have made efforts to educate our staff and increase our gluten-free offerings." 

Roberts's other restaurants, Brasa in Minneapolis and St. Paul, adhere to the standards set forth by the Celiac Foundation.

"If you say you're gluten-free, but then order a beer, we're going to be skeptical. It's unfortunate that the rotten few ruin it for everybody," Kim says. "My staff, we all take dietary restrictions very seriously. While 9 out of 10 people who claim an allergy may only dislike an ingredient, all it takes is the one person to have a terrible reaction." Many of Kim's dishes at the Rabbit Hole are naturally gluten-free and others can be modified upon request.

But what if your allergies go well beyond the more common nut and gluten varieties? That's the problem for local blogger, columnist, and cookbook author Stephanie A. Meyer. She had already long eliminated gluten from her diet after discovering a severe reaction, but has since found she has other food allergies. While working on her upcoming Twin Cities Chef's Table cookbook, she realized that grains and other foods were creating reactions much like the ones she experienced from her onetime nemesis gluten. That was when she decided to get serious. She's currently on an Autoimmune Protocol elimination diet that is incredibly restrictive. How does she strategize eating out when all kinds of foods are off the table, including dairy, eggs, all members of the nightshade family, and more?

She dines with those she trusts. "Basically anywhere they're processing their own meat and can speak to its integrity. [I look for] dishes cooked without canola or other industrial oils and careful enough service to really know the menu. Nonalcoholic cocktails are a bonus," said Meyer.

What are her favorite safe zones? "Corner Table for pork belly and sauerkraut, Burch for steak and salad, the Kenwood for fish and salad, the Lynn for bacon steak and fresh fruit. A couple of weeks ago I was at La Belle Vie and chef Mike DeCamp made me the most beautiful, delicious food. Oh, and can I say the Strip Club? [Chef/owner] J.D. Fratzke has bent over backwards for me."

The key to safe, enjoyable eating is communication. If you are at all concerned about navigating the menu, call the restaurant ahead of time and let them know about your concerns and limitations. They call it hospitality for a reason: The great chefs and restaurants know that happy and safe customers are the ones most likely to become regulars.

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