When my twins were born six weeks premature weighing four pounds and without the sucking reflex, I watched them eat through feeding tubes. It was heartbreaking to watch machines do what was supposed to be “my” work. Luckily for them—and me—within a week, the boys learned to eat. Since then, it’s been a cinch.
Eight-year-old Ella isn’t so lucky.
As an infant, Ella was diagnosed with not one, not two, not three, but more than 10 food allergies. This beautiful, curly-haired little girl cannot eat or even touch peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, oranges, bananas, dairy, wheat, eggs, and all types of melons. Often, kids will outgrow one or more of their food allergies by age six. Ella has not. Ella has broken out in rashes and suffered from swelling more times than her mom can count. She is hospitalized at least once a year with anaphylaxis, a severe reaction that can be deadly.
Not a day goes by when Ella’s mom, Dawn, doesn’t worry. She can feed Ella, sure. But she has to prepare, usually by hand, every morsel of food that goes into her daughter’s mouth.
So eating out is, well, basically, out.
OK, that’s not entirely true. Ella does get to go to McDonald’s and Whataburger through the drive-thru. She gets a plain beef patty. While the rest of America chows down on French fries and milkshakes and chicken nuggets, Ella gets a not-so-“Happy Meal.” Though Ella doesn’t know much different, and Dawn works really hard—like, life consuming hard—to make eating “fun” and “normal” for Ella, Dawn told me that as a mom, she has never felt so isolated from “everyone else.”
That’s one reason why Ella’s Allergist recently took Ella and her mom out to eat. What? OUT to eat? Yes, out to eat at Nosh, a San Antonio restaurant whose Executive Chef is known for making dining out easier for people with severe food allergies—people like Ella.
I had the honor of joining them on what appeared to me to be a rather risky outing.
Dawn read my mind. As we entered Nosh, Dawn told me her friends would think she’s crazy taking her highly allergic little girl into a restaurant where so many of her allergens are served. “They would tell me I’m playing Russian roulette,” Dawn said.
As we sat down, Ella hid behind her menu. I think I would have, too.
Shortly, Nosh Executive Chef Luca Della Casa greeted us.
Hailing from Italy, Chef Luca serves up some of San Antonio’s finest foods at the award-winning Silo Elevated Cuisine and Nosh. He rose to fame last year and put San Antonio on the map when he competed in and finished second on “Food Network Star.” He dabbles as the face of Isabel Naturtuna and, most important to Ella’s world, became involved with food allergy awareness after some friends came into his restaurant one night challenged over what to order for their little girl with food allergies. It hit Chef Luca how food, his passion, isn’t enjoyable for some. He now partners with FARE and Kids With Food Allergies, a division of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (See his #ChallengeChefLuca allergy-friendly recipes here.)
Almost before Chef Luca could even say hello, though, Dawn reflexively whipped out Ella’s allergy card. (She carries a card listing Ella’s allergens everywhere and requests that the chef take it into the kitchen for constant reference.) She handed the card to Chef Luca. Chef Luca’s big brown eyes smiled compassionately at Dawn and Ella. Dawn smiled back conservatively. Chef Luca began to explain how he would cook Ella’s meal. He told Dawn how Nosh sanitizes its food preparation boards and more to avoid cross-contamination. He talked about his oils and methods of frying.
Dawn read and re-read the menu boasting of pizzas, crepes, and wild game. But with a heavy sigh now so familiar to her, she shook her head and told Chef Luca there was nothing on it—not one thing—Ella could eat.
So, Chef Luca told Ella he would create a dish just for her. It would have chicken, rice, and lots of vegetables.
This conversation between food allergy patron and chef is crucial, according to Dr. Patricia Gomez Dinger. Dr. Dinger says the most important thing someone with a food allergy can do while dining out is to go into detail about the severity of his/her allergen(s) face to face with the chef and waitstaff. And don’t butter it up. If you might die if you accidentally ingest a food, tell them that.
In my attempt to learn more about allergy-friendly opportunities for dining out, I also reached out to a grass-roots support team called San Antonio Food Allergy Support Team. In a Facebook thread, I asked for suggestions on other allergy-friendly restaurants. A mom directed me toward the website Allergy Eats. Another mom whose son is airborne/skin contact peanut allergic shared an experience from Alamo Cafe: “My son had a reaction there, even though they prepared peanut butter and jelly in a separate area of the kitchen and with separate utensils. The manager said they could not explain how he could have been exposed so they pulled peanut products from their menu completely. We eat there almost weekly now and have never had an issue.”
While we waited for Ella’s meal to arrive, Dawn shared with me her “must ask” list of questions for restaurant waitstaff or chef:
- What type of oil is used in food preparation?
- Do you prepare the food separately?
- Do you clean the grill after every use?
- Is the food in a marinade, and if so, what are its ingredients?
After a short wait and discussing our ideas of the meal Chef Luca was about to surprise Ella with, the server entered the room.
And there it was.
On a crisp, white plate sat a meal fit for a king (or princess).
It was colorful and smelled of spices.
As the server lowered the plate in front of Ella, I watched Dawn inhale deeply. She was filled with emotions almost as mixed as the vegetables in the dish. Dawn told me while she was excited over how pretty and hardly plain it was, she could not escape the fear that one of Ella’s fiercest enemies might have somehow contaminated it. In her mind she could only once again hear her friends telling her over and over how crazy she was to tempt the probability of a mistake.
Ella took a bite. She took another. Three minutes passed, about the time in which Ella would show signs of a serious reaction, and there was nothing.
Not only did Ella have no allergic reaction to any of the foods she had eaten, with each additional bite she came out of her shell a little more.
The experience eating out at Nosh moved Dawn to tears. Eyes wet with joy and probably relief, Dawn got up and hugged Chef Luca as he came out to check on the table.
For once, Dawn didn’t feel so isolated.
I, too, had to hold back tears. As a fellow mom, I got to watch this master protector sit next to her severely allergic daughter among friends and family in a restaurant and enjoy a meal. Not just survive it, but enjoy it.
This exciting new opportunity doesn’t mean Dawn or Ella can let down her guard. For as long as Ella tests positive to each of her allergens, eating out will require major planning, attention to detail, acute communication, and courage.
However, for at least one afternoon, Ella got a taste of what so many kids get to experience all the time. And boy, was it ever delicious.
Do you know of other allergy-friendly restaurants around San Antonio at which you’ve had a positive experience? Do you have a #ChallengeChefLuca recipe for Chef Luca? Let us know in the comments below.