Owner Seth Champion helps waitress Sarah Austin put plates together as he works the lunch crowd at Champy's, their restaurant located on M.L. King Boulevard that specializes in fried chicken. Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Restaurateur Seth Champion is quite familiar with food allergies. As owner of Champy's on M.L. King Boulevard, he has run into many customers who have allergies, he says.
"Most people ask frequently about what type oil we use," he says. "Those people have peanut allergies."
Others are sensitive to gluten, he adds, and ask if they use milk, eggs or flour in the batter for the fried chicken. The fact that all of Champy's chicken is made to order makes cooking for those with food allergies a little easier.
Gluten can be tricky and show up in places you wouldn't expect, according to local caterer Deborah Jane Anziano.
"One time I almost purchased beef stock that contained gluten," she says.
With three regular customers with gluten allergies in their families, she must cook accordingly and look twice to make sure she's not making something that will set off problems.
Sam Varnell knows firsthand how eating out can be potentially hazardous to his health. The 10-year-old was eating an ice cream cone at a local ice cream parlor and soon began to itch all over, says his mother, Amanda Nelson-Varnell.
He'd asked for a dairy-free ice cream and was told they did have a dairy-free one, but he was given the wrong kind, she says. "Fortunately, his dad, Phil, had Sam's emergency kit and gave him antihistamine and an inhaler," she says.
Now, when the family goes out to eat, she says she's always careful to check the menu on the Internet ahead of time. "I've also been known to make a phone call or two to ask questions ahead of time," she says.
Local dietitian and food coach Pam Kelle says that's the thing to do.
"It is the responsibility of the person with the allergy to alert the restaurant management of the allergy," she says. "It's a very good practice to call ahead and speak to the chef, if possible, or at least the management."
However, she adds, if the allergy is straightforward such as seafood, shellfish or gluten, it's a little easier to completely avoid that food. But "with so much cooking done in the same space, and with the same counter tops and cookware, utensils, etc. being used, it is very easy for contamination to occur, especially in the case of seafood, no matter how cautious the kitchen staff is."
For extreme food allergies, a person may even resort to asking those dining with him or her to avoid ordering certain foods. To avoid that uncomfortable situation, some people may avoid eating out altogether, Kelle says.
For those who suffer from such allergies, there's a new book on the market with instructions on how to dine out without worries.
Kim Koeller, who has celiac disease but has managed a successful career that has her eating in restaurants around the world, has collaborated with veteran restaurateur Robert La France to write "Let's Eat Out: A Timeless Reference for Special Diets." In it, those with food allergies can learn what questions they should ask when dining in all sorts of restaurants, including Indian, Italian, Thai, Mexican and more.
It's a passport to eating out that can take away the fright that might come with not know what's in each bite. In addition, the book comes with a pocket guide that you can discreetly tuck in your purse or pocket.
Since Mexican cuisine is a popular one in Chattanooga, here's are some sample questions from the book.
• Do the corn or tortilla chips contain wheat flour?
• What oil is used for frying?
• Does the cheese dip contain wheat flour in the sauce?
• Are the stocks and broths used in soups made from bouillon that may contain gluten?
If you have food allergies, I'd like to know if you have a restaurant that you trust to prepare your meal with your allergies in mind. Email me, and I'll pass the news along.