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Bad Chef.

A story of cross contamination and emergency room fun on a warm April evening.

I will spare you the other horrors of my night at a local restaurant. I live in a university town and it was a parents’ weekend, so everything was busy and hectic and even McDonalds was taking reservations (I kid, but it is not far off). So some issues were to be expected – you know, long waits and slow-ish service. What I didn’t expect was a total lack of control in the kitchen. I reviewed the other problems on Yelp yesterday.

I chose a restaurant that my mom & aunt had eaten at during the same weekend last year. My mom is gluten intolerant so the fact that she had a good experience there previously meant a lot to me.

This time, I hope the kitchen was just in a jumble. The menu clearly states that there is gluten free pasta available. I talked to the hostess when we made our reservations and she assured me that they could handle a gluten free order on a busy night.

The whole night was a comedy of errors. Nothing went right from the very start. After the drama, it was finally time to order. I asked 3 times exactly what was in my dish. Chicken, white wine, oregano, parmesan. On pasta.

Well, our waitress told me that the gluten free pasta substitution was a penne, so imagine my surprise when the two gluten free pastas arrived and were spaghetti. I asked the waitress to go back and verify with the kitchen. The kitchen told her that they ran out of penne and used gluten free spaghetti. I asked my mom what she thought (it has been so long since I have had normal pasta, I am not sure I could tell by texture what it was). She poked her spaghetti and said she thought it had the right texture.

I took a bite and it was delicious. Absolutely delicious. I took a second bite and my throat started to itch. I should have stopped there. I took a third bite and my throat closed up. I am very lucky that there was a nurse at the table next to ours and that I had an epi pen in my bag. I have never had to use one before and I was panicked. My mom had forgotten that I had an epi pen (this is what happens when you live 3 hours apart), so my tossing my purse at her totally confused her. The nurse asked if I had benadryl or an epi pen and I pointed at the bag. She managed to administer the medicine and my airways opened up. We left the restaurant immediately to go to the emergency room.

Our meal was comped and the owner has asked my aunt to tell me to call back. The owner assured my aunt that they would figure out what happened because after he talked to the kitchen staff, they assured him that the pasta was gluten free. I called today but they were closed. I will post a follow up when I hear back from the restaurant.

Now, how could this happen? I ordered a sauce that was not cream based and made sure that it did not include flour when talking to the waitress. She said that she made sure that the kitchen didn’t put any crutons on the pasta (not sure why they would do that). Our current theory is that the pasta was cooked in the same water as regular pasta or that one of their spice blends has wheat in it to keep it from clumping.

After talking to a fellow gluten-free co-worker I realized my mistake. I needed to reiterate the allergy. All of them. I should have talked to a kitchen manager. I should have ordered a non-pasta dish.

I survived after a 4 hour hold in the emergency room (I was told this is standard procedure) and am now on a 5 day steroid course and looking for an allergist – there seems to be only one in town, so it won’t be hard to choose!

Let this be a warning to not try a gluten free option the first time on a busy night. And not to eat out without talking to a chef or kitchen manager.

This is the first time I got hit with a dish that made me that sick. I have gotten the scratchy throat and sent back food that had crutons or bread on it. Heck, even Panera has served me without creating this type of reaction. I have eaten at¬†Italian¬†restaurants that offer gluten free options (I really love Maggiano’s and have heard good things about Biaggi’s). Maybe the only places that get it right consistently are the ones with corporate standards?

Any advice that you have on how to follow up with the restaurant and how to prevent this in the future would be incredibly helpful.

Edit: The restaurant invited me to come back for a free dinner. And promptly went out of business. I took the free meal and after talking to the chef, was told that my dinner was most likely contaminated with shellfish. (I can tell you that the pasta the first night was definitely wheat pasta because my mom also got sick). Seriously? After being assured that my dish had just the ingredients they told me? And being told it was being prepared separately?

6 comments

  1. Lizza says:

    Yes, you could have asked to talk to the chef/kitchen manager – but on a busy night, who knows if they will be available? And even if it’s slow, who says they will talk to you? Not to be pessimistic but you never know. I would say if you reiterate it to the server that you are very, very gluten-sensitive/allergic and it will cause you definite harm to eat, that should be good enough. Badger them about ingredients in everything and don’t let them blow you off – some lazy servers will be like yeah right, she *says* she’s allergic but she probably just doesn’t like it (sad but true.)

    To follow up, make sure you get a hold of the owner and review exactly what you ate and what happened (maybe have it written down so you don’t forget, I am awesome at planning conversations and forgetting shit as soon as someone answers the phone.) Ask him to figure out what happened if he hasn’t already. Tell him you want to know what he’s found out. I’m not a lawyer but you could possibly even request they pay your medical bills, if it is something that was definitely their fault.

    Good luck!

  2. Jules says:

    What a terrifying experience! You are doing the right thing to reach out to the restaurant and figure out what happened, as well as to educate them about the seriousness of situations like yours. Also, download my Restaurant Cards from my website (they’re free!) http://blog.julesglutenfree.com/?p=80 … if you laminate these and take them with you to restaurants, the server will take them to the kitchen, which reinforces the message that you have a very real food allergy that needs to be respected.
    Unfortunately, eating anywhere but your own home exposes you to the potential for contamination and food allergens; however, you can’t let food allergies rule your life. Be as proactive as you can be and always carry your epi-pen. The more of us eat out and take time to educate restaurants, the better all of our experiences will be.
    Hope you feel better soon!!!
    ~jules

  3. Oh how I can relate!
    I am very allergic to milk (NOT just “lactose intolerant”!) chicken and eggs, and carry an epi-pen everywhere – but if I actually had to USE it, I think I’d throw my purse to the nearest responsible looking adult in hopes they could decipher what I meant!!

    I am also vegan (partly out of necessity) and get doubtful looks/comments at restaurants all the time, I’m sure they’re wondering if my allergy is “real” or I’m just one of those picky eaters who fakes it. So far (knock on wood) I’ve been lucky but it’s always an adventure when I send my order back to the kitchen…

    Anyway – I just discovered your blog and have found loads of great ideas!! I shall be trying many of them VERY SOON!!! .

    • maryfran says:

      Thanks for stopping by! I am not sure I could survive being gluten free and vegan… Restaurants are crazy places, but once I find one that can handle my allergies, I become a regular!

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