An increasing number of chefs are being diagnosed with an allergy or food intolerance but how does this affect their work? Emily Manson reports
Everyone knows that being a chef is a physically demanding job. Long hours, lots of standing, intense heat and repetitive actions can all cause extreme tiredness, aching joints, skin complaints and more. But what happens when the balance tips from demanding to shattering and from there to meltdown? What do you do when your body says ‘stop'? Some may take pills of varying legality to help them through, others may leave the profession, but many chefs keep plugging on, developing an allergy or intolerance in the process.
Phil Vickery, chef and food ambassador for Coeliac UK, warns: "Chefs are very good at just carrying on regardless, not looking after themselves and relying on coffee, cigarettes, alcohol or drugs to get them through. But it's no way to live. As you get older you just can't brush all these things under the carpet." He acknowledges that some chefs feel it's a sign of weakness to admit to any complaint, but adds: "They have to realise it's not about being macho and get rid of that attitude."
Does allergy = Game Over?
But what happens if it's your job to touch or taste exactly the foods your body can't handle. Is it game over for your career?
Apparently not. Many chefs already cope with a huge variety of allergies and intolerances in their daily lives and, with one in three people now suffering from some sort of allergy or intolerance, an increasing number are having to learn to adapt.
Dietitian Helen Bond, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, says knowledge is power. "If you are diagnosed with an allergy or intolerance, you need to find out all you can about it," she advises. "You need to take control of your own health and remember no one else will know unless you tell them."
Depending on the severity of the reaction, she adds, sufferers may still be able to take small levels of exposure, or conversely they may need to equip themselves with an EpiPen or adrenaline in case of accidental contact.
But it's not all bad news. Hospitality consultant Gordon Cartwright says: "I'm genuinely in awe of award-winning chefs who conquer allergies in their day-to-day job. Not only are the allergies constant threats to their wellbeing, but not being able to taste the food places so much more emphasis on the other senses." Top chefs, he has noticed, learn to tell how fresh a scallop is just by smelling it. "We're not just talking edible or off; it's possible to smell the degrees of freshness and so know if you have a product at it's best just by its odour," Cartwright explains.
Even during a busy service it's possible, with a good nose, to isolate the smell of something cooking from other kitchen smells. Touch is also very important and already used by chefs to check degrees of cooked meat but can be refined even further.
Cartwright adds: "Beethoven was almost deaf when he wrote his last symphony, but it didn't mean he couldn't write music. His instincts were so finely honed, he could look at the movement of the orchestra and know what was needed to create perfection. Chefs can fine-tune their skills in the same way."
Most Common Allergies and Intolerances
Shellfish/seafood and fish
Dairy - cow's milk/lactose intolerance
Common symptoms Sneezing , runny nose, itchy eyes and ears, severe wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, sinus problems, a sore palate and nettle-like rash, asthma, eczema, headaches, lethargy and loss of concentration
Five ingredients you might not suspect contain gluten
shane osborn chef and co-owner, pied a terre, london
Allergy All types of fish and shellfish, and ceps
How did you discover your allergies?
It started in 2003/04, the year I got the second Michelin star at Pied à Terre. From when Tom Aikens left in December 1999 until the second star, I was always low on staff, so I was working crazy hours, under lots of pressure and my body was becoming increasingly tired and my immune system was getting low. I'd been having headaches and migraines and generally feeling a bit anaemic for a while but I just put that down to stress.
Then one night after service I got really bad stomach cramps and began thinking I had colon cancer. I went to the doctors and was terrified but then they did blood tests and discovered that I had food allergies and intolerances. They said it was due to my exhausted body and such intense contact with food.
How do you deal with it? I've cut it all out of my diet now and learnt to trust people's opinions. Luckily David Moore, my business partner, and Mathieu Germond, my restaurant manager, are great, as well as my sous and head chefs.
I'm also lucky to have great regulars who I can give trial dishes to. I give them a dish as an extra middle course and then chat to them afterwards about how they felt it worked - after all, they're the ones who matter most.
Do you take precautions? I have an EpiPen just in case. I've had a couple of accidents with cross-contamination of garnishes. My last one was five years ago and it was scary as I felt my tongue get itchy, my throat begin to swell and that's what makes you panic, but I lay on the office floor and concentrated on breathing, determined not to be taken away in an ambulance. I have to leave the house if my wife cooks fish, though, as even the cooking smells make my tongue itchy.
How has it changed the way you work? I'm fortunate to be in charge so I can tailor my work. I have to be careful about cross-contamination. As employers we need to be careful and keep an eye out for staff. If guys show any signs of itchy hands and they're on langoustines, for example, it's really important to recognise the signs and always be on the look-out. We have a duty of care to the staff but that's easy as I have a small kitchen. It's harder in bigger operations.
Tom kerridge Chef-proprietor, Hand & Flowers, Marlow
How did you discover your allergy? I've always had a shellfish allergy but I didn't know as I never ate prawns as a kid and didn't eat lobster until I was 22. I was sick afterwards but didn't put two and two together until I started working with langoustines in kitchens. It began as an allergy to crustaceans and up to about five years ago I could eat molluscs like mussels but it's now developed to include them too.
What happens? I'm lucky my allergy isn't life-threatening; I'm just sick. I accidentally had a tiny brown shrimp a month ago - I'm a big bloke, but 20 minutes later I was puking out the back.
How has it affected your cooking? I like to think it hasn't made much difference, but I suppose it does affect the way we think. None of our dishes are shellfish-based, but that's partly because, as a pub with a Michelin star, we like to offer value for money. Occasionally we have lobster as a main course, but never oysters. We used to have scallops and crab but not any more. We use mussels and cockles but as long as you know they are fresh, then it's the vinaigrette or sauce that matters and I can taste that before they're added.
How do you taste your food? I'm lucky that I have a very good team who I can trust. When I did Great British Menu I did taste the crayfish Scotch egg once or twice, but it was the guys in the kitchen who I relied on to tell me if the seasoning was balanced. I trust them implicitly as they know how I like things.
michael mccamley Coeliac UK's gluten-free chef of the year 2010 and chef-owner of Venue Catering, Northern Ireland
Condition Coeliac disease (cannot eat gluten)
How did you find out you had coeliac disease? I was working in Australia and started feeling worse and worse. Initially I had dizziness and aches in my joints, then I became lethargic and just wanted to sleep all the time.
I'd had the symptoms all my life, including other gastro problems and stomach ulcers, but when I started working as a chef, with so many people being exhausted and having aches and pains and stomach problems, I just thought it was normal.
One day I started getting shivers and shakes. I thought I was diabetic the way they came on so fast, so I went to the doctor. Aussie medicine is fantastic and within three days they'd diagnosed me as coeliac. It can take people in the UK years to get diagnosed. Within a fortnight I felt like superman.
How did it affect your work? I was very down for a while as I thought I wouldn't be able to carry on my career. I thought I'll either have to pull the plug or keep striving forward, so that's what I did.
What changed? I had to totally readjust the way I did things. I looked at everything in much more depth and really took in what ingredients were going into dishes and ready-made pastes and sauces, etc. I started making a lot of stuff in-house as then I could ensure that we were using healthy and natural ingredients and not additives or preservatives.
Is it hard to maintain quality with gluten-free ingredients? Four or five years ago it was pretty basic - the bread tasted like cardboard, that type of thing - but now it does actually taste like bread and desserts are getting better too. It's a growing market and that's recognised by suppliers, so it's only going to get better and more widespread as more and more people are diagnosed with intolerances.
What to do
If you think you have an allergy or intolerance you can contact your GP and request an Allergen Specific IgE blood test and skin prick test. For more information visit:
British Institute for Allergy and Environmental Therapywww.allergy.org.uk
Phil Vickery's Top Tips on Working With an Allergy or Intolerance
â- Communication is key - tell your brigade, management structure and all suppliers
â- Get someone else in the brigade to do the tasting for you
â- Research as much as you can about your allergy or intolerance
â- Understand what you've got and what it does to your body
â- Take precautions - if you need an EpiPen, get one
â- Be incredibly disciplined, don't be tempted to let things slide
â- Eat well and look after yourself