Dining...the Ming Tsai Way
I had the pleasure of chatting with Chef Ming Tsai recently. As the owner of the world-renowned restaurant Blue Dragon and the father of a child with severe food allergies, Chef Ming realizes the importance of food safety and how seriously it should be taken, especially by those who prepare food for a living. Blue Dragon is 100% nut-free, and they are able to accommodate all of the major food allergies. Chef Ming made it his mission to pioneer a food allergy safety law, which is now followed in Massachusetts. His hope is that one day the law will span across the US (which is my hope too). Following is my conversation with him.
Q: What makes a restaurant food allergy friendly?
A: I think the most important thing is that a food allergy friendly restaurant understands. The worst thing is the eye roll — you get the eye roll from the manager or you can feel it on the phone from the hostess. Understanding and acceptance are so important. At Blue Dragon, we are psyched if someone calls us with a food allergy. It isn’t just the right thing to do because someone could die — it’s a smart business decision.
Q: How do you create repeat customers in the food allergy community?
A: Everyone talks about how you build loyalty. Well, you do that with great food and great service, but if you can do that with safety, you will have a loyal customer for life. There are 15 million people with food allergies. Who makes the decision when you go out to eat? It’s the person with the food allergies. They want to go somewhere that’s safe.
Disney [theme park restaurants] are some of the safest. They take care of your kids like nobody’s business. They have 2,000 to 5,000 food allergy cases per week. They write everything down and have a system. They welcome you to the restaurant and say, “Oh, we know you have [this] allergy.” It’s the same thing when you come to Blue Dragon.
When Rotten [a docuseries on food where Chef Ming was featured] came out on Netflix, tons of people came in who had never taken their child out to a restaurant. But also, tons of people came in and I would say, “Oh, who has the food allergy?” and they would say, “No one, we just wanted to come in and try it.”
Q: Have you seen vast improvements in the ways in which people with food allergies are served at restaurants in the last 5-10 years?
A: Yes, and I gauge it by customer comments. In Massachusetts we passed the first law to make restaurants safer. Quite often, the mom or dad will say, “Thanks so much for making restaurants safer.” This is a health issue — it’s not just about convenience. Unfortunately, though, the other reason it’s more improved is because it’s more prevalent. I had a friend whose kid was in a class where 60% of the boys and 30% of the girls had food allergies. That’s the reality. What people need to realize is that this is life and death for a lot of people.
Some people abuse the system. They’re eating gluten-free because of a diet, but they will say they have a wheat allergy because it’s easier. That is so unfair to the kitchen and chefs because we will then see them eat a cookie after we did a huge gluten-free dish for them. For the millions of people out there who actually do have a food allergy, do not lie and say that you do. Chefs will become complacent
Q: How many food allergy customers do you serve daily?
A: Probably 10 a day, minimum — enough that there’s at least 2 or 3 tickets at a time. The biggest allergy that I see now is gluten, but it could be skewed because of the people I mentioned before.
Q: Many families have a lot of anxiety about dining out. As a renowned chef, what advice would you offer anyone feeling uneasy about the experience?
A: When you first call the restaurant and make the reservation, you should get an instant read of how receptive they are. If you’re a walk-in, get a feeling for their attitude at the door. If the eyes roll up, move on. Also, go online and look at the menu and make sure it makes sense. And, go on Yelp — you will be able to see reviews. There are a lot of resources. It’s okay to ask the restaurant for something basic. Comfort is the only way you can relax. The other thing is, don't make the first visit on a Saturday at 7:30 pm. Most mistakes in a restaurant will be on a Saturday.
Q: What would you like to see changed in regards to food allergy safety within the next 5 years?
A: The one part of the law that didn't go through was the bible/reference manual. It’s a notebook compilation of all of your dishes you’re serving that night, but done in a smart format with the allergens at the top. That should be the law and it should be part of the health department. It’s life and death. They’re already inspecting, so why not check for this?
Photo Credit: Anthony Tieuli