Yep, Top Chef is in my sights again, but this time as a lesson about cross-contact and how little it seems to be understood by not only the general public but by chefs. Did any of you see last week's "Top Chef Desserts" episode? It was "Restaurant Wars" (in this case, Bakery Wars) in which the cheftestants created a makeshift bakery for one day and then competed with their dishes.
Obviously, there were peanuts and tree nuts galore in these dishes. However, at one point, a "customer" came in and said he was allergic to nuts. One of the pastry chefs then said he would make a "safe" treat for this customer and served him one. Now, they didn't show what precautions they took, if any, but with all the peanuts and tree nuts swirling around the kitchen, they should not have served this customer. Not if he had a true nut allergy. The cross-contact risk is too high and the cheftestants were under an extreme time limit.
Cross-contact is simultaneously one of the most important and most difficult aspects of food allergies to explain to others. People will say "You can have this--it doesn't have nuts in it." How many times have you heard this? I know I've heard it more times than I can count and so has my daughter.
Being responsible about a severe food allergy is about more than ingredients. The environment in which food is prepared is just as important. So is the placement of the items once baked. Take a "nut-free" cookie baked in a "nut-free" facility and then put it on a bakery display next to hazelnut cake and peanut butter cups. Now the "nut-free" cookie is unsafe due to possible cross-contact.
Bake a plain vanilla cake in a small kitchen that just featured a peanut butter cupcake. The plain vanilla cake may be harboring peanut matter and is not "safe" for those with a nut allergy.
Take a plain Butterball turkey and stuff it with cornbread pecan stuffing and that plain turkey is now unsafe for someone with a nut allergy. Thanksgiving is a whole other can of worms that I will address in future posts. But since so many of us will be explaining cross-contact in the coming weeks, I couldn't resist throwing it in here now.
Cross-contact is the reason for food labels that say "may contain peanuts." It's the reason for companies choosing to create and label foods "made in a nut-free facility." Cross-contact is real and not to be downplayed.
I've heard Chef Ming Tsai talk about his food allergy-friendly restaurant Blue Ginger and how he tells his chefs to treat any food allergens like they are "raw chicken." When dealing with raw chicken you change cutting boards and utensils and wash your hands frequently or risk salmonella. I think the Raw Chicken Analogy is as good as any I've ever heard. Feel free to use it.
The main thing about cross-contact is that if you live with a severe food allergy or care for someone who does, you can't let others lack of understanding about it get in the way of safety. I know people can get offended if you tell them that you or your child can't partake of their particular foods that "don't have nuts in it."
Think of raw chicken. And then skip the food in question with a thank you and a smile.