Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Bravo TV's Chef Academy is Pretty Fishy in Dealing with Squid Allergy

Anybody that reads this blog regularly knows that I love reality TV shows that deal with cooking and chefs. I do a lot of cooking at home and also get a lot of inspiration from these shows with regards to recipe ideas and family meals. Plus, it's fascinating to me, as the mother of a child with life-threatening food allergies, to discover how much chefs know or care about food allergies. How do kitchens cope with allergy requests or issues "behind-the-scenes?" And are food allergies even on these people's radar?

In the past year, especially, I've found more and more cooking shows to confront food allergies, dietary restrictions or food intolerances. Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" handled a Hollywood actress's gluten-free, non-dairy dietary requests (it wasn't clear if this was a life-style choice or medically necessary, but still) and last season in the BBC America show "Last Restaurant Standing" aspiring restaurateurs were asked to serve diners with celiac disease.

What you learn from these shows is that the range of knowledge about food allergies and intolerances on the part of chefs is vast. Everything from complete ignorance to savvy understanding -- and everything in between. I learn from these shows to never assume a chef knows or understands the severity of any food allergy and that's why I follow my doctor's advice to serve my daughter only simple, basic foods when at a restaurant.

Well, the latest Bravo TV chef show offering "Chef Academy" featuring the world-renowned chef Robert Novelli left me with a very fishy feeling after I viewed an episode in which he questions the reality of a contestant's squid allergy. She had been working with squid and her face and eyes started burning and she was feeling really ill. She also had pretty bad facial swelling. (In the clip I'm about to share, that had gone down somewhat but if you saw the whole episode she also had big facial hives.) The contestant describes to Chef Novelli how she believes she needs an adrenaline shot (Epi Pen, basically) to counteract her reaction.

Here's the brief clip if you'd like to "watch what happens."

You'll see that the chef's assistant had to look up food allergies on the Internet in order to prove to him that shellfish allergies can be life-threatening. OK, the chef didn't know that???? So scary. Or maybe he just doesn't care. Even worse. In the full episode, one of the other contestants (a much more inexperienced chef than Novelli, by the way) is shown to explain to the camera that shellfish allergies "and peanut butter" (her words) are two of the most serious food allergies.

Also, to clarify when you view the clip: the chef keeps talking about Suzanne, the contestant's "two red dots." No, he's not referring to hives. The contestants are kicked out of the Academy after receiving 3 red dots.

Actually, I'm glad that this show aired and that the chef's very insensitive reaction to a person's food allergy was shown. I actually believe that people will learn something from this--maybe they've never seen someone have an allergic reaction. A food allergy reaction just isn't pretty, even when it doesn't progress to anaphylaxis.

Chef Novelli may think he's all that but he would do well to have a little food allergy education if he wants to truly be "world-class." I wish Bravo had included the FAAN website at the end of the show so viewers would know where to go to learn more.

Did anyone see this show and if so, what did you think?


Jenny said...

Oh, I almost forgot: the contestant hadn't eaten any squid, just washed it and gotten it ready for cooking. And she was swelling up and having wheezing. Can you imagine if she'd eaten it? It's good she didn't!

kelly said...

wow, she reacted that way without eating it? great post jenny. as disheartening as it is that the chef reacted that proves yet again how LITTLE those chefs know. But then again, lots of pediatricians don't know that much about food allergies either! thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

I can't believe how flippant he was about the allergy. And, then he had the nerve to make a joke out of it! *sigh*

Do you think the larger chain restaurants (Olive Garden, etc.) would have more of an awareness about food allergies esp. bcs of the liability aspect?

I was watching "Worst Cooks in America" (FN) the other night and was wondering if any of the contestants or families had food allergies. These are "normal" people who are not chefs in the slightest. Also, I wondered if the Duggars ("18 & Counting" on TLC) had any food allergies! With that many kids, don't you think there's bound to be at least one with a food allergy?

Jenny said...

Hi, Well, since current research shows that 1 in 25 kids has a food allergy, the Duggars have a few more kids to go before they fall into that group! I have also thought the same thing about that family and that show and wondered about it. I also have wondered about Jon & Kate and if their 8 kids had any FA since they had asthma as toddlers but Kate is constantly feeding them peanut butter so I guess not.

As far as Olive Garden--they are a franchise so every one has a different owner and needs to be approached with caution. I've had other readers in the Eastern states tell me that their local Olive Garden informed them they would not guarantee an allergy-free meal (in this case, it was a nut allergy) so I don't know. I'd call and check with any restaurant before eating there.

Anonymous said...

so funny--i often wondered the same thing regarding the Duggar's and jon & kate...
i realized the Gosselin's most likely don't have any after watching episodes of her making pnut butter crunchy-munch and all the bday/bakery episodes of eating lots of cakes. One episode of the Duggar's showed Michelle packing lots of benedryl for several of the kids who have environmental allergies--but have never heard of any of them having food allergies...

Finola Francis said...

I'm new to your blog, but I also have a daughter who is allergic to nuts and peanuts. We do eat at restaurants but I always worry that the server will either not tell the chef about our allergy, or as you write that the chef will not really get it.
I'm just wondering if you or anyone else has experienced an inadvertent exposure at a restaurant due to carelessness by the staff.
Nice to find you here....thanks.

Anonymous said...

I would have 2 comments here: first the chef was completely misinformed about shellfish and needs to read a little more about food prep and cross contamination. But second, this woman seems to be reacting without the advise of a physician. Her brother told her to have a shot? She is standing around making conversation instead of calling 911. Is she crazy or over acting. I don't watch, and just viewed the clip. However, when people without LIFE THREATENING reactions, over emphasize their sensitivity, it totally negates the education those with LIFE THREATENING reactions are teaching. Please do no abuse the verbage to draw more attention to yourself. Crying wolf doesn't help!

Jenny said...

Anonymous, I know what you mean about crying wolf but the woman did get medical care later in the episode. Also, she was having a reaction without having eaten the food in question, only handling it for food prep. So clearly she had a pretty strong allergy to this food. Also, reactions can cycle and can reappear after seeming to abate--that's one reason they keep people under observation when they've had a reaction.

I think what you seem to be frustrated with is people who claim to have a food allergy when they have not been diagnosed. However, in the clip I shared, this appears to have been her first contact with this food. You can have an allergic reaction at any time to any food and I don't know how people fake a swollen face and hives unless they are a master makeup artist.

I agree that people should not claim food difficulties if they don't have them--it does make it harder for people with legitimate allergies-- but I don't think that was the case here.