In celebrity chef Amanda Freitag’s apron, there’s an extra tool she considers essential to cooking. It’s not a special machine used to make ornate desserts in her New York restaurant Empire Diner. It’s also not a tool she uses to judge food on the Food Network show Chopped.
It’s an epinephrine auto-injector, also known as an EpiPen. For Freitag, who is highly allergic to hazelnuts, it’s a kitchen essential. Cooking Light caught up with Freitag to talk about the challenges of cooking and judging food when you have a dangerous food allergy.
CL: How did you first find out about your allergies? I was diagnosed in 2011. I had experienced some symptoms that I thought might be allergies before that. Itchy throat, itchy mouth, hives, symptoms like that.
It was over a couple of months where these things started to occur. I had an upset stomach. You know when you travel, cook, and eat for a living, and you start experiencing symptoms like these — sometimes you recognize your symptoms right away and you think this is probably not that urgent, but with food all around me, I wanted to get tested right away.
Luckily and unfortunately, I had some family history. My mom taught me about how to have body awareness. She experienced some allergies. My oldest niece has celiac disease.
CL: Did you know what you were allergic to? I didn’t know for certain what the allergy was. That’s why I went to the doctor. I’m not a doctor. I needed professional help. I have a very good allergist. … He gave me all the right tools and a plan.
I’m allergic to hazelnuts.
CL: How do you avoid hazelnuts with your career? I cooked Italian food for years and I’ve been around it in the kitchens. You never know. I go out to eat a lot, judge a lot. And I’m in a lot of social atmospheres.
On the set of Chopped, I’m a regular. They know about my allergy. Hazelnuts are never on set when I’m there. They’re not usually on set at all. Any guest judge appearances I make, I let them know before I come in that I’m allergic to hazelnuts. That’s my first step. Second step is to always have an EpiPen.
CL: What about at your restaurant, Empire Diner? To my pastry chef’s dismay, hazelnuts are not allowed in my restaurant.
CL: Do you train your chefs and servers any differently now?
Food allergies are a huge part of my training now. Over the years, as chefs, we’ve all seen more and more customers coming in with allergy awareness and modifications on their orders. My cooks, servers, they all have to be equipped with information about ingredients. Also, I implore them to ask. Come and ask if you don’t know. You may be the best waiter we have, but you still need to ask. I’m super sensitive to that. My restaurant is accommodating to food allergies.
We all deal with allergies in the restaurant business. You want your customers to feel comfortable when they come in. And you want them to come back. I have my family come in to my restaurant and they’re not going to get sick. They need to be relaxed at dinner. You need to know you’re in good hands.
CL: Do you know other chefs with food allergies? It’s funny—I wanted to hide my allergy for a long time. I eat with other chefs all the time. And I have to say I have an allergy in front of my chef peers, that I have allergies that need accommodating. But I found out other chefs have allergies, too.
CL: You mentioned carrying an epinephrine auto-injector …
You never know. Anaphylaxis is unpredictable. You have to have a plan. I carry two auto injectors. I keep one on me and one at home. I think that’s really important.
MORE: Read about how one of our food editors deals with her nut allergy.