Culinary school and food allergies

I have food allergies, and lots of them — legumes is the big one, which includes soy, all beans, peas, cola beans, carob, guar gum, peanuts and a handful of other oddities, like MSG, that are often derrived from soy or beans. In addition, I’m allergic to most raw tree nuts, and I have intolerances to raw peppers, melons, cucumbers, apples and bananas. I can eat them cooked because the cooking process changes the protein structure, but have issues if they’re raw. Sounds complicated, and it is.

I can’t drink any kind of cola because of the cola beans. I can’t eat most ice creams, sorbets or gelatos because most contain guar gum or locust bean gum. Cream cheese, ricotta, yogurt, crackers, sandwich bread, chocolate - check your labels. You’d be surprised at how many products contain soy, soy lecithin, guar or other gums.

My food allergies are one of the main reasons I enrolled in culinary school — I wanted to learn everything I could about food, so I could cook better for myself and also teach and help others in the industry, as well as home cooks.

I’m often asked, “How can you be in culinary school with food allergies?”

It’s easy. I adapt, my team adapts, and we all work together to make sure I’m safe. Thankfully, my allergies are not life threatening. And by that, I mean I don’t go into anaphylactic shock. But we treat each meal as if it could be life threatening.

I bring my own olive oil and corn oil to class and keep it labeled in the pantry. Students are very respectful and do not use it unless they’re on my cooking team. And my chef instructors allow me to make minor substitutions when necessary. For example, the panko crumbs we were told to use the other day contain soy. I was able to make my own bread crumbs from the French baguettes and use those instead.

And when there is no substitution, I just don’t eat what we’ve made. So on days when we’re deep frying in vegetable oil (which is 100% soybean oil), I simply do not eat it. When we are running short on time and add chicken base to a stock to speed things up, I don’t eat the soup or sauce that day because the base contains “natural flavors,” which are often soy-based. I do sometimes taste, but I never eat an entire serving. And I often rely on my team to be my “tasters” when I’m cooking with an allergen.

Yes, sometimes it’s inconvenient, but it’s definitely possible to attend culinary school if you have food allergies. Personally, I think it makes you, and everyone in your class, a better chef — it forces you to read labels and make better choices. And when you’re feeding people, that is extremely important.

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            Lackawanna College is the premier, private, accredited two-year college serving the people of northeastern Pennsylvania. With a focus on keeping higher education affordable and accessible to our immediate community, Lackawanna draws 80 percent of its student population right from our own region.

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