Chef Rick Bayless
Rick Bayless is the eight time winner of the James Beard award, founder of acclaimed restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, and is also a food allergy dad.
We were eager to find out a Chef’s perspective on serving people with food allergies in arguably some of the busiest restaurants in the country. Rick gave us the skinny on allergies he can accommodate, his restaurant protocols, and his advice to ensure our dining experience is as wonderful as he wants it to be for us.
How frequently do you get customers with food allergies?
We have seen food allergy dining requests increase 100-150% over the course of my time in the business. We have been accommodating celiac for quite a while and we used to have the occasional peanut or tree nut request. Now we get requests to accommodate a wide breadth of allergies.
As restaurant frequenters with food allergies, what can we do to uphold our end of the dining partnership?
1. Look at the Menu Ahead of Time. If most of the menu features your allergen for example — in our case, corn — then it might be really challenging to find something you can enjoy. Every chef wants you to have a great experience at their restaurant, if you can find a restaurant that seems to line up with what works for you then it will likely lead to a great experience.
2. Prepare Us. We love to know in advance. If you can speak to us ahead of coming in for your reservation then we can be thinking about what you can have ahead of time and make something especially for you.
3. Trust the Restaurant is Acting In Your Best Interest When They Make Suggestions. We are here to offer you a great time. We take our job very seriously, so understand that when we give you options we have your best interest in mind because we know our kitchen and the risk of cross-contamination.
What is your process for accommodating allergies?
We train all our staff on the top eight allergens. Since our menus change every four weeks, we provide a food allergy sheet to everyone so they are aware of what has been changed. The exception is Tortas Frontera at O'Hare Airport. The menu does not change so we can provide a detailed allergen menu.
Our protocol is if someone comes to the restaurant with a food allergy, the server will notify the manager. The manager knows what we would be able to safely offer that person based on their allergies and our menu. Our kitchen is small so cross-contamination is a risk that is why our process is so important to us.
Do you have a personal connection to food allergies?
Yes, my daughter is allergic to honey so I'm very used to dining out and making sure there is no honey in her meal - especially marinades and sauces.
What allergies can you easily accommodate?
While we can accommodate the 8 major allergens, celiac is the most natural for us to handle easily. We don’t use wheat flour in any of our cooking with the exception of our pastries which are made at a separate pastry station in the kitchen.
Soy is an easy allergen for us to accommodate because we don’t use soy in our cooking, we occasionally use soy sauce and when we do we make sure our staff is well aware of it. Dairy we can accommodate without a problem. Nuts are a little more difficult for us to accommodate because a lot of our cuisine has nuts, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it.
Is there anything you cannot accommodate?
If we don’t feel we can safely prepare a meal for a customer, we will tell them so. There have been times when we are unable to accommodate some allergies, but we feel that it is our responsibility to let that person know that it would be too great a risk and nothing is worth that.
Introducing our "Find Us on Spokin" stickers! We are thrilled to have Frontera Grill and Topolobampo as our first restaurants to have the Spokin sticker in their restaurant windows!
What is your favorite meal? (spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with food, good inspo for all of us!)
For me, it is more about the people and the environment than the food. The food is just a small part of the whole celebration of life and connecting with people and should always be thought of that way.
My favorite meal would be in Mexico, at a big outdoor restaurant, with roving bands playing, the food would have deep roots in tradition and I would be celebrating life. A place like Arroyo in Mexico City that is outdoors and is like a big party going on all the time. It centers around the lamb barbacoa that is cooked in a pit in the ground, and the wonderful people that are happy to be there celebrating. That is the kind of stuff that I like.
Now we're hungry, where can we find your restaurants?
Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Xoco, Leña Brava, Cruz Blanca and Frontera Fresco are all in Chicago and surrounding area. Tortas Frontera is our restaurant at Chicago O'Hare Airport as well as at Penn University. Frontera Cocina is our new restaurant at Disney Springs in Florida.