I’ve spoken at a lot of events and conferences over the years and all of them have been good. This event however was really special and it reminded of the excellent events organised by the late Jeffrey Hyman and the much missed FDIN – Food and Drink Innovation Network. Jeffrey really GOT ‘free from’ and championed for awareness and inclusion before anyone else was doing this.
But back to the point. I left the event on Wednesday, “Food Allergen Catering – creating a dialogue in the hospitality industry” with that warm, fuzzy feeling of having been heard, understood and respected.
As someone who has fought feelings of low self worth and shame, and always felt different because of factors out of my control, life threatening allergies, this meant the world to me.
A room full of complete strangers, (and a few friendly faces) who understood, were open to discuss things and challenged my own perceptions too regarding the constraints and barriers faced on a day to day basis running food service establishments.
Catching up the lovely Natalie from The Allergy Badge, who provide first aid and adrenaline auto injector administration training at clubs, schools and workplaces was a highlight for me.
Firstly, a sneak peek into what went on
Whilst at the conference I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Joshua Minchin of New Foods magazine. Click on the image below to listen to my live interview, after my talk at the Food Allergen Catering Conference:
Thanks so much for interviewing me Josh and great to meet you.
Thank you to everyone!
So firstly thank you to everyone, the organisers, Liljia from Allergy Companions and Lisa and Iain from The University of Birmingham. Thank you to all the other speakers and delegates, and to the venue for catering so well for all our allergies.
We had some really deep, complex, challenging and thought provoking conversations and I for one left the event buzzing with ideas and inspiration. I met so many wonderful new people, all keen to include the allergic diner and absolutely no judgement. I felt so special and included.
My key takeaways from the food allergy conference
I have a whole pile of post-it notes and notes on my phone to follow up, ideas for blogs, things to research and look up, learn about and share with others. I always find these kinds of events to inspirational and vital to keep me learning and moving forwards. So here’s my key highlights
- What on earth is the body doing when anaphylaxis takes place? – Lisa’s talk took a look inside the body to try to explain and fathom the complex, dark and terrifying life of the human immune system in anaphylaxis. The body is so darn clever, with all these little soldiers and guards trying to keep out the bad guys and it was really interesting to understand what’s occurring when we eat these harmless foods we’ve become allergic to. I can see a cartoon animation of this to really bring it alive, something I’ve longed to do for years but don’t know how to go about doing it.
- The importance of inclusion – Being excluded is something I’ve got used to over the years, so much so that I have very low expectations of food establishments. This is actually quite sad when you analyse it, being included is something everyone should enjoy. When you have allergies though you get used to taking emergency rations in case there is nothing safe to eat, you get used to very little choice and you also get very good at judging a situation and going with your gut. Does the server understand? Have they listened? Can they answer simple questions? Is the information I need to stay safe available? When I get great service and am made to feel normal, accepted and included I get so excited that you will make a raving crazy fan. I will tell everyone, and you will probably get repeat business.
- Inspired by Dominic from JP Restaurant Group – Everyone book a holiday to Jersey, this group of restaurants, owned by Dominic Jones was an insight into how good allergen processes and protocols can and should work. Dominic shared mistakes he’d made, his personal experience with his daughters allergies and how he drives innovation, food allergen safety and processes without damaging his chef’s creativity was truly inspirational. I really really need to visit Jersey to check out his restaurants. Check out JP Restaurants here.
- How do we protect the most vulnerable? I’m talking about young adults, children and anyone who finds it excruciating and difficult to speak up about having allergies. The statistics from one business give a start warning, a massive 90+ percent of allergic reactions reported happened when the customer had not alerted staff to them having an allergy. That is terrifying. We really need to be having conversations and making it easy for customers, staff, the kitchen and the business owners to understand where the problem areas are and ways we can make it better.
- Tales from the chef with over 28 foods to avoid – Hearing from Stella Holt really brought home the seriousness of allergies. Her experience with multiple serious food allergies as she learnt to navigate a very complex dietary condition, Eosinophilic esophagitis, meant she had to quit her job as a chef. She loved that job, but the restrictions of her illness made it impossible. Her goal now as an allergic chef is helping the hospitality industry provide confidence and excellent service for food allergic customers. You can get in touch with Stella here.
- Disclaimers and why we don’t need them – We’ve all seen them, those little notices in pubs and restaurants stating things like ‘ we cannot guarantee blah blah blah’ and ‘our kitchen handles allergens and there could be cross contamination’. We know this, as allergy consumers we are well aware that we take risk every time we eat out with food allergies. Making is sign, read or accept disclaimers doesn’t achieve much, apart from alienating and causing mistrust and offence in many cases. Some of these disclaimers are downright rude, and the verbal reiteration at the table, checking you are aware that nothing is every totally safe are very confusing and upsetting. We really don’t need this. All we need is engagement and dialogue. We need to talk and we need to understand each other. So much of the food service experience is discouraging communication with ordering via apps, negative a**e covering statements and not making information readily available about allergen protocols. All we need to know is, is it safe or not? What processes DO you have in place? The workshop exploring this area was a real eye opener and we had some frank, heated and really helpful debates. Look out for more learnings on this on the Allergy Companions website soon.
- How can we make allergies trendy? This was one of the themes of the day. How can dip the trend and create an environment were allergic consumers are not ashamed to speak, but instead are proud and confident to demand what they need. This doesn’t mean every food service establishment has to cater for us, but it does mean we want honesty about what’s on offer. There are plenty of places happy and willing to help us stay safe so if you can’t cater just be kind and polite about the way you communicate this. I’ll be exploring this in a future blog post so watch this space.
This event really was inspirational for me. It sparked debate, generated some really meaningful conversations and I hope it is something we can build on, keep moving forwards and continue to learn and expand.
I’m still smiling thinking about all the connections I made. Thank you everyone, the feedback I had after my talk was really really heart warming and honestly a huge boost to my confidence. Public speaking is a skill I’ve built on over the years but it always makes me nervous and gets my heart racing.
It was a honour to be invited to speak at this event and I can’t wait now for the next one!