Chef Ming Tsai

Case Study: Successfully Managing Food Allergies

An operator shares his story

For FAAN's Welcoming Guests with Food Allergies restaurant training guide, visit

It took four years of negotiation, but Ming Tsai, the James Beard Award-winning chef of Blue Ginger, along with Senator Cynthia Stone Creem (D - MA), got a bill passed that makes restaurants in Massachusetts safer for those with food allergies. Tsai brought passion and expertise to his lobbying efforts, drawing on his experiences as both the father of a child with severe food allergies and a chef/restaurateur.

WHO: Ming Tsai, Chef/Owner and Host of food show "Simply Ming" on PBS
WHAT: Blue Ginger, Wellesley, Massachusetts
SIZE: 120 seats
CONCEPT: East meets West
VOLUME: $5 million
OPENED: February 1998
Developed the Food Allergy Reference Book, a system that creates safeguards to help food-allergic people dine safely; worked with Massachusetts Legislature to help write Bill S. 2701, which requires local restaurants to comply with simple food-allergy awareness guidelines.

Serving diners with food allergies and sensitivities safely is a growing concern for operators. According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), for which Tsai is a national spokesperson, more than 12 million Americans have food allergies, and approximately three million of them are children. FAAN estimates that food-related anaphylaxis results in about 150 deaths and more than 50,000 emergency-room admissions each year. Even trace amounts of an allergen can cause a reaction, which is why proper safeguards and training is so important. "I've always said if you are in the restaurant industry, it's your duty to serve everyone safe food," says Tsai.

His commitment to serving people safely has made Blue Ginger a destination restaurant for those with food allergies and sensitivities. "The advantage is that your business can benefit," he says. "At Blue Ginger, we have generated more business because of this. Talk about loyal customers. There is a market for catering to people who suffer from food allergies."

Peanuts   Tree Nuts   Fish   Shellfish
Peanuts Tree Nuts Fish Shellfish
Eggs   Milk   Wheat   Soy
Eggs Milk Wheat Soy

Important Information from FAAN

  • A food allergy is an immune system response to a food protein.
  • A food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance, is a metabolic disorder due to a lack of an enzyme needed to break down a food component.
  • Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and may cause death.

Causes of Allergic Reactions in Restaurants and other Foodservice Establishments:

  • Server error
  • Hidden or surprise ingredients
  • Cross contact between utensils during prep; shared cooking spaces
  • Shared utensils between one food and another
  • Ice cream contaminated with nuts from toppings bar
  • Reused cooking oil

Educate your staff

  • Develop an allergy emergency action plan
  • Practice the emergency plan regularly
  • Educate your customers to notify you of their allergy

For more information, visit FAAN at

How to Adopt Best Practices

At an education series at the 2009 NRA Show, organized by FAAN, Tsai and other panellists talked about the programs they have implemented to keep their guests safe. Among their advice¹:

  • Know the top eight food allergens: milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
  • Train, train, train. Your service staff is the front line when it comes to dealing with customers and their allergies, but every person on your staff needs to be educated about how to serve guests with food allergies. Tsai recommends creating a food-allergy reference book that contains all of your recipes and a list of the allergens in each.
  • Encourage your customers to communicate with you. Tsai noted that OpenTable can be a great way to start the process. The popular restaurant-reservations site allows customers to write in special requests, including if they have a food allergy.

Also, be sure to include a note on your menus encouraging customers to talk to their servers about food allergies. Make guests feel comfortable talking about their requests.

When a guest has a food allergy, follow the four R's

  • Refer the food-allergy concern to the chef, manager or person in charge
  • Review the food allergy with the guest and check ingredient labels
  • Remember to check the preparation procedure for potential cross-contact
  • Respond to the guest and inform them of your findings
To download instructions on how to create your own food-allergy reference book and for more information on how to handle food allergies, go to
Handle Food Allergies