Spoon. Spatula. Knife. EpiPen.
Those are the essential tools of the trade for “Chopped” judge Amanda Freitag, an Iron Chef competitor who was diagnosed with a hazelnut allergy seven years ago.
“I had been having a gradual itchiness in my mouth and tongue, and then had bouts with food allergies where I got hives and my neck got red and hot,” says the 46-year-old Food Network chef, who has been passionate about food since she was a child. “It was time for me to go get all the [allergy] tests. Hazelnut was the one thing that really came out, so it was a no-brainer—I was going to stay away from hazelnuts after that. But as a chef it’s really hard, because you want to eat everything and try everything.”
Avoiding food allergens is becoming easier, though, as public awareness grows and restaurants make extra efforts to accommodate diners’ allergies, says Freitag. “For many years cooks didn’t take it [food allergies] seriously, but the culinary world has changed so much,” she says. “There are more products in the market that are allergen-friendly, and there is so much more to work with than ever before.”
The New York chef has served as a celebrity ambassador for EpiPen (an epinephrine autoinjector used for emergency treatment of allergic reactions), and she says the most rewarding part was talking to children with food allergies who wanted to be chefs but had thought that door was closed to them.
“I told them that’s not true at all—you can be a chef,” says the author of “The Chef Next Door: A Pro Chef’s Recipes for Fun, Fearless Home Cooking” (William Morrow By Elizabeth Brewster Cookbooks, 2015). “It’s more challenging, but it forces you to be more creative, to substitute ingredients or find other ways to make dishes.”
In the kitchens where she works and on the set of “Chopped,” Freitag says she always makes everyone aware that she is allergic to hazelnuts and can’t be around them. Volunteering that information early and often is a good strategy for anyone who’s allergic to food products, she explains.
“Call the restaurant before you get there and tell them you or your guest have an allergy,” she says. “Then when you get there, let the server know what your allergies are before ordering. Even if a menu item doesn’t [list a food allergen as an ingredient], ask about it. And if you’re sharing plates with other guests, tell the waiter and ask if [the allergen] is in those dishes too.”
Freitag says Nutella chocolate hazelnut spread is the food ingredient she most often has to ask about, because it’s usually thought of as a chocolate product rather than a nut spread. “Sometimes people put it in a chocolate cake or icing, or a donut, and it may just say ‘chocolate’ [on the menu],” she says.
Resetting for a healthier lifestyle
Freitag maintains a busy schedule, so in addition to managing her allergy, she says she tries to “reset” her lifestyle to incorporate healthier habits as often as she can.
“I’m not going to say I’m good at it. I travel a lot, and it’s hard to eat well and keep to an exercise routine,” she says. “I eat and I get inspired, and part of my job is to eat. But when I have down time and I’m not on the road or filming, I do try to cook very ‘clean’— I eat almost vegetarian when I cook at home. It’s satisfying, it helps me reset, and it makes me feel good.”
Pilates is her preferred exercise routine, Freitag says, and she also does lower-impact and strengthening exercises to help with back problems after years of working on her feet.
“To me the hardest thing is [doing] exercise when I’m on the road. If I can find time to burn some calories—even if it’s just 20 or 30 minutes—I try to walk, run or do the hotel gym. I’m more conscious about it now [that she is older] because it’s harder and takes longer to get results!”
Food allergy warning signs
These severe food allergy symptoms can be signs of life-threatening anaphylaxis that requires immediate treatment with epinephrine:
- Swelling of the lips, tongue and/or throat that blocks breathing
- Trouble swallowing
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
- Turning blue
- Drop in blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
- Chest pain
- A weak or “thready” pulse
- Sense of “impending doom”
If you experience any of these symptoms, call 9-1-1, or visit your nearest emergency.