Meet & Eat: Sloane Miller, Allergic Girl

Meet and Eat: NY

Conversations with chefs and food personalities in New York City.

"Ask us what we're allergic to and ask us for suggestions about dishes. Don't be shy, we'll tell you what's what."


Photograph by Kenneth Chen

I often have nightmares about developing food allergies, imagining that it would forever doom me to a life of boring food and end my ability to eat out, and for some with food allergies, that is the path they follow. But not Sloane Miller, AKA Allergic Girl, who hasn't let anything get in the way of her love of food and restaurants.

Name: Sloane Miller
Location: New York City
Occupation: Food allergy coach and advocate
Website: Please Don't Pass the Nuts

What foods are you allergic to, and when did you discover your allergies? My first allergy showed up when I was switched from breast milk to cow's milk and I developed a rash. (I grew out of that one later on, but grew into lactose intolerance. Drat!) My allergies progressed during toddlerhood to tree nuts. As an older child, eating bagels and smoked salmon, I quickly discovered that lox was a serious no-go. The same goes for melon and eggplant and some tropical fruit. A few years ago, I became intolerant to wheat as well. So, quite a list but still manageable IMHO.

How did you decide to focus your career on helping and educating others with food allergies? Zooming around the internet, I didn't see anyone blogging about what it's like to be an adult dealing with food allergies, especially in social contexts with friends, family, and within romantic relationships. I also didn't see anyone listing restaurants that were safe for the food-allergic community. So I did as Mahatma Gandhi said: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

In August 2006, I created my blog Allergic Girl, which features my strategies for creating a social environment within which to dine safely without fear or shame. I've been a licensed social worker since 2000, and in 2007, I opened a private practice coaching the food allergic community and consulting with the food service industry around these issues.

What is your advice for Serious Eaters with food allergies who still want to dine out? Do it! New York City, for example, is a fantastic foodie town! But please do take some precautions and help the restaurants help you. Call ahead and ask if they can handle your requests or use Open Table to make your reservations. Follow up with the manager when you get there. Be friendly and nice, never aggressive, about what you need.

Basically, I give everyone at a restaurant the opportunity to know that I'm coming, what my needs are, how to take care of those needs, and I follow up. I call it creating the "Cheers Experience." Always say lots of pleases and thank yous--you'd be surprised how far that goes. And please don't forget your medication. That's a super simple step that often gets overlooked.

A little over a year ago, you started to host "Worry-Free Dinners" at various restaurants in New York City, and recently hosted one with restaurateur Danny Meyer at Blue Smoke. Tell us how the dinner series came to be and how you see them developing going forward. I'm a community-minded person, and I love sharing resources and making connections between people. I decided to combine my positive relationships with allergy-friendly restaurants, my strategies for dining allergen-free anywhere, and my ability to impart that knowledge to inspire others and to connect people and resources and Worry-Free Dinners was born. Yay!

Blue Smoke will be hosting WFD events all year, which I'm thrilled about, as are my WFD members. Our next one will be on April 26, in collaboration with Blue Smoke's Jazz for Kids program. How cool is that? Moving forward, we're planning WFD in south Florida in May and in Washington, D.C., and Boston in the next few months!

Any advice to Serious Eaters who are hosting dinners for friends with food allergies? Favorite recipes? Sure. First, thank you for hosting us and for making the effort. We appreciate it.

Here are four simple tips: Ask us what we're allergic to and ask us for suggestions about dishes. Don't be shy, we'll tell you what's what. Keep all the food labels. Keeping the labels is easy to do and offers extra comfort to anyone with questions about ingredients, calories, kosher status, etc. Be careful about cross contamination. Keep utensils clean and dishes separated. Work with the least allergenic dish first and the most allergenic dish last. Let your allergic guests use the serving spoon first. Let anyone who is very allergic or has special concerns about cross contamination fill their plates early or first. This can be a great relief to them, and it's easily done.

The New York City Council recently passed some legislation that will benefit diners with food allergies. What will that do? The legislation requires food-allergy posters to be placed in the kitchen, outlining the top eight allergens, information about how to avoid cross contamination, and what signs to look for to identify an allergic reaction. For example, in a 2007 survey, food service staff erroneously believed that deep-frying "kills" allergens (it doesn't). This poster will increase food-allergen awareness in the back of house. However, I think it's only the first step legislation-wise for New York City. A great first step, and I'm really excited about it.

Is there a restaurant in the city that has surprised you with how well it has accommodated your allergies? I'm constantly pleasantly surprised with how well restaurants, managers, and chefs handle my requests in New York City, which is why I can try a new restaurant every week or so and eat relatively safely. Two recent successes: Kefi handled my requests very well, and boy that lamb shank is delish. Rouge Tomate also did a great job making sure I was safe and happy.

A restaurant that has surprised you with how poorly it has handled them? Apizz is a recent not-so-great experience. Mainly, I think it was just not listening closely. I called and said, "I'm allergic to fish and nuts and am wheat and dairy intolerant. What might be safe on your menu?" The manager said, "You could have the fish or the pasta." The convo went downhill from there. I was attending a birthday party, so I ate before I went. The manager sent over a comped salad during dinner (I think he felt sorry for me sitting there with no food). That was sweet, but I didn't feel safe enough to eat it.

Like anyone else, I have New York horror stories of how a manager did this or a server did that. With allergies, it means that I end up not eating because I don't feel safe or worse, I eat something and get sick. For me, I think it's easier to handle a restaurant that is clearly clueless versus one that has been trained and purports to be safe but then does something weird or worse, dangerous to the patron.

Favorite worry-free dish in the city? Right now, the Texas salt-and-pepper ribs at Blue Smoke. Oh, and their fatty brisket, so tender you barely need to chew.

Favorite burger? Right now, Porter House New York. Chef Michael Lomonaco makes his own potato chips, and they have a lunch prix fixe special every day. Love that. And even though it's white tablecloth, you can go in jeans, at least I do. Shh, don't tell. Oh, and the Stand. Nicely seasoned meat, and I love their burger salad--it's gluten-free!

Favorite (gluten-free) bagel? Pizza? These are the holy grails of the GF world, and I'm still on a quest to find a fantastic good version of either. However, I just tried the focaccia at Opus; it was pretty darn decent. Everybody Eats' GF bagels ($20 for 8!) from food liberation on 89th and Lexington are good but pricey.

Best late-night eats? Pastis or Schillers. Always a party at any time of day, and they'll honor allergy requests, any time of day. However, I'm always up for diner eats as well, easy, greasy, cheap. What's better?

Undiscovered gem? Are there any left in Manhattan? Like Tony Bourdain, I feel that the undiscovered is probably more the rediscovered (although I didn't agree with his recent choices). Instead of Katz's for pastrami, I like the kosher Noah's Ark further into the Lower East Side. If I still ate dairy, I'd be at 40 Carrots for their fro-yo every day. H&H is still da man of bagels for me (even though I can no longer nosh).

Guilty pleasures? Turtle Mountain sent me four pints of their coconut-based ice cream, including gluten-free cookie dough. OMG. Guilty as charged.

Most memorable New York City meal? I'm a native, so I've literally had hundreds of really memorable meals. I think that I'll have that experience at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. But I haven't been yet.

Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant recommendations. Who's yours? Actually, I'm that for everyone else; have been since high school.

What can you recommend for us? I'm looking forward to the revamped Minetta Tavern. I loved the old one for drinks and boozy convos. I'm looking forward to how it will get the McNally treatment--that dude knows his restaurants