Chef Ming Tsai remembers ordering a sandwich without bread for his then-3-year-old son David because the toddler was allergic to seven of the eight most common food allergens. Tsai approached the restaurant manager, a man in a suit and tie standing off to the side.
"He just looked at me and said, 'We'd rather not serve him,'" Tsai said, adding that waiters and restaurant managers used to roll their eyes when he mentioned David's food allergies. "Don't open a restaurant if you don't know what's in your food. This is absurd."
From that day on, Tsai made it his mission to promote allergy awareness. He developed an allergy safety system in his restaurant, Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass. He became the spokesman for the nonprofit Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (which recently merged with the Food Allergy Initiative to become FARE). He worked with the Massachusetts state legislature for five years on an allergy safety bill.
FARE honored Tsai with its lifetime achievement award at the Food Allergy Ball Monday night at New York's Waldorf Astoria.
Tsai cooked some of his signature dishes for the guests, including sake-miso marinated Alaskan butterfish and shitake and goat cheese crostini, but he didn't use peanuts, tree nuts or shellfish, the most common allergens.
"Ming is an ideal honoree," FARE chairman Todd Slotkin said, noting Tsai's awards and presence on the Food Network. "He understands the challenges that food-allergic families face and has been greatly advancing the cause for over 10 years."
Tsai stepped out from the kitchen in his apron to accept the award, smiling alongside chefs who have received the award in the past, including restaurateur Drew Nieporent, who ribbed him for being a Red Sox fan. After thanking the organization, Tsai thanked a woman in the audience who was honored for her work on EpiPens, or Epinephrine Auto-Injectors, which are used to save someone undergoing a severe allergic reaction called anaphylactic shock.
"An EpiPen saved my son's life, so thank you from the bottom of my heart," he told her from the stage. "There is nothing, nothing worse than your child going through anaphylaxis and thinking, 'Is my son going to die?'"
Click here to read how Julie Bowen's son nearly died from an allergic reaction.
David went into anaphylactic shock during Tsai's father-in-law's 70th birthday, Tsai said. He was in the kitchen preparing roast tenderloin for 80 guests when the babysitter accidentally gave 5-year-old David whole milk instead of rice milk.
"David comes down and says, 'My throat is itchy, and it's tightening up,'" Tsai said. "You could tell in his eyes that he's not overreacting here."
David's breathing became labored, and Tsai's wife, a nurse, sprang to action and jammed an EpiPen in David's leg.
"That was the most horrible scream I ever heard in my life," he said. "My body still tingles from that scream."
David got an ambulance ride to the emergency room, but he was fine. He's now 13, and Tsai considers him cured of many of his allergies thanks to new techniques to desensitize him, including non-Western medicine. Tsai now makes him a nut brownie every few days to keep up his tolerance.
But it seemed impossible when David was a baby and Tsai learned of his severe allergies.
"My first reaction was that's a really unfunny joke from upstairs," he said. "I couldn't wait to cook for my kid. That was my dream."
Eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, and wheat make up 90 percent of food allergies, according to a 2008 CDC report that found an 18 percent rise in children diagnosed with food allergies between 1997 and 2007.
As David grew up, Tsai said it was especially hard to visit restaurants, something he loved to do as a kid. As allergies and allergy awareness have become more prevalent, he said people's attitudes have shifted. He usually serves between 6 and 10 tables a night with some kind of food allergy, and he's happy to do it.
"I've seen in my restaurant more than 20 crying mothers," Tsai said. "Each one of them has the same story. They finally got to have a real restaurant experience with their 10-, 12- or 14-year-old kid who's never been out to a real restaurant."