Meet Chef Joel Schaefer, pioneer of Disney World food allergy initiatives
I was very happy to connect recently with Joel J. Schaefer, CCC, CHT, an author, chef and educator with Allergy Chefs, Inc. Chef Joel, who specializes in culinary education and product development for food allergies and special diets, is the former Culinary Development and Special Dietary Needs Manager at Walt Disney World. In that role, he spearheaded Disney World’s food allergy initiatives, ensuring that all of their restaurants could better accommodate food-allergic guests. Throughout his career, from Disney to his current position at Allergy Chefs, Chef Joel has made it his mission to educate the food service industry about food allergies.
Chef Joel, who got his start as a chef at Disney World, always had a special interest in food allergies due to his own dairy sensitivity. As Walt Disney World’s Culinary Development and Special Dietary Needs Manager, Chef Joel streamlined the organization’s food allergy protocols. When he took on this role in the mid 2000s, Disney was already accommodating food allergies and special diets, but each restaurant handled the issue differently. Chef Joel created a more consistent system, ensuring that every Disney World restaurant could successfully serve food-allergic guests according to a specific company protocol.
Collaborating closely with Disney’s food safety department, procurement team, legal team, restaurant chefs and managers, Chef Joel trained Disney’s chefs, managers, cooks and servers on food allergy procedures. Additionally, he examined the various products they were using, checking to see which were free of the “Big 8” allergens. During this process, he asked for guest feedback, wanting to know which brands and products food-allergic guests used themselves.
“Disney guests have many different food allergies, so I had to find pancake mix, breads, beverages and other products that were free of common allergens, to serve to guests with various – and often multiple – allergies,” Chef Joel explained. The chefs at Disney World were also able to accommodate less common food allergies (besides the “Big 8”), creating customized meals without any of the guests’ “trigger foods”.
“We also designated special equipment for food allergic guests – separate griddles, waffle irons, etc. – and trained the entire staff on how to avoid cross-contact,” Chef Joel continued.
Chef Joel compiled his extensive experience and knowledge to write a book, Serving People with Food Allergies: Kitchen Management & Menu Creation. The book targets people within the food service industry, providing tips, advice and resources for becoming more food allergy friendly. The information is also helpful for consumers trying to cook – and eat – without certain products, due to food allergies or sensitivities.
The book is written in three parts, starting with a section about knowledge, which explains the basics of food allergies, celiac disease, vegetarianism and vegan diets, diets for people with autism and other special diets. The second part covers training, explaining how to develop a training program, and the third section covers abilities, focusing on recipe development.
Chef Joel, whose motto is “keep the food simple to keep the guests safe,” is pleased to see the restaurant industry making huge strides in accommodating guests with food allergies.
“Over the last few years, there’s been a big push in the food service area, as more restaurants implement gluten free menus. Some restaurants now have a statement on their menu about food allergies, asking guests to tell their server if they have food allergies. And some restaurants now provide allergen information,” Chef Joel explained.
“Many in the industry have awareness and passion about food allergy issues, but may not have the ability to accommodate successfully,” he continued. “It should come from the top down. We need to give people the training and the tools – and then hold them accountable to do it correctly.”
He encourages restaurant staff to put the correct processes in place and communicate better with food-allergic customers. And if certain restaurants don’t have the knowledge, training and ability to accommodate food-allergic guests, he hopes they’ll be honest about it, enabling people with food allergies to dine elsewhere.
Even with the progress made in the past few years, he acknowledges that it can still be hit-or-miss to find restaurants that are accommodating and knowledgeable about food allergies. Therefore, he strongly believes that AllergyEats is a valuable resource for the food allergy community – as well as the restaurant community.
Chef Joel appreciates the fact that AllergyEats spotlights restaurants that are willing and able to accommodate food-allergic diners, and is also pleased that guests can pinpoint the places that are not handling food allergies correctly so others can avoid those establishments.
“The great thing about AllergyEats is that you’re building a community of people to share their experiences on such a large scale,” Chef Joel said, adding, “This shows the restaurants that there’s value to becoming more allergy friendly. They’ll see the volume of people that want to go out to eat and, hopefully, realize that being allergy-friendly is a revenue driver. It’s not just the food-allergic guest dining out. It’s the food-allergic guest and three or four of their friends or family members going out for a meal.”
As someone who worked tirelessly to accommodate food-allergic guests at Disney World, Chef Joel is also excited about the new AllergyEats Disney World site, which he thinks is extremely helpful for food-allergic families visiting the area. From his experience, he’s seen the volume of food-allergic guests at Disney increase significantly over the years.
“We first started tracking food allergies at Disney World in 2005, and we served 52,000 special meals to food-allergic guests that year. By 2009, we served 192,000 food allergic meals. More people with food allergies were coming to Disney World because they heard Disney was so accommodating. As the word spread, more food-allergic people came, and Disney has seen a huge volume increase over the past few years,” Chef Joel said. “The AllergyEats Disney World site will be a valuable resource for this growing number of food-allergic visitors.”
As someone who advocates for increased allergy training and education myself, I’m pleased to have connected with Chef Joel, who has a similar mission and vision. I’m excited about collaborating with him to work towards our common goal, and I’m thrilled that he’s officially endorsed AllergyEats. With his ongoing efforts and support, we’re striving to make it safer for food-allergic people to eat out – one meal at a time.
As always, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and feedback about this interview with Chef Joel, or any other comments it brings to mind. Please click Comments or Reply below to share your views.
And please remember that the value of AllergyEats and AllergyEats Disney World is derived from YOUR restaurant ratings, so please rate all your recent dining experiences today. It’s as simple as taking one minute to answer 3 questions on the core AllergyEats site, the free AllergyEats app for iPhone or Android (found in the respective marketplaces), or the new AllergyEats Disney World site.