“I had a pollen allergy and hay fever and minor things like that growing up,” said oil and gas billionaire David Koch at the 11th Annual Food Allergy Ball at the Waldorf=Astoria on Dec. 8. “But my oldest son, David Jr., who is 10 years old now, has very serious food allergies to nuts of various types, milk products, egg products, and shellfish.”
The Food Allergy Initiative, which raises research money for treating life-threatening food allergies, was founded in 1998 by six wealthy New York couples for whom a cashew dusting on a Christmas chocolate can have deadly repercussions for their children.
“In addition to the food allergies, he’s also allergic to animals—horses as well as most dogs and cats,” continued Mr. Koch, who is one of the wealthiest residents of New York City (his net worth is an estimated $17 billion; his company, Koch Industries, owns Stainmaster carpet and Lycra spandex, among other brands) and donated $100 million to New York State Theatre in July. “We frequently have to give him Benadryl to stop reactions if he should eat something inadvertently and we carry an EpiPen everywhere we go.”
The Daily Transom was curious as to how the billionaire first discovered that his son was severely allergic to horses.
“When he was about 5 years old, we went to a polo match. He wasn’t anywhere near a horse, but the wind blew the sweat of a horse towards him and that little exposure caused him to develop hives and start wheezing and gasping for air,” said Mr. Koch.
Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the organization that evening was chef and co-owner of Aquavit, Marcus Samuelsson. (In previous years, chefs like David Bouley and Mario Batali have been honored.)
“I didn’t have food allergies growing up, but as an adult I developed an allergy to buckwheat so I can’t have soba or blinis or anything like that,” said Mr. Samuelsson, who was accompanied by his over-six-foot-tall model girlfriend, Maya Hailes. “My system totally shuts down—it’s not a joke. As a chef with food allergies, I feel like I can now relate. You realize this is a real thing. People don’t want to have food allergies, but they have it, it’s not a matter of simply not liking something.”
Nearby, director of CBIZ Incorporated and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia board member Todd Slotkin and his wife Judy Slotkin were being photographed with Robert Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Mary Richardson Kennedy. The Slotkins, who have 16-year-old twin boys with severe allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, were one of the founding couples of the organization.
“It’s been a difficult year, but we were fortunate enough to start planning for this in June,” said Mr. Slotkin when asked if he was nervous about raising money for food allergy research in a time when even the major charities are nervous. “We will probably have a more difficult year next year.”
Mr. and Mrs. Slotkin said they’ve already started Christmas shopping for their four boys at online electronics stores. (Video games dominate their sons’ wish-lists.)
But Mr. Koch, who said that his wife takes care of the Christmas shopping for their children, plans keep things modest this year in order to give his kids a message about the current economic times.
“I’m pessimistic as hell!” said the billionaire about his overall attitude towards the current state of things, breaking into one of his nervous—yet charming—gasping laughs.
“I just canceled the Christmas lunch for my office here in New York,” he confessed. “I’ve been to quite a few benefits over the past few weeks and they’ve been sold out, but I think as we go deeper into ‘09, we’re going to see fewer and fewer people attending these galas.”