Made to order: dietary restrictions apply
A group of friends slide into a banquette at an upscale restaurant on Main Street and agree to share a couple of appetizers. "I’m easy," says one, "except I’m allergic to shellfish." "You guys know I don’t eat pork, right?" asks another. "It’s not part of my tradition." Another admits to being lactose intolerant and the fourth, a vegetarian, has just been put on a strict diet by his physician. What initially was a seemingly simple sharing has just become a complicated snarl of restrictions and preferences.
The foursome open their menus and let their eyes graze the offered appetizers, skimming over such choices as Tower of Ahi and Hamachi, with tobiko caviar, pineapple shoyu and wasabi aioli. For a meat-and-potatoes diner on a restricted diet and faced with a sophisticated menu such as this, the puzzle has just been cranked up several notches.
While someone with dietary restrictions against mixing meat and dairy products in a single meal knows not to order a ham and cheese sandwich, our expanding culinary world offers an eclectic array of choices previously unknown to many diners. Where to begin, and how does a consumer make the most of the dining experience while safeguarding a dietary restriction?
Jeff Ward, partner-manager of 350 Main Brasserie, suggests starting with the server. The customer’s responsibility is, of course, to identify his food restrictions and allergies, while a well-trained server will help to guide the customer through the culinary lexicon.
"The first thing a server needs to know is the menu, address the situation gracefully and not make the customer feel uncomfortable," said Ward. While helping the diner to navigate an unfamiliar menu, "the server should know the ingredients and what substitutions can be offered to the customer for dietary reasons, while also understanding the limitations of the kitchen."
When a customer identifies a food restriction a conscientious server will back up her knowledge of the menu by consulting with the manager. This second opinion helps to protect both the diner and the server from making a mistake. If a server and manager are unable to respond to a diner’s request adequately, the customer should order an item that is known to be safe or consider eating elsewhere.
Ward adds that foods that are common allergy triggers, such as shellfish, wheat, milk and nuts, should be identified in a menu item description.
Even if a menu is tagged with a "no substitutions" clause, a good restaurant should be able to respond to reasonable requests based in dietary needs. Executive Chef at 350 Main, Michael LeClerc adds, "Depending upon the night, we can and do go to some extreme lengths to make accommodations for allergies [or other dietary requests], but when it is very busy I am often unable to, mainly because of the time it takes and how it impacts the rest of our diners and our flow. Even though it seems like complete madness when we are at full speed it is really quite detailed and organized, and if I take too much time to create a special menu or item, it takes away from the regular flow and can put us behind, never to catch up the rest of the night. So sometimes we just have to say no. It is fairer for everybody."
LeClerc said that legal food safety practices are mostly based on hygiene but nevertheless provide a great barrier for the prevention of allergic contamination in the kitchen. A special table is used for filleting fish, while meat and vegetables are prepared on separate boards.
He adds, "sometimes people will have a pre-printed card where their doctor has explained the foods they are allergic to and for us to be aware of. I also have an ingredient list book which we can then give to a customer which lists every ingredient in a dish and this lets them make the call if they can eat a certain dish or not."
LeClerc recalled a time when a customer came in and was very adamant about his wife’s allergies, saying she was "fatally allergic to peanuts and black pepper." The customer asked if the restaurant could assure him of his wife’s safety. "Well, when you hear the word ‘fatal’ it gives one pause," said LeClerc. "I said no, I couldn’t guarantee her safety. I felt bad for her because I’m sure she just wanted to dine out like everyone else, but that is just too big of a risk for the restaurant."
Julie Wilson, director of food and beverage at Deer Valley [Snow Park Lodge, Silver Lake Lodge and Empire Lodge] noted that there is even a second tier of investigation into known allergens.
"We once had an experience where a customer identified an allergy to black pepper. We checked our recipe, and also checked the ingredient list from a can of roasted tomatoes that were used in the recipe. We hadn’t added black pepper but the manufacturer of the roasted tomatoes had."
Wilson said that nuts are the most common allergy reported, and that if nuts or nut oils are used in a dish presented at one of the resorts’ buffets, it is always identified on the sign accompanying the dish. "If someone wants to know about an item in the buffet, they should ask an employee who will pass their inquiry to a supervisor."
Wilson added that sometimes a vacationing family with an allergic child will call ahead and identify the child’s allergies to one of the chefs. They will then go to that chef and find out what is safe for the child to eat on a given day.
But the bottom line is, according to Wilson, "People really need to look out for themselves."
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