The deal with Food Intolerances & Allergies – How cooking professionally has changed in 12 years

When I trained 12 years ago, things were relatively straightforward, you needed to know your cooking methods from cooking techniques, ingredient identification within a reasonable (food) cultural range, hygiene, nutritional knowledge and culinary theory were added on the side. We designed test menus for customers we’d typically deal with in the industry – creative menus sensitive to (the commonest) nut and Solanaceae/Piperaceae (peppers and cousins) allergies, and perhaps the only one we took quite seriously – menus for diabetics. Probably because if you got that one wrong the consequences were quite dire…

Whilst training one of my placements were at a fairly posh health spa, where customers went to chill out from the world – detox in the strictest way you could imagine, and often recuperate after surgery. It attracted customers with truly the strangest (to me) eating requirements in the world. One of the most poignant in my young chef mind was one woman who was allergic to the Piperaceae family and (according to her, and us) almost everything else. Cooking for her was the most nightmarish thing ever, luckily the place had medical staff 24/7! I now realise that she was allergic to salicylates. And if you’re big into fresh, crunchy, healthy food, this is truly crap news.

What you have can’t eat: say goodbye to pretty much all fruits and vegetables, but you can probably get away with a banana and pear a day, even rhubarb is out! Regarding vegetables, a host of them are out too – most notably tomatoes, Piperaceae and Solanaceae family, olives and the gourd family -cucumbers,zucchinis. Water chestnuts, almonds and pine nuts mean trouble, as do maize products and obviously olive oil. Honey and most spices and herbs are out. The news doesn’t get any better with alcohol or caffeinated drinks, although milk is fine.

Not to mention all the commercially-made stuff you can buy in any supermarket. This is a particularly rough allergy to have, and yes, we are seeing it in restaurants more often, and usually, as long as the customer helps out with pretty much re-designing any given menu item, its ok, as no one is interested in a dinner service with the drama of anaphylactic shock victims in the dining room. It’s actually a bit of a challenge which is a great break from cooking the same stuff every day. This can be slightly testy for chefs during a busy service but increasingly, chefs need to/have little option to realise that this is representative of what the customer base has ‘evolved’ to. Refusing to serve those people just loses you customers in the end, and you’re still uninformed about the issue you just chose to ignore.

Fact is, it’s not going to get any less prevalent, so I reckon just deal with it and try to work around it, as it’s an integral factor in keeping up with how the world is eating today. Gluten intolerance is getting more common, as is the relatively new one in the mix, fructose malabsorption, which customers frequently describe as “i basically can’t eat anything that caramelises on contact with high heat”. Sooo, thats like half the stuff on the menu… I still find it a tricky one, although its very real. We’re seeing a lot of this, and as one person recently described it to me, it’s probably been around for ever, we just didn’t know about it.

I have, what in Afrikaans is accurately described as a ‘steel stomach’, I can eat anything. I now realise how lucky I am, as I daily seem to deal with an alarming amount of people who have severely restricted diets, and not by choice.

The “by choice” part is where I have to restrain myself, and a lot of other chefs simply lose their shit. Do not go to a restaurant and tell the waitstaff you can’t have the celeriac in a dish because you’re “very allergic”. We spring to panic mode and analyse the entire dish (during service), and call the waitstaff. There was celery in the sauce on the same dish, so if you’re very allergic to celeriac, celery will have the same effects, they are cousins after all. Server goes back to table, comes back to kitchen, reports that no, celery has never been a problem, (its now the height of service) but since we’re inquiring, can we not confit the potato on the dish, but just cook it simply, like steam it or whatever, “don’t make a fuss”. Cue: chef blow-up. The crap part? The chef blows up at the server, the fussy eater.

Point of the story, at this stage of the game, we are seeing so many REAL food intolerances, that if patrons seem to have the luxury of being picky about what they eat, and not respecting the fact that someone actually designed a certain dish the way its on the menu – do everyone a favour and go eat McDonalds. Alternatively, face the server telling you that the chef refuses to change the dish because we KNOW you can freakin’ pick the celeriac out. Those customers don’t know how lucky they are and are spoilt for it….

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting post, I don’t often see the chef’s point of view voiced online, just the allergic/intolerant customer part. I’ve worked in industry, so I understand the frustrations, but then I also have a weird allergy, so I understand that side too. Try explaining to the server/kitchen that you have a medically confirmed allergy to capsicum, but have also been medically cleared to eat chilli. Someone decides you’re being picky, and suddenly we’re left scrambling for an epipen. Very glad it’s starting to be talked about more, by both sides. The time for balanced discussion has come!

  2. epicureaddict says:

    Thanks for commenting! Yes Your’e absolutely right, the two come from different plant species, so are definitely not always linked! A good thing to do is to try restaurants where you can book – then explain this when you book – then they seriously have no foot to stand on. I work with several chefs in my kitchen who have allergies/intolerances, so had no way but to face the facts, educate myself and realise that its real! I’m pretty interested in it now, and I know a great deal more!

  3. ceferg says:

    Hello Almay, Very interesting post. I agree with you 100% about people pretending to be allergic to something because they are actually just picky, how pathetic! I appreciate your respect and concern for genuine allergies. I think it’s funny how many times I still hear chefs and floor staff complaining because of vegetarians or vegans, how can this still be an issue? I know that recently Ross was frustrated with a server because they had a vegan customer coming in and the server was like “oh we can order in some of the that vegan pasta”, and Ross was like wtf? since when is it up to the server to decide what I’ll serve a vegan, and more importantly vegan food doesn’t have to be ‘vegan’ pasta, and by no means is it in any way an issue to come up with a vegan dish. I am surprised by the stigma that still surrounds veggies and vegans in Toronto, let alone allergies!

  4. epicureaddict says:

    yeah i just think its part of that ‘complainer’ attitude, and forgetting that the whole pint of working in hospitality is the decision to make it your job to ‘be hospitable’, few industry people seem to realise what theyve gotten themselves into? its good to break the mould, although it does feel that by doing that you open yourself up to the section of the market that seem to complain the most? Are you enjoying the toronto eating scene otherwise?

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