A few blogs ago, I mentioned my yummy allergen-free dinner at Brasserie. I had been there many times before without serious incident. However, as of December 2005, Restaurant Associates brought in a new Executive Chef, and the difference is major.
Chef Franklin Becker graciously sat down with me for a chat about what he does and how he takes care of diners like me.
What does an Executive Chef do?
An Executive Chef is responsible for conceptualizing and creating the menu, handling the budget and being the face of the establishment. An Executive Chef is also part air traffic controller, part fireman, part policeman--essentially the person is in charge of making sure that every guest that comes into the restaurant is satisfied.
Is an Executive Chef also in the kitchen cooking?
Yes, they can be. In some restaurants the chef is a working chef, knee-deep with his cooks. In a restaurant of this magnitude however, the chef is more like an orchestra leader; calling the shots, making sure everything is happening, coordinating the meal tickets. Here at Brasserie, I cook but not nearly as much as I used to.
You were diagnosed with diabetes in 1997. How does that affect the way you cook?
Being a diabetic shapes what I cook: my food is lighter. Also, I’m much more conscious about the amount of carbohydrates I put on any one plate or that I give to a diner at any given time. It makes my food more balanced.
How do you feel about special needs diners?
You have to take care of them; you have to accommodate them.
Whether diners have special needs or not, they're coming to your restaurant and they trust you to prepare food for them. They trust you with their lives because they can get sick from a bad clam, for example.
But for a special needs diner, you have to take their allergies very, very seriously. You have to make sure the diner is well cared for and then you have that diner for life. They’re going to come back over and over and over again because they know that when they come to your restaurant, like Brasserie, they’re safe.
What advice would you give to a special needs diner?
I think special needs diners should make business cards that have their allergies listed on them, as well as any food products that generally have those allergens in them that may not be so commonly known.
For example, a diner comes in with a seafood allergy but says they’re OK with traditional Thai fish sauce made with anchovies--so they order an Asian dish, thinking it’s safe. Meanwhile, the Chef genuinely doesn’t know the scope of the allergy and uses his favorite brand of Thai fish sauce made NOT from fermented anchovies but from fermented squid. As the Chef wasn’t alerted to the diner’s specific allergies, including specific products, there is simply no way of knowing how to keep the guest safe and serious complications could ensue.
You wouldn’t be offended if someone came in with a card like that?
No I think it’s extremely intelligent. Who cares if the chef’s offended? At the end of the day, it’s your life and you’ve got to protect it because nobody else is going to protect it.
What’s worse is when a diner who’s already halfway through the meal tells the Chef that they’re allergic to something. There’s a possibility that the cutting board came into contact with the lobster and it’s washed in the same sink as the lettuce and all of a sudden this person is dying of an allergic reaction. Wake up—tell the Chef before the meal starts!
If a diner had communicated to the Chef at the get-go, chances are the Chef would have said, “Listen, I can’t serve you that”, or would have put on a pair of gloves himself and ensured that the diner’s food was handled safely. So, maybe it would have taken the diner an extra five or 10 or 15 minutes to dine but at least they’d be safe.
There are too many instances of people not communicating their needs and then the restaurant winds up getting sued. The liability, the onus and all of the responsibility to communicate special needs lie on the diner.
Sometimes, when I communicate my food allergies/intolerances, I get a “why did you bother even leaving the house” attitude from my server. What should I do?
If you go to a restaurant and that’s the feeling they give you, you should get up and go someplace else because they don’t deserve your business.
If that’s their reaction to you, odds are your needs are not being communicated to the Chef correctly and there’s a good chance you are playing Russian roulette with your health at that restaurant.
One final question, tell me about your charity work?
I do a lot of charity work for diabetes and autism. I am Chairman of an event that’s taking place October 30th, it’s called “For the Kids”. It’s a chef’s feast, benefiting Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Center and Autism Speaks. Bob Wright, the Chairman of NBC is the Honorary Co-Chair. It’s going to be an annual event and a lot of fun.