Food Allergy Counseling

Food Allergy Counseling
Sloane Miller, Food Allergy Counselor (Picture © Noel Malcolm 2013)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Scuffle Over At Celiac Chicks

There’s a very interesting dialogue going on over at Celiac Chicks about Marseille.

In short—The Chicks went to Marseille to dine. Kaylyn, a Celiac bartender guided them through the menu, helping them order gluten-free and they loved it! The Chicks wrote an encouraging post; subsequently a few other celiac dinners went and had horrible experiences. Incidentally, due to that very post, I also went to the resto, met with Kaylyn, ate well and safely. So I was extra interested to read that that hadn't been the case with many others.

One responder in particular said he had worked in many resto in NYC and gave some general rules which, if true, are horrifying.

Here is his post:

First off, it's a shame these comments are buried under an old story. I hope readers are taking note and not getting their hopes up.

Sadly, I agree with Dr. Annie. I worked my way through college in all sorts of delis, greasy spoons, and rated joints in Manhattan. While my experience is New York-centric, the some of the lessons I learned are universal.

Here's some things to remember about any restaurant:
1. The staff usually, if not always, hates the customer.
2. When you make a special request, no matter how politely you ask, you identify yourself as a problem. This allows the staff to focus their general hatred of customers onto you, "Mr/Mrs Special Needs".
3. If you send something back, you're going to have the same thing returned to you with some crude modification done to it as to meet your requirements in the shortest amount of time. Just like the salad entry from above... they will remove the croutons, curse you, and send the salad back. The urban myth of spitting on returned food (or worse) really does happen, but usually the fastest thing to do is re-arrange your food and send it right back.
4. Running a kitchen is all about "point-of-sale" and "food cost percent" (Read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, its a bible for current and former food slaves). The fact that you get sick and won't come back is better for them than altering their menu, replacing already cooked food with new food, or wasting time in a busy kitchen dealing with our issue. Profit margins are slim enough without time and food being "wasted" dealing with a special needs customer.
6. Waiters do not want to be educated about our condition. The time you spend explaining that your cilia is harmed by even the slightest amount of gluten found in barley, wheat, oats, soy sauce, etc, takes away time from their smoke break. They will nod, smile, listen intently, and not give a damn about whatever it is you’re talking about. They are trying desperately to remember what table four asked about, and how the chef wanted them to describe the specials. They want you to sit down, order, shut up and leave a nice tip. That's it...and if you don't come back, good, one less "problem customer".

Go out with your friends, enjoy yourself, but never trust a waiter or a chef. Use your restaurant time to scout new food ideas. If I see something on a friend's plate that looks interesting, try to make it yourself at home with ingredients you trust. One of the blessings of being diagnosed a Celiac is that you're forced to become your own chef.

Thanks again for the great blog, even as a celiacguy I find it informative and entertaining :)


And here is my response:

I feel compelled to respond to JG comments above.

As an allergic diner, who has both fatal allergies and intolerances and who eats out at least 5 nights week, I think JG must have worked in the worst joints in town. And in that respect, yes that is true--don't trust your waiter and order as simply as possible, almost as if you were in a foreign country.

But really the more upscale you go that should never be the case. Case in point, I interviewed Chef Franklin Becker from Brasserie and asked him that very question. Excuse the plug; here's that exchange and I think it’s VERY helpful to hear it from a Chef’s mouth.

Q: "How do you feel about special needs diners?"

A: 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.

Q: "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?"

A: 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.

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