Two Tuesdays ago, I went to a small event in Tribeca with Shari, underwritten by American Express. There was an hour of panel discussion with Q&A, then a reception where the chefs, and the one mixologist, got to show off their wares. As you might suspect I couldn’t really indulge in the food but I did get a chance to talk with a few of the Chefs about food allergies and how they handle them in their restaurants.
Firstly, there was the panel. Andrea Strong of The Strong Buzz moderated and here are the attendants in alpha order: Aaron Sanchez of Centrico; Andrea Strong, blogger, Strongbuzz.com; Ed Levine, blogger, New York Eats; Jack Lamb of Jewel Bako; Jacques Torres of Torres Chocolate; Julie Reiner of Flatiron Lounge; Patricia Yeo of Sapa; and Zarela Martinez of Zarela.
I took some notes based on the panel discussion:
Q: What was the most surprising or disappointing meal anyone had had in 2006?
Ed: Del Posto. I ate at the more relaxed bar and found the food delicious, the wine choices were great and all for so much less money than dining in the formal dining area.
Zarela: I discovered the outer boroughs are a treasure trove of wonderful authentic ethnic cuisine.
Q: What was the panel looking forward to in 2007?
Aaron: What older restaurants are doing with new chefs, how are they keeping it fresh. Like 11 Madison.
Jacques: I love authentic cuisine and regional specialties. I especially love NY because when you come back from a vacation, you can still eat the food from the place you just returned from.
Q: What makes a restaurant special?
Zarela: Special attention and hospitality. And with 1 million seats in NYC, if they don’t get that from you they can go elsewhere.
Q: What is the difference between a food critic and a food blogger? Do blogs matter?
Patricia: Everything matters. We can’t ignore blogs, as chefing is so personal, any praise or criticism needs to be considered.
Zarela: Bruni can kill a restaurant; a blogger can only help.
Ed: Interestingly, bloggers themselves are judged by what they write. Blogs are a two way street, two-way communication between reader and writer, although NYT is trying to remedy that, it can’t compete with the immediacy of the blog.
Aaron: Bloggers are not authorities, which isn’t great. So you’ll have them judging you without any credentials.
Ed: For blogging there is no barrier to entry. However with dreams comes responsibility.
Q: Whose cooking do you like right now?
Jacques: Jean-Georges pastry chef is very good. Anyone who doesn’t do too much, who does it well and keeps it simple will be doing great.
Q: What customer feedback is helpful to you as a chef?
Zarela: Website feedback is great.
Jacques: I look at what isn’t eaten on the plate. Or you can ask the dishwasher, they always know which dish is the hit and which is the miss.
Patricia: At my restaurant, we will take a dish off the check if it wasn’t enjoyed. Our job is to take care of you.
This last point was my favorite for obvious reasons. When I spoke to Patricia at length about her policies and about Sapa, I found her to be genuinely concerned about her customers’ wellbeing and very knowledgeable about allergies. She mentioned that her best friend has allergies to peanuts, so she is well versed. I’m going to dinner there in a few weeks and will report back my findings but so far, when she said her staff was well trained she wasn’t exaggerating. When I asked the reservations person if they could accommodate my allergies, he, without even so much as a pause, said, “Absolutely. Our staff is well educated on these matters and we would be happy to take care of you.” Excellent start! Yay Sapa!
Often, I’ve found that the chefs who are most aware and sensitive to special needs diners have loved ones who have allergies. Whether that loved one is a parent, their child or a best friend, a loved one with allergies drives the point home better than any training at culinary school. Of course one can’t know this before going into a resto, but time and again when I’ve had one on one convos with Chefs it turns out this is the case.