The School of Hospitality Management at FIU was buzzing. Young chefs in their whites flew past me in all directions with cries of, “Yes Chef!” as they finished putting together countless rice krispie treats [at least that what I was paying attention to] for a few thousand who will attend this evening’s “Bubble Q” event at the The South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
Chef Mike Moran, the axis upon which this swirling mass pivots was gracious enough to stop for a few moments and sit with me in one of the empty test kitchens. A father of two healthy eating pre-teens, he has the steady gaze and calm demeanor that of one who’s been through the food trenches and come out on the other side.
He’s been at FIU for 16 years. Before which he was the executive chef to the King and Queen of Jordan, before which he worked in NYC at Windows on the World and La Reserve. He had a distinguished career as a chef before turning to teaching. He’s been involved with the food festival in South Beach since it’s infancy, which was 10 years ago. This is the sixth year the Food Network has been involved.
Mike Moran: Personally, I work under the premise that if you come into my house, you’re my guest. The same goes if you come into my business: you’re my guest. I’ll do everything I can to accommodate you; however, I’m not necessarily putting together a menu with that in mind.
It’s really important in the current industry that operators understand that if someone comes in and they want less oil in a dish or if they have a gluten allergy or if they have a sodium issue, those needs should be accommodated. Most of that information and knowledge and ability to comes from your experience in the trade and it comes from your active learning as a chef or a restauranteur or restaurant owner.
Allergic Girl: Doesn’t that also come from management, that attention to special needs?
MM: Sure. Management is managing the guest experience from beginning to end, and one of the most important details is that the food meets the needs of the guest. I’ve had guests bring their own food in a cryo-vac bag and they ask me to heat it up for them and I know it’s because they have an allergy. My own approach is that I go and talk and say here is what I have on hand and here is what can do for you and try and customize it.
In the age of mega restaurants, I would say that for someone who has an allergy issue, they will probably be accommodated better in a smaller restaurant. If their first visit is earlier in the week, rather than on a weekend, perhaps they can get more personal attention from the chef or the dining manager.
Ultimately, the awareness comes from the customer. If enough customers ask for a soup with less salt, then I’m going to sit down with my team and say this is an issue and we don’t want to make a soup that’s one size fits all, let’s prepare the soup two ways, one with less salt.
AG: The larger restaurants can’t really do that. With 800 covers a night, it makes it virtually impossible for them to react quickly to special needs.
MM: Yes, exactly. I think where we run into problems with this is when people pay lip service to special needs.
MM: Meaning: “Is there any cream in the soup?” “No, it’s ok, don’t worry.” Well, if the person goes ahead and eats the soup that actually has cream, they then may have a severe reaction to it. Someone who’s allergic to shellfish and asks if is there shellfish in a dish and if it can be made without shellfish--we may have used stock in the rice but we didn’t put shellfish in the actual dish. So, there is some confusion there. Like when a customer gets a Caesar salad, there are anchovies in the dressing. If someone is allergic to anchovies, in a lot of restaurants if you ask for a Caesar salad with no anchovies it means they don’t put the two anchovies on the top as a garnish.
[AG: Note to self, don’t order the Caesar salad dressed.]
MM: In larger restaurants that rely on pre-packaged foods, lip service and lack of an understanding management can lead to multiple problems for allergic diners. I’ve been thinking and reading about the rise in food allergies and I wonder if allergies aren’t a reaction to the use of processed foods and the ingredients found in things that are packaged. I don’t think a lot of people realize that anything that’s packaged, that comes in a box or a can, has to be altered in order for it to become palatable and not perishable.
Historically that meant salting, drying or curing which all have an impact on flavor and texture of food and are natural processes. But action has an equal and opposite reaction and maybe, over time, eating overly processed foods can build up and create a reaction in the body, to any one of these non-natural substances. A larger chain restaurant will have to rely on more food that is not made with fresh, unprocessed ingredients.
On a more promising note, Chefs, probably more than anyone else right now, are much more aware of what’s on the horizon. There’s going to be more of a focus, especially with Spanish cuisine coming into its own, on back to simplicity, using those purer ingredients, looking for that better, higher quality fat and using leaner meats.