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November 13, 2019

Sensitive Chefs

Diners with allergies want safe options when eating out – and restaurants are starting to take notice.

It’s Saturday night. The restaurant is filled with the sounds of diners enjoying their meals. A waiter approaches a table and asks for the customers’ orders. One customer says, “I’m allergic to nuts. What can I eat?”

This question and others like it are asked in restaurants every day – and the number of these queries is increasing. At the Blue Plate Diner, co-owner John Williams says, “Proper communication from the back end to the front end is important.” Customers with food concerns are encouraged to ask questions about the menu. If in doubt about an item for a customer, a server is supposed to check with kitchen staff. 

When a server delivers an allergy or sensitivity request, the head cook shouts it out in the kitchen and waits for all the staff to acknowledge it. The cook grabs a clean pan and prepares the dish as far from other food as possible. The cook plates the dish and sets it away from other dishes that are ready for pickup. The server then delivers the dish to the table separately, if possible. Other allergy measures include careful selection of reliable suppliers, an enclosed baking room that keeps flour dust away from the main kitchen and a grill that’s separated into a meat side and a vegetarian side. 

The restaurant’s decision to provide choices for allergies and special diets was a gradual transition based on concerns from a past chef, wait staff and regular customers. About half the menu was vegetarian from the start, featuring items such as the tofu pesto sandwich, and mac and cheese. Vegan and gluten-free choices, including pan-seared salmon and vegan chocolate mousse, were added later.

Blue Plate Diner also provides easy switches, such as gluten-free buns for burgers. The goal is to serve good food, some of which happens to be gluten-free or vegetarian. About 10 to 20 special requests are received daily, more on weekends. Shellfish allergies are common and, “gluten-free, in particular, has exploded,” says Williams. “Including people with dietary restrictions just increases our customer base and allows for large groups [and] families to come in, and everyone can find something [to eat].” 

According to the U.S.-based Food Allergy Research and Education group, the number of children who have been diagnosed with food allergies has risen by 50 per cent from 1997 to 2011. As those children become adults, it will mean a massive spike in diners who will have allergies that restaurants will have to accommodate.

The Harvest Room at The Fairmont Hotel Macdonald also has a plan for catering to customer’s allergies. Executive chef Serge Jost explains that if a customer has an allergy, the chef talks directly to the customer about the specifics of the allergy and its severity – and what the customer enjoys eating, which is just as important to a positive dining experience. After the chef and the customer agree on a dish, the chef tells the waiter to write a note on the order. “We give instruction to the cook [and] we do a follow-up during the preparation to avoid cross-contamination,” says Jost. This includes extra precautions for cleaning pots, knives, utensils and cutting boards. The restaurant also chooses suppliers who guarantee their products’ contents.

The Harvest Room has been accommodating clients’ food concerns for years. In 2010, the Fairmont chain went further and trained its chefs on special diets. Afterwards, the chefs developed their own menus to cater to allergies, sensitivities and vegetarian, vegan, raw, macrobiotic, heart-healthy and diabetic diets.

One goal of the process was to create easily changeable menu items. Many dishes can become vegetarian by removing one item. For example, Jost might serve the lentil ragout without the usual scallops – and add more lentils, vegetables and other proteins, like seeds and nuts. Jost explains that handling these food concerns “forces you back to the roots of cooking.”

The number of special requests Jost sees has increased in the last two years. Three to five daily is normal – with no days without them. The most common requests are gluten-free (about 60 per cent) and nut-free (about 25 per cent). He believes people ask for allergy adjustments more now because “they’re not shy anymore to say it; it’s not a handicap.

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