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This week on Ask the Critic: Can I eat at high-end restaurants, and even try their tasting menus, despite my severe food intolerances?
Can I Do Tasting Menus With My Food Limitations?
I'm a serious eater with (thankfully) not-very-active Crohn's disease. I find myself in really awkward positions ordering sometimes on account of my particular restrictions. For example, I can't eat sesame seeds, celery, corn, coconut, etc. in their whole form, but I'm not allergic to ANY of those things! Tahini? Love it! Celery in a broth? No problem! Coconut milk? Sure! There are so many things I can ALMOST eat if one ingredient were different/removable.
The main culprit is insoluble fiber, so for instance I can't eat kernels of corn, but if you passed a corn pureé through a fine strainer or a cheesecloth I could eat the resulting... soup?
Oil flavored with cumin, but not the seeds themselves^mdash;this applies to most whole spices. Most vegetables I can eat cooked but some just never get there. In celery it's the strings—they never quite break down. This also applies to asparagus, eggplant (the seeds and the skin), okra, etc. Fruits like raspberries and strawberries are out on account of the seeds. I love apples but I can't eat the skin. Then again, peas, beans, potatoes, carrots, onions, most lettuces and spinach, kale (if cooked) and plenty of other things work just fine for me, in moderation of course.
How can I explain this in advance of getting a tasting menu without being an enormous pain in the butt? I want the experience of the kitchen sending out what they want to send, but if I'm paying that much money I don't want to have to pick out 1/3 of a dish or send something back that's perfectly cooked on account of my disease—both of which I've had to do in the past. Is it appropriate to compose a sort of cover letter and send it over prior to my reservation?
I just don't want to be "that guy", y'know?
It's an awful feeling to be "that guy." And I sympathize; I myself try to avoid being "that girl." Out of nowhere about three years ago, I developed a severe allergy to raw carrots; it sounds ridiculous, even to me. I'd always raised an eyebrow when people claimed such specific allergies; peanuts or soy, sure—carrots, really? But after a rather harrowing episode of anaphylactic shock, IV antihistamines, and an allergy test to confirm, I realized that I'd better avoid 'em.
At restaurants, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible; don't like calling attention to myself, don't like to make special requests. And carrots are bright orange—I can just eat around them, right? Still, after a few dinners worrying that that vegetable soup might have carrots hidden in it, or not knowing whether a roasted vegetable mash had parsnips (can't do those, either), I learned that I'd better just leave it to the kitchen. The more information they have, the better. No one wins when I can't eat the food they prepared for me.
But with your level of restrictions, things get a little more complicated. So I asked four high-end New York chefs about your quandary. Here's what they had to say.
Bill Telepan of Telepan
"It's totally possible to go to a high-end restaurant with dietary restrictions. Most restaurants will generally be able to put something together for you with advanced notice. The best thing to do if you have these restrictions is to just call ahead and find out what the menu is, and tell them what your situation is before you come in. It's not that they can't, it just becomes harder when you come in on a Saturday at 8 p.m. and you then tell them all your restrictions. If you're able to call in ahead of time that's great, if not, I'm sure restaurants are able to accommodate you. Generally, any issues we've received, we've been able to address one way or another."
Bryce Shuman of Betony
"The short answer is yes! You can dine! We would never turn away a guest or make the person feel anything but welcome, no matter the restrictions. As long as we have a little bit of time (advance notice is always nice, but absolutely not necessary), we're happy to accommodate special requests, from Crohn's Disease, to gluten intolerance, to vegetarianism. A culinary instructor once told me that he used to scoff at cooking for vegetarians, but then he realized that they were seriously considering the food that they ate, rather than just indiscriminately consuming it like the rest of us, and therefore deserved his respect too. I learned another lesson on a personal level when my mother found out 4 years ago that she had been living with a gluten intolerance for her whole life, along with all its symptoms: fatigue, headaches, GI distress, etc. She's always been an excellent baker, and now she makes a number of gluten free rolls and baked goods that are just as fantastic as the treats she made me when I was growing up. She helped me to be aware that many people have certain dietary restrictions.
"I've tried to carry this awareness into the kitchen. For example, at Betony we offer gluten free alternatives for our rolls and crunchy snacks, and gluten free crumbles on the deserts and croutons on salads. When I worked at Eleven Madison Park we once had a gentleman come in for lunch who only liked to eat potatoes, beef, and onions, so I prepared 11 courses of nothing but dishes containing those items. I am not saying we are a free-for-all, come get whatever you want; if you want mac and cheese from a box or kung pao chicken, we'll steer you in a direction that is closer to the style of food we prepare and are proud of, but we will do whatever we can to make sure our guests leave happy with their experience, rather than worried about any special dietary requests. We'll adapt and cater to your needs the best we can; with a little planning and communication, anything is possible."
Harold Dieterle of Perilla, The Marrow, Kin Shop
"We make an effort not only to accommodate most every kind of dietary restriction, but also challenge ourselves in the kitchen to do something awesome for those customers; not simply make the dish "acceptable," which would be kind of mailing it in. For example, in response to customer demand, we've created a number of dishes at Kin Shop that are specifically gluten free. As for Crohn's Disease, which we know really has a lot of restrictions associated with it, if a customer calls in advance to ask the ingredients in Perilla's tasting menu, then tells us which ones they can't eat, we're happy to tweak those dishes."
Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern
Generally speaking, we're in a pretty luxurious situation at a restaurant like Gramercy Tavern—with the number of cooks, the size of the kitchen, the nature of the menu; we have a ton of flexibility. It's built into the woodwork of the restaurant—from the very beginning, we have servers approaching the table, listening carefully, empowered by knowledge and familiarity of dealing with special requests.
"What's best is if the guest calls about 24 hours in advance; that makes it easiest, so I can put some ideas together, then run it by the guest and say—how does this sound? It gives the guest the time to say "I can eat this, I can't eat that"—that's the ideal situation. But if you're just walking in the door, and say 'Here's my story,' that's manageable too.
"We're also able to accommodate requests given the way we cook; we prep our ingredients to get ready for service, of course, but don't do much cooking pre-service—dishes are fired from raw to order. That makes it ultra-easy to hold back certain ingredients—we're lucky to be able to deal with special requests well, with a great amount of dexterity.
"I could imagine that it's difficult for a guest with serious allergies or restrictions to walk into a restaurant; you're counting on a lot of people to listen to you, and understand your needs very specifically. You might have learned from experience that things can go wrong, which must be painful and probably often scary. But we train our servers to take restrictions seriously. It's in the culture of the restaurant to listen closely and always accommodate."
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