When diners drop the dietary bomb, chefs must work magic
By Lessley Anderson
It was a Saturday night at one of Northern California’s hottest new restaurants, every table was full, and I’d just dropped the bomb. “I’m vegan,” I told my server. “I don’t eat any dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, or fish.”
Printed in plain English on Cyrus’s menu were the words “We welcome advance notice of any dietary requests,” but I hadn’t given them any early warning. If my server was panicked or annoyed, he disguised it well. Smiling, he excused himself to talk with “Chef.” The verdict: The chef would be happy to prepare vegan dishes not on the menu, but my server hinted that it might be best if I stuck to three courses.
I’m not actually vegan, I just pretended to be to see what would happen. But chefs at high-end restaurants whom CHOW interviewed revealed that as many as half of their diners claim to be on some kind of restricted diet. To complicate matters, some of the most expensive restaurants have now stopped serving à la carte dishes; one must order a three- to twenty-course tasting menu. This makes accommodating special requests three to twenty times tougher.
Though most high-end restaurants have adapted to serve garden-variety vegetarians (many, like New York’s Per Se, and Manresa in Los Gatos, California, now offer vegetarian tasting menus), more restrictive diets, like those for vegans or people with food allergies, still pose challenges. Being a chef at today’s best restaurants is a masochistic juggling act requiring Herculean patience, control-freakish attention to detail, long ingredient lists, unusual preparations not required even five years ago, and the ability and will to wing it when necessary.
In the kitchen at Cyrus, when my order came in, Chef Douglas Keane had to stop what he was doing. “As soon as you get over the ‘Goddamn it, I have 20 tickets on the board and now this,’” he told me, “you say, ‘OK, I can do this. It’s not impossible.’” He took some seaweed he usually uses for a fish dish, steeped it in spices to make a broth, cooked up some raw vegetables he had lying around in vinegar and mirin, and made a reduced soy sauce glaze.
A festive tower of gingery baby carrots, daikon, turnips, pea shoots, and spicy scallion greens atop savory wheels of sliced lotus root arrived at my table. It was delicious. But Keane said he would have made me something better had I called ahead—the method of notification preferred by every chef I talked to.
“People who have strict dietary needs and give advance notice—the restaurant would have to be crazy not to bend over backwards to make them happy. We’re in this business to serve people, particularly when you’re getting into this price point,” says Executive Chef David Kinch of Manresa, whose most modest four-course tasting menu is $85. “In fact, [preparing special menus] can be kinda nice and a break from the monotony.”
But how do you get diners to give the heads-up?
When Cyrus opened, reservationists would ask callers if they had any dietary restrictions. “But people would say, ‘I don’t eat any onions, garlic, any of this,’” says Keane. “And I said, ‘Wait a minute, there can’t be this many people who are allergic to these things.’” Cyrus stopped asking, as did Manresa for the same reason: If offered the option of customization, many diners will take it.
When special-diet folks drop in unannounced, the server is the first line of defense: He or she conveys a diner’s special requests to the kitchen. “It doesn’t matter what we think a guest means, it’s what they think it means,” says Michael David, sous-chef at Los Angeles restaurant Sona, where a large number of diners claim some sort of dietary restriction. “They may say they’re vegetarian, but then it turns out they eat fish. They’re allergic to nuts, but does that mean peanuts, too? Or do they mean only peanuts?”
Some of Sona’s diners have been known to show servers an 8-1/2-by-11-inch piece of paper from their dietitian, containing multiple foods they can’t eat, or items and preparations they prefer. Past lists have specified low-fat or sugar-free, “nothing acidic,” “no yeast,” “nothing fermented,” “no seeds,” and “some kinds of squashes but not others.” The server asks questions and takes notes, which then go with the table’s ticket to the kitchen.
On a few occasions at Manresa, a diner has presented his or her server with what Kinch ominously refers to as the card.
“It says, ‘Hi, I’m eating at your restaurant, and I’m looking forward to my meal. These food groups will make me severely ill and will be life-threatening.’ And it’ll be, like, onions, mushrooms, garlic, oils, any kind of nut oils.”
Kinch photocopies the card, passes a copy to every station in the kitchen, makes eye contact with each chef to make sure he or she understands and is taking it seriously, then tries to make it through dinner service without hearing the wail of sirens.
Many chefs now stock exotic vegetables and grains not listed on the menu so as to avoid having to fall back on pedestrian tofu when vegans show up unexpectedly. Sona’s kitchen always has greens, mushrooms, protein-rich quinoa, and a medley of root vegetables on hand that can be braised, fried, or even shaved into a raw salad to provide variety for a vegan tasting menu.
Sauces and soups are increasingly being made with vegetable stock, even for meat-eaters, just to cut down on the number of things the kitchen has to make ahead of time. “We built the rule—no meat stock in things that aren’t meat—into the system to make [accommodating vegetarians and other diners with special requests] easier,” says Chef Homaro Cantu of Chicago’s Moto, where about a third of diners on a given night will have dietary restrictions.
On Fridays and Saturdays, Cantu and his executive sous-chef act as floaters, roaming from station to station “knocking out,” as Cantu puts it, special requests with improvisations. One evening they developed a vegan dish comprising a fried wonton skin injected with Chinese “takeout sauce.” It was such a hit, Cantu put it on Moto’s regular menu for six months.
“It forces us to be more creative, and that can be a good thing,” he says.
Do chefs ever cheat? A little butter in that “vegan” vegetable purée? The issue is no laughing matter.
“We can’t really judge the person, because they may have really serious problems,” says Sona’s David. “You never know. Maybe they just had surgery or have heart disease.” You don’t want to risk somebody going into anaphylactic shock in the middle of the dining room, then potentially suing the restaurant.
What about diners? Do they fake it? “I think that’s why people use the word allergy a lot, because they know it’ll be taken seriously,” says David. “Then you come back and say, ‘I’m sorry, but there’s onion in that mushroom risotto you wanted.’ And they say, ‘Oh, well as long as it’s not a lot.’”