A while back I sat down with Chef de Cuisine Ron Oliver of the Marine Room in San Diego. Our hour-long conversation gave me some excellent ideas for dining out when you’re following a special diet for medical reasons.
How often do you have diners come in with special requests?
Every day. We have a very pro-active policy about food allergies. The first thing we do is have the server write it on that ticket, so that everyone in the kitchen knows exactly what to do.
We have the entire menu broken down onto a grid, so that we can quickly determine if there is an allergen in a particular menu item.
What is the best way for someone with special needs to communicate that to a restaurant?
The absolute best thing is to call one or two days ahead and ask to talk to the chef or the kitchen manager about your requests. They should be welcoming and open to your requests. If you don’t feel that they are knowledgeable enough, or seem to care enough, then find another restaurant. Call as far in advance as you can.
Why is calling ahead so important?
Much of the food that’s served at dinner is actually prepped that morning. In the case of stock, it could have been made the day prior. So if we have a few days’ notice, we can make sure the items that will be served to you are not cross-contaminated. Also, the prep cooks will have left by the time dinner service starts. So if they have made a substitution, there is no way for us to be sure.
Also, many restaurants source outside products; commonly sourced items are bread, baked goods, spice blends, and stock. So they might not be able to tell you for certain what is in it.
If you are allergic to a cooking staple—black pepper, salt, onion, citric acid, sulfurs—you definitely need to call ahead. Fryer oil contains citric acid. If you are allergic or sensitive to MSG, be especially careful if you see a sign that says “No MSG added.” It could still be in products that they source: hidden in bases, stock, and Asian products. [Note: Since onion is a migraine trigger, this is especially important to ask about!]
If you can’t call ahead, then tell them as soon as you walk in. Don’t wait until your food arrives at the table!
What about special occasions like Valentine’s Day?
We actually have five menus when we have prix fixe: gluten-free, shellfish-free, nut-free, and vegetarian. But not all restaurants do that. You should be able to go out on a special occasion and have your needs met, but you will have an easier experience if you call ahead several days. [Note: I have given up on going out on events like Valentine’s Day; we usually go the day before or after.]
What things do diners do that aren’t helpful?
Don’t say that you are “deathly allergic” if you aren’t. Don’t bring a list of your allergies to send back to the kitchen. If you’re that allergic, call ahead and pre-order.
Know your allergies
If you have an onion allergy, find out whether you’re allergic to just one type of onion, or the whole allium family (onions, garlic, chives, leeks, shallots). If you are allergic to nuts, be clear which ones. It helps if we know that you’re only allergic to red pepper, not black, white, or other types of peppers.
Make sure you ask about each item and how it’s prepared. Don’t assume every single ingredient is listed on the menu.
Also, don’t assume that cross-contamination might not happen during cooking. If you are allergic to shrimp and you order a filet, it could have been cooked on the same grill as shrimp. So you still need to tell your server so they can help you.
Check the item when it arrives, sometimes they can get switched when they’re being delivered to the tables.
What about kids with allergies?
Parents need to be more aware. You have the best chance of a good experience by going to a family restaurant where the menu doesn’t change. Talk to the chef or kitchen manager, and make sure they know about your requests before visiting.