There are plenty of posts on the web and here on freedible with advice on eating out with food restrictions because let’s face it, that’s where the rubber meets the road for anyone on a custom diet. But nothing, and I mean nothing
can beat having a chef on the other side of the kitchen door who gets
it. That’s an experience – and creates a customer loyalty – that money can’t buy.
Here is a tribute to two chefs that knocked my socks off and (listen up, restaurateurs!) how they did it.
Let’s be honest, folks: I’m not the easiest person to accommodate in your restaurant. In fact, I just might be one of the worst. After all, while I have the tremendous advantage of not being very sensitive to cross-contamination, I roll with a rather ridiculous list of foods I have to avoid. Tree nuts, olive oil and safflower oil because they make my throat close or give me asthma attacks. Tomato sauces, anything containing soy, anything fermented, dried, cultured or aged, hard sausages, dairy, heavily spiced dishes and foods with vinegar in them – because they are high in histamine. Most raw fruits as well as raw carrots, celery, cilantro and basil because they set off my suddenly-pronounced oral allergy syndrome and gluten and egg because they just reek havoc on my gut.
As if that’s not enough, I’m usually toting a little guy so restricted that I have to bring his own food supply plus a 9 year old with fewer but more sensitive intolerances than my own. So before I even walk into a restaurant I’m on brain overload and my minimize-the-experience-of-deprivation-and-difference-for-my-boys radar is on overdrive. So yeah, I get it that my family is a bit of a nightmare when it comes to food and before you even say anything, yes - we usually cook at home rather than imposing that on anyone else.
But sometimes even we
go out. And when we do my expectations are generally set to “low”. That’s why it really stands out when someone in the kitchen makes us feel – gasp – normal. And when the kitchen goes even beyond that, beware: you just might find a happily-bawling mom in the dining room!
About a year ago, Chef Michael Bates Walsh, then of the Equinox Resort in Manchester, Vermont
, delivered such a moment. The Equinox, if you haven’t had the pleasure, is this really wacky combo of a beautiful, well-maintained, historic inn with an awesome spa, outdoor fire-lit cocktail bar and gorgeous indoor pool nestled in a cute Vermont town that cheerfully rolls out the welcome mat to the whole family – kids and pooches included. As if that isn’t confusing enough, right from our first call-ahead to the concierge it became clear that this was a place that had experience with food restrictions.
“For which meals will you be dining with us over the course of your stay?” the concierge asked without skipping a beat when I mentioned that I have dietary restrictions. “We’ll make sure that your family is taken care of.”
On arrival, it became clear the Equinox staff was trained to deliver on their promises. Waiters who not only talked food issues but had received a list of my restrictions, magically ferried from concierge to dinner reservation to table. At the time we were “just” top-8 free but dinner accommodations weren’t bare bones, they were thoughtfully-constructed recipes that looked like what my husband was eating – but without the ingredients that would ruin my weekend fun. And then a request that the chef be “allowed” to surprise me the following day with a special dish custom-designed just for me – because he just thought that would be fun for both of us. You could have knocked me over with a feather.
Needless to say, we’ve been back. Two days without worrying about what goes into everybody’s bodies well in advance is worth 9 hours of driving round trip, hands down.
Up until a few months ago, I thought that was the end of the story: Historic Inn in Vermont Proves it Can Be Done and Raises the Bar on Food Restrictions.
That was before I met “Chef Michael”.
Slouching into the dining room on our last visit, fresh from scraping our children off the ceiling of the car from our dainty 4 ½ hour drive, I reminded myself that you can’t expect to have an amazing experience every time. You never know how much of the last go-round was about personalities and how much of it was through rock-solid training. Brace yourself.
I was still reminding myself of that when Chef Michael sauntered over to our table.
“You have diet restrictions, right? Tell me what you’re in the mood for – I can make pretty much any of the things on the menu work for you.”
All my self-bracing and downwardly-revised expectations popped in a heartbeat, the order went in and I allowed myself to delve into the serious business of containing the monsoon of bubbly but all-to-often loud energy that was my toddler. Food came, was delicious, was devoured and empty plates were sent back. We were happy. Normal. Just eating off the menu like everybody else.
And then it happened. Standing to pack up the crayons, sticker sheets and assorted paraphernalia that had somehow kept my little guy strapped to his high chair for the last hour, I nearly knocked right into Chef Michael. Carrying a tray. With petite desert cups of lemon sorbet, caramelized apple slices protruding at a jaunty angle.
“These are on the house,” he said with a grin and a conspiratorial glance at my husband. Just as quickly, he disappeared, leaving me agog.
Turns out that while I was on a restroom safari with the boys, Chef Michael had spotted his moment and approached the papa of our roost. “I’ll bet your wife and sons don’t get to eat desert in a restaurant very often,” he’d said, and then rather than assume he knew the whole story, he’d worked through all the issues and brainstormed all the options with my husband until he lit on something we all
could eat. Even the little one.
That was the first - and only - time my toddler has been able to eat desert in a restaurant. Priceless.
Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago. I got a call from “Carrie,” the caterer over at my older son’s camp. She was checking in because the turkey she had planned to roast on-site had a surprise sodium phosphate infusion - would that be okay for him? I could hear her brain whirring in the background, right along with the small veggie blender she was listing in her arsenal.
“I was thinking we could do something with blueberries because I’ve noticed the anti-oxidants tend to also be low-histamine.” What? Did you say you bring prior knowledge about our rarely-diagnosed histamine intolerance to the table?
“And I’ve ordered these special pops – they only have 3 ingredients in them and he could have two of the flavors. They’re coming in to the office for me to try today and next week I’m ordering blueberry pops for the whole camp. That way there will be at least a couple of days when everybody eats the same thing he does so he isn’t all alone. And I’ll keep a few in reserve to give to him on the days that everyone else is having Italian ices that he can’t. Ooo – and I could do something with cantaloupe, or…”
I’ll admit it: I missed the end of that sentence, and the next one after that. My mind was too busy trying to absorb the unexpected rush of relief hitting it. Four weeks of somebody else being in charge of my boy’s food. Somebody who even went to culinary school. Someone who gets it that food restrictions aren’t just about resisting the foods around you but about feeling like the social collective is somehow resisting you
I sat, stunned, trying to keep up with the recipe ideas – creative, flavorful, appropriately-seasoned recipe ideas, not just the strip-it-down-to-give-to-my-boy-and-drop-it-naked-on-a-plate versions we’ve been served in restaurants so many times before. Recipes she was deftly constructing on the fly while also taking care of the children she had already told me were in that cafeteria with dairy allergies, celiac diagnoses and (I’m willing to bet from the size of it) a nut allergy or six.
I caught up with her as she bubbled to a halt: “I like coming up with all this stuff – I have fun in the kitchen!” I took a deep breath, regained my composure and started to tell her about freedible and our community-sourced Guide for custom eaters, just as I had with Chef Michael. Yes, she’s taking that
kind of care of my son and she doesn’t even know that I run a social site where custom eaters can connect with each other and the very specialized information about food that they need, determined to bring more people back to the communal table. Just like Chef Michael had before her, she had lasered in on my boy as someone to whom she could give not just a meal but a very special and uniquely-appreciated gift: inclusion.
I told Chef Carrie about all the blogs I’ve read by moms terrified to send their child to summer camp and practically pleaded with her to bring her voice to our community. About how much I’d like to feature and celebrate her for taking advantage of the opportunity she
sees to give these children one month out of their year when their eating restrictions count.
But I don’t think she heard me. She was distracted coming up with a low-histamine, blueberry and pomegranate grenata for the next day’s snack.
Have you had a restaurant experience lately that blew you away with how right
they did it? Add it to the comments!