Allergies, Sensitivities, and Preferences: The Challenge of Dietary Restrictions
When I have a guest over for a meal, I always try to ask them whether they have any dietary restrictions or preferences. Oftentimes, they say that they don't. When they do admit to a restriction, they usually apologize for being difficult.
It is far from difficult, though... and the apology is unnecessary. For me, it makes cooking more interesting. Yes, trying to come up with, say, a vegetarian, gluten-free meal that doesn't include any alliums can be challenging. There are two ways to meet a challenge, though: you can shy away from it in fear, or you can embrace it. I can't say that I always do the latter, but when it comes to the kitchen I have a pretty good track record.
On occasion, I hear chefs complain about people who make special requests. The assumption is that the chef is the expert. While I am not going to doubt the general expertise of most chefs, there is a difference between general expertise and an application of that expertise in an individual case. In short, I think that individuals should be assumed to be the best judge of what they will enjoy eating.
Let's consider some examples:
- Albus goes into a steakhouse. It wasn't his choice of a restaurant, but he is there with a group of friends. The menu clearly states that they cook all their steaks to medium-rare. Albus was once a vegetarian and still gets nauseous when his meat is even vaguely pink. He likes well-done steak, but nothing else on the menu looks appetizing. Should he ask for his steak well-done?
- Bartholomew doesn't have any food allergies, but he is sensitive to garlic, onions, chives, and other alliums. If he eats them in any quantity at all, he will have intestinal issues that are best not described at the dinner table. He's found that if he merely says he can't eat alliums, restaurants rarely take his request to leave them out seriously, and he has suffered as a result. Should he start saying that he's allergic to alliums?
- Carmina is a supertaster of sorts. The chemicals that give heat to chilis, black pepper, ginger and their relatives taste incredibly bitter to her. Black pepper and bell peppers are merely unpleasant, but a dish that has jalepeños in it tastes like aspirin. Should she explain this when she goes to restaurants? How?
I can understand how, particularly on a busy night, a chef might get frustrated when faced with having to make nonstandard meals. I don't really understand why a chef would get frustrated with their customers for ordering things the wrong way. To me, that smacks of hubris. For my part, I enjoy cooking with restrictions. It forces me to think outside of my comfort zone and get creative.