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July 08, 2006

Dietary "Restrictions"

Dominic Armato
Well, we just got back from the full-on 24 course extravaganza at Alinea, and the write-up is coming... lotsa photos to edit... but in the interim, if you'll pardon the rant, I'd like to raise a topic that I've always found maddening, particularly tonight.

Alinea serves a set tasting menu, the only option being whether to eat the full 24 course tour or a smaller 12 course sampling. So before starting the meal, the staff routinely asks if there are any allergies or dietary restrictions at the table. We ate in the downstairs room, which holds five tables. Over the course of our meal, there were a grand total of 16 diners who passed through, not counting us. From these 16 diners, we overheard the following requests:

• No foie gras.
• I don't want cilantro.
• I don't like oysters.
• I don't like strong garlic.
• A little is okay, but go easy on the gelatin.
• No seafood.
• No onions.

Now, whether I think these preferences are silly or not is irrelevant. People don't like things (or, more frequently, think they don't like things), and that's their call. But there are three elements that, in concert, I found absolutely maddening. First, in all of these cases, it was made very clear by the diners that allergies were not involved. Second, while the foie gras may or may not have been an ethical choice, the rest clearly were not. Third, it's a freaking 24 course menu. If a whopping three of them are objectionable in some way, that leaves you with twenty-one to enjoy. So, in short, nearly half of the diners in our room tonight were citing dietary restrictions, based not on health issues or ethical/religious reasons, but rather on a simple unwillingness to sample, or even consider, the full scope of the highly detailed and meticulously planned dining experience prepared by the chef.

Perhaps this is an overly sensitive response on my part, but you've just made the choice to come to one of the hottest new restaurants in the nation, with a young chef who is known for creating funky, unusual dishes, and where it is indirectly made clear at the time of your reservation that you do not get to choose what you eat. So if you are such a picky eater that you refuse to eat onions, arguably the singlemost ubiquitous and indispensable ingredient across nearly all cuisines worldwide, hearing your "no onions" edict inspires in me a nearly irresistible urge to stand up, turn around, walk over to your table and ask...

...Why are you here?!?

Clearly I would never do so, but is this instinct out of line? You don't watch a Jerry Bruckheimer film and edit out the explosions. You don't go to a pro football game and demand that they cut down on the hard tackles. You don't go to a Maya Angelou poetry reading and ask her if maybe she'd mind not bringing up the subject of race tonight. So if your food preferences are so important that when you go to a fine dining establishment, you feel it necessary to make the kitchen bend over backwards on the off chance that perhaps 5% of the food you'll be given might not be exactly to your liking, shouldn't you just consider eating somewhere else?

Comments

As you can imagine I agree with you but my questions always goes the other way---

Why Ask?

If people have allergies or preferences they should deal with it as it comes up. Do not give people choices (Beyond 24 courses)and do not become a victim of a democracy.

The rule is never open a door if you do not want anyone to enter.

You have no idea what we go through in this regard.
No pork...bacon OK
Vegetarian ...foie gras, and veal OK
No egg whites...but whole eggs are fine
No cream but butter is OK
No visiable dairy
It goes on and on but my all-time favorite....
No dark food...just had my teeth whitened.

If I were drinking milk while reading the second to last item, there would have been visible dairy all over the place... that's absolutely priceless :-)

The dark food has to be the most irritating, but at least there's a logic there that's comprehensible, if completely ridiculous. I'm dying to know what it is about visible dairy that makes it more objectionable than, say, invisible dairy? Were I in the server's shoes, it would have been everything I could do to refrain from telling the diner that we'd do our best, but the defense department's stealth dairy project is currently a few years behind schedule.

Out of curiosity, if you had to take a stab at it, what percentage of diners do you think cite restrictions? Are those who are happy to let the chef do his/her thing actally in the minority? I'm starting to get that sense.

I am the Dairy Ninja! I come to bring invisible dairy to unsuspecting diners! I hide in the shadows like chocolate milk, and glide across the floor like the soles of my shoes are made of butter.

I exist to bring hidden richness to your food, a drop of clarified butter here, a light grating of cheese there, and then slip away, unnoticed, and unappreciated. I do this for the good of all mankind -- because I am the Dairy Ninja.

Some of those items are truly crazy -- no pork but bacon okay doesn't make any sense at all -- there is no diet in the world, religious or nutritional, that wouldn't either cut both or cut bacon first. The vegetarian who eats foie gras is also a bit baffling. However, I actually know the person who can't eat egg whites -- she goes nuts itching if she has a meringue. Somehow, the nutrients in the egg yolk offset this, or at least buffer it. So this one item was legit, even though the others are obviously, shall we say, a bit excentric.

But agreed -- if you have problems with a lot of commonly used foods, or if you have strong dislikes of fabulous items such as cilantro and garlic, go somewhere else, where you have a long list of items from which to pick, rather than a set menu. (Or, better still, do what Jeffrey Steingartner did -- go out and learn how to like more stuff. If it's not an allergy, you can train yourself to like most things.)

You are correct. Beyond allergies, there is no way that I would ask for that level of special treatment with a 24-course meal, if only because I'd be able to enjoy most of it. I mean, if you don't want prix fixe, don't eat at a prix fixe place! (uh, that's what it's called, right?)

Besides, if I actually had the opportunity to dine at Alinea, I'd want to see and smell and taste everything. And I don't care for fish, seafood, bell peppers, European mushrooms, alcohol, organ meats...

But I'd still at least try everything. Sheesh.

Yeah...I'm going to have to go on record as someone who used to say "I don't like this...I don't like that" but after much discussion/tasting with Dom, I have learned to shut up and eat. If that isn't a motto to live by, I don't know what is.

Exactly!

I'd probably feel differently if it weren't for the incredible frequency with which I hear, "Wow... I normally hate [insert foodstuff here], but this is delicious!"

Sure, there are situations where somebody just isn't going to like something and there's no way around it, but in my experience those situations are the exception rather than the rule. When somebody told me they didn't like something, I used to make it a habit to either prepare it in a manner they'd like, or take them to a restaurant that would change their opinion, and eight or nine times out of ten, I'd meet with success. Maybe you didn't like that tuna tartare, but there are probably a ton of raw tuna preparations out there that you'll find delicious, and if you'd keep an open mind rather than deciding you don't like raw tuna, you'd learn that. Not to mention which, the number of people who erroneously self-diagnose horrible allergies while unwittingly chowing down on less obvious preparations of the purported killer ingredient is absurd, and it makes life more difficult for people who have actual, serious allergies.

And I think it's important to note that we're not talking about somebody with a real allergy or somebody who keeps Kosher and can't combine meat and dairy. That's another matter entirely. But these ones listed above weren't restrictions, they were PREFERENCES, and I think that's the key. It's bad enough what people do to themselves by deciding on such rigid preferences so quickly, much less to the kitchens they're ordering from.

I completely understand. I can be a picky eater, but if I'm going to a restaurant like Alinea I wouldn't really think about it. But this has gotten me before. I had to give any allergies for a dinner I was going to. So I told them what I tell everyone, that I'm allergic to corn and that I don't eat pork. Well the vegetarian option (since the main course was pork) was a large stuffed mushroom that was not prepared very well. Mushrooms happen to be something that I'll ignore in a dish up to a point. In this case I did not eat most of my entree. Thus next year it just might be on my list of uneatables. My point is that a lot of these people may not mind a little bit of an ingrediant here and there, but an entire course of it would be way too much.

It may be that Grant remembers working for Thomas (Keller) at The French Laundry, where when we (cooks) received an order for a dinner without certain ingredients, we were all skilled enough to make their dinner the same way we made those meals with all ingredients on hand, perfectly.

One night I had the audacity to ask why an entire meal needed to be cut up in 8 easy pieces after we finished plating it. My Chef responded that the diners were blind.

No matter what people do and don't want to eat, can't eat, or what ever, at least they have made the jump to bravely put themselves in the hands of creative chefs, not merely stuck to dreadful classics like Denny's.

The question is being asked of the diners for a reason. The questioning gives the kitchen some more information to work with. Better this scenerio than re-firing dishes after they come back to the already stressful kitchen because the diner took one bite and became displeased.

Hey, Shuna!

If I read your comment correctly, does this mean that you've spent time in the kitchen at the French Laundry? If so, that's supremely awesome :-)

It also means I'm VERY curious to hear more about what you think of this phenomenon, as it were. Does it ever get frustrating? I understand the benefit of asking, and as much as it kills me to know that it's necessary, I understand that it's an important part of good service. But doesn't it seem like it trivializes the art in some ways?

This could easily head in the direction of a much larger discussion regarding fine food's place on the fuel/art continuum. Perhaps the reason that it bothers me so much is specifically beacuse I DO see cooking as a true art, and so many people who are perfectly happy to completely put themselves in the hands of other artists have no compunction whatsoever about putting constraints, often ridiculous ones, on a chef's art. People are frequently open to the possibility that a concert may turn them onto a type of music they've never previously enjoyed, but by god, they won't even TRY asparagus. And I find that frustrating and sad. So does it not bother you, or do you just feel that it comes with the territory and accept it?

Looks like the thread died a while ago, but wanted to note one important error in your argument. I'm with you totally on the food as art thing, and on the idea that we should blindly trust a skilled chef to serve us nothing that tastes bad. However, not everyone shares this worldview, and it's unfair, even at a restaurant as eccentric as Alinea, to assume that everyone who is there should share that opinion. Moreover, it's important to remember that - again, even at Alinea, TFL, etc. - at a table of four people, most likely 1 person (maybe 2) picked that restaurant, and the other 3 accepted the invitation because "they heard it's supposed to be really good." Another possibility is that someone really is being brave, by venturing out beyond the grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup (or whatever) that makes up 80% of their diet. They want to try something wild, and are going way out on a limb. As long as they don't have to eat onions. I think it's great that they are being brave, but understand if they aren't willing to go all out on the first try.

Following on what Shuna said, if the kitchen can turn out truly spectacular food no matter what the limits are, then maybe the next time the diners will trust the chef to introduce them to something they thought was yucky. Finally, to answer your question: yes, Shuna did work at the French laundry. She also currently writes a lovely blog called eggbeater: http://eggbeater.typepad.com

I can personally justify "No cilantro, please." I'm not allergic to it, but I am one of those people for whom it tastes *exactly* like dish soap. I've been told that it tastes like something between parsley and mint; to me, it tastes like Ivory liquid. And that taste lingers, so cilantro in one dish can cause the next two, three or even more to also taste like soap.

As to why "No cream but butter is OK"; that may have been a person with a mild to moderate lactose intolerance. There are traces of lactose in butter, but nowhere near the amount that is in cream.

Wow. No onions? No dark food? I think I would feel almost insulted. Who are these people? The only rationale I can think of is that some people may feel that when they're paying a minimum of around $300 per person, they can have the food prepared however they damn well please. However, this completely defeats the purpose of Alinea and its experience. The whole idea is to experience food in a way you never have before.

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