Years ago, maybe I should say decades ago because it was sometime in the mid-90s, I was out for a festive dinner in NYC with a sizable group of 20-somethings. The memorable part of the evening was not the food, so much as the ordering. Two of the diners in our group had very specific dietary requests – one involving a nut allergy and the other one requesting an all vegan meal. Mind you, as much as vegetarians were in vogue at this time, accommodating vegans and those with nut allergies was yet to be a thing. While the bulk of us were just ordering off the menu, our two “problem” diners were served up a lot of eye rolls and deep sighs from our waiter before their tailored meals arrived from the kitchen. Nothing like being the high maintenance table on a busy Saturday night.
In the contemporary dining realm of 2011, such requests are nearly commonplace with vegetarian, vegan, non-dairy, and even gluten-free options often printed right on the menu – thus creating a margin of acceptance for those with dietary restrictions (or inclinations). Still supply doesn’t always remain in lock step with demand as the number of dietary restrictions and predilections that abound. It is not enough for a dish to be gluten-free if the gluten free onion rings were fried in the same oil as the glutinous onion rings (a case of cross contamination). Also there has been such a rapid increase in the number of diners who identify themselves as allergic or intolerant to any number of things including, all forms of dairy, vinegar, wheat, nightshade vegetables, citrus, certain vegetable oils, coconut oil, seeds, etc. It has gotten to the point that many diners, who struggle with food allergies/intolerances travel with little laminated cards that could be handed over to the server, and then passed on to the kitchen, listing their culinary dos and don’ts.
Some restaurants have been more than accommodating, whereas others just can’t be bothered to cater to such specialty requests (like David Chang’s restaurant Momofuku Ko in NYC). With only about an estimated 6% of the population actually suffering from food allergies (a larger percentage deals with issues of food intolerance, which is not dangerous or life threatening but does make for some unpleasant digestive issues) some restaurants simply don’t want to deal with the culinary gymnastics required to deliver a truly allergen-free meal – not to mention the liability issue with serving up something that may have a trace of the dreaded allergen. The nature of some dietary requests, being so specific, that a full scrub down of the kitchen would be in order to assure a risk-free meal. Instead, some restaurants kindly refuse to play ball.
And to be frank, some people just don’t take the food allergy/intolerance thing all that seriously. Some people in the food industry quietly assume that many of the most demanding customers in this category simply use the allergy card to avoid getting an unpleasant food on their plate (I knew a woman who claimed she was allergic to shrimp her whole life in order to avoid having to eat them). That said, is it safe to assume that food ordered in a restaurant is what the server says it is, or isn’t? Is it too much for us to saddle restaurants with the responsibility of accommodating our very specific dietary requirements? Are we asking too much, or are they providing too little?