TTT- Tuesdays Tasty Tip with Chef David Hall

Dining Out – Revisited Having food allergies or intolerances presents potentially serious challenges when dining out. Recently, because of our busy schedule, my wife Debbie and I have eaten out more than we typically do. Combining these two things naturally and mathematically increases the probability of being served potentially dangerous food with regard to her gluten intolerance. Due to our history of positive dining experiences we gradually slid into trusting the waiter/waitress to “get it right.” Unfortunately, this misplaced trust further increased the probability of risk to Debbie, and she paid for it. Now before we start slamming the wait staff, we must appropriately consider one simple truth. That is, “One doesn’t know what one doesn’t know.” If you’ve never been taught something, how can you be expected to know or understand it? We have a new grandson. He hasn’t yet learned to crawl. It would be silly to arbitrarily expect him to know how to crawl when he has not yet learned to do so, or to expect someone to calculate a triple integration without first learning calculus. The same applies to your server if they are not adequately trained in understanding the risks to the customer as well as the risks to the business. Management and training is the issue, not the server (more on that below). For example, yesterday we returned to a restaurant we frequently visit and Debbie attempted to place an order for a simple Greek salad she has ordered before. She stated she needed it gluten free and that she has a severe reaction to gluten. When the waitress immediately responded with, “Would you like pita bread with that,” the red flag went up. When Debbie asked the waitress if she knew what gluten is, we were fortunate enough to get that “deer in the headlights” look, indicating she didn’t know. Such is not always the case. Based on my experience in the industry and as a consumer, the typical (untrained) waiter or waitress will usually answer “Yes” when asked if they know what gluten is, whether they do or not. This is especially true if they are young. Many servers today have an inordinate fear of saying they don’t know something when asked. Our society has taught that ignorance is somehow bad, or lumped ignorance and poor judgment into the same category. This is unfortunate as it inhibits or entirely prevents people from asking good and sometimes critical questions. So what is the “fix?” Unfortunately, there is no one simple answer to this multifaceted issue. When dealing with a server (or any other staff handling your order) regarding food intolerances/allergies it is best ask open–ended questions instead of Yes/No questions. This affords the server the opportunity to ask you important questions for which you already have the answers. You could ask, “For which allergens have you been trained?” Open-ended questions force others to think and respond in a way that informs you of their level of knowledge, which in turn translate to your safety. Simple Yes/No questions will typically result in a “Yes” in this situation, especially if they are young. There are two other options you can consider. If the food or service is substandard, don’t return. If, however, the food is good and the staff is overall responsive, work with the kitchen manager, chef or owner of the restaurant and help them understand what they got right and what they didn’t get right. Management can’t fix issues or problems they are not aware of. Remember, the Chef and Kitchen Manager are the decision makers in a restaurant, or at least the “back of the house” as it is referred to in the industry. However, please realize peak service hours are not the best time to approach them because of the high demands on their attention during these times. I recommend visiting the establishment between the lunch and dinner hours, or after 8:00 pm. Better yet, return on another evening for a late dinner and catch them after the rush. Invite them to your table. If they sit with you, you will have their undivided attention. It is important to approach the conversation with a smile, because most of the feedback they receive is usually negative and from dissatisfied customers. Kindness goes a long way in getting to “Yes.” Try to finish on a positive note. If you decide to return at a later date, at that time introduce yourself, and tell them when you dined and who your server was. Explain to them what your allergy/intolerance is and what you ordered. If your experience was negative, be honest but professional. If issues were positively addressed during your visit, give kudos where due and offer your ideas as to how they can safeguard their business from future potential risk. While restaurants are getting better at serving safe food to folks with food allergies/intolerances, there is still much room for improvement. Please bear in mind, my comments here are applicable only to restaurants with professionally trained staff. These comments are not applicable to chain restaurants that use line cooks who don’t know where their food products originated beyond the corporate commissary, such as the mega fast food chains. If the kitchen manager or chef cannot tell you everything that’s in the food, get up and leave. It’s not worth the risk. Dining out need not be a frightful or anxious experience for those with food allergies/intolerance. One must simply ask the right people for the information you need to feel safe about your decision to dine with them. Your safety is your responsibility. Asking the right questions will enable you to make wise decision and have safe enjoyable dining experiences. Blessings, Chef David Hall, CGC

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