Have it your way? More chefs say OK
“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.”
— Chef/TV personality Anthony Bourdain, “Kitchen Confidential”
It wasn’t all that long ago diners with dietary restrictions were greeted with less-than-open arms at restaurants. Case in point: NYC’s James Beard Award winning chef David Chang of the Momofuko restaurant group who once cited “special food requests” and “fake allergies” as two of his top five most annoying things customers do. To further drive home his point, the menu at Momofuko Noodle Bar at one point read, “We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items here.”
And he wasn’t the only chef who felt that way.
But then things started to change. Slowly. Meat-free Mondays became a weekly event not just at homes, but at restaurants, too. Soy milk, and in some cases almond milk, became an option at coffeehouses. Gluten-free menus started appearing and “celiac” was no longer considered an exotic disease. Next more proof? Come May, Grant Achatz’s restaurant Next will feature an all-vegan menu.
Heck, even the outspoken, pork-loving Chang softened his stance as a trip to a remote Korean Buddhist temple renowned for its vegetarian cuisine, documented in a “Food & Wine” article last year, illustrated. (The jury’s still out on Bourdain, though.)
Advances in diagnosing allergies have played a role in the increase of patrons with dietary issues, says John Coletta, chef/partner at Quartino (626 N. State). “Before people would say, ‘I ate something that didn’t agree with me,’” he says. “Now that they know what the ‘disagreement’ is, whether it’s gluten-intolerance or whatever, they can’t ignore it.”
At the River North restaurant, Coletta offers his diners an extensive gluten-free menu that includes a gluten-free pasta from Italy made of rice, corn and soy.
In today’s saturated restaurant market and with people dining out more than ever before, Coletta considers it a no-brainer to not only honor customers’ special requests but anticipate them, too. “In the past restaurants were interested in serving what they wanted and didn’t take into consideration the desires and wants of the customers,” he says. “Now, the moment we begin to say no, there will be someone who will say yes. It’s not more complicated than that.”
It’s a similar situation at RPM Italian (52 W. Illinois), where, according to chef Doug Psaltis, they’ve seen an increase over the last couple of years in diners with dietary issues. “Instead of being reactive and just wait for the problem to happen, we’ve created a gluten-free menu with some 25 to 30 items,” he says. (In fact, all of Lettuce Entertain You restaurants have one available.)
Trial and error also comes into play at Senza (2873 N. Broadway), a gluten-free restaurant that opened in September 2012.
Initially, chef Noah Sandoval, formerly of Schwa and Spring, worried the restrictions would get in the way. But that hasn’t been the case. “I’ve realized it’s not that hard to give the same dining experience to someone who doesn’t eat gluten as long as you keep an open mind as to what you can and can’t do,” he says.
The Lakeview restaurant does double-duty as a coffeehouse in the morning with items like gluten-free beignets and bagels, and then ups the creativity at dinner with a la carte offerings and three prix fixe menus — think gnocchi with shiitakes and lamb loin with ligonberries and black walnuts.
And Sandoval swears that if you didn’t know his tagliatelle was gluten-free, you wouldn’t notice the difference. “People have this misconception that if you eat gluten-free, it’ll taste like cardboard,” he says. “But you just have to put a little time and effort in it.”
At the recently opened La Sirena Clandestina (945 W. Fulton Market), chef John Manion’s also a big believer in respecting the requests of his diners. “It’s our jobs to be accommodating,” he says. “At the end of the day it’s about making sure our guests leave here satisfied and happy.
“I was fortunate that Brazilian cuisine is extremely accommodating,” he says, citing his pao de queijo, cheese bread made with cassava-root flour, and the use of coconut milk in dishes such as coconut and cilantro risotto, and moqueca (fish stew).
For some chefs, the road to allergy-friendly dining has been more of a personal journey.
“It’s part of growing older,” says Belly Q’s Bill Kim (1400 W. Randolph) of the increase in those with dietary restrictions and includes himself and wife, Yvonne, in that group. Yvonne has been diagnosed with celiac disease, while Kim is lactose-intolerant.
Those special requirements have come into play at home and their restaurants.
“When we did Belly Shack [1912 N. Western], we tailored it to our dietary needs,” says Kim, with a menu that includes almost 20 percent gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian items. He created the now-signature Boricua sandwich — marinated tofu with hoisin barbecue sauce (made with gluten-free soy sauce) and brown rice and served on crisp plantains — with Yvonne in mind.
Chef Dominique Tougne has become somewhat of a local legend when it comes to catering to those with food allergies, first at Bistro 110 and now at his own restaurant, Chez Moi (2100 N. Halsted). With two children who are allergic to tree nuts, Tougne knows firsthand the importance of making diners with dietary issues feel comfortable while dining out.
Rather than have a set menu, he opts to customize each dish. Like a lot of chefs, Tougne encourages diners to let the restaurant know restrictions when making the reservation. Once the customer arrives at the restaurant, the discussion continues, says Tougne, who often comes out to the table. “I want to understand their needs and risks before I go back in the kitchen,” he says.
While the chefs I spoke with know that sometimes a supposed “allergy” really isn’t one, that doesn’t matter to them. “We are of the opinion that whether it’s a real allergy or a preference, we are prepared to provide whatever experience the customer is in search of,” says Coletta. “When you can put a smile on someone’s face that requests something that’s challenging, you have succeeded.”
Lisa Shames is the dining editor at CS magazine.