Food allergies and intolerances- 6 tips on how to manage them without going mad
When I worked in Italy, there was nothing more painful than hearing the words: "we have a vegan table for 2 !!" or "Chef, what do we have on the menu for a celiac guest?". Whenever a waiter uttered these words the terror was visible on the chef's, and in return, on the team's face.
There is no need to deny it: for years intolerances, allergies and special diets have been the nightmare of cooks and restauranteurs. This is probably due to the lack of understanding, preparation to manage the problem and, above all, the fear of contamination. Today chefs have no choice but to understand and accept the rise of different allergies and intolerances or risks being cut out of the industry.
One of the main challenges of intolerances and diets is their sheer variety. There are countless types of allergies and intolerances to gluten, nuts, crustaceans, strawberries or lactose. Special diets are also a fast-growing trend: from "beloved" vegans to fruitarians, passing through raw foodists, paleo or good old vegetarians.
The list is massive and, statistically, this type of client today turns out to be about 10-15% of the Western population, with numbers constantly rising. It is not my intention to analyze the choices of our customers. My goal is to try to give you some guidelines on how to manage this new trend in a simple way for the chefs while keeping the same high level of experience for our guests.
WELL-PREPARED KITCHEN AND ROOM STAFF.
The customer with special requests, must not feel disadvantaged or discriminated (I assure you, it happens, especially in the kitchen ..). This is why in front of him, there must be a restaurant staff who knows how to put him at ease and who knows how to direct him on suitable dishes to their needs. In the same way, in the kitchen, the whole brigade must know the offer perfectly, from the Chef to the commis, to also avoid the risk of contamination during preparation.
CLEAR AND EASY TO READ ALLERGY INFORMATION.
By law, the allergens used for each dish must be specified in the ingredient book within the kitchen. In the UK restaurants are also obliged to display the 14 most common allergens on the guests' menu. It is also paramount that all staff members have a profound understanding of these issues.
GLUTEN-FREE DIET AND THE CELIAC DISEASE
While many restaurants are slapping a gluten-free label on their dishes, not many restaurants produce truly gluten-free food. The reason is simple - the risk of flour contamination in a single kitchen is very high. All restaurants that are not properly equipped simply cannot produce 100% gluten-free food. Restauranteurs who do decide to dedicate themselves to this type of offer must know this is a huge undertaking. They need awareness, knowledge, and ethics to create an exciting menu without the usual ingredients or speculation.
If you are asked for a gluten-free course by an intolerant customer or someone on a gluten-free diet, it is your duty to inform him or her of the risk of traces of flour inside the dish due to cross-contamination.
REVIEW YOUR OFFERING
To my dear pastry chef colleagues, it would be appropriate to add to your menu at least 2 offers suitable for each type of intolerance and a special diet, to avoid getting rid of the problem with the usual, very sad fruit salad. A gluten-free dessert suitable for vegans can satisfy almost all of this type of clientele, it will also prove that you are sensitive and aware of the market, giving your venue greater visibility for every type of customer.
Today, due to the growth of the market, the offer of alternative products for the production of special desserts is really wide. Normal flour can be replaced with the de-glutened one, as well as with naturally gluten-free flours, such as buckwheat, rice, legumes, flax. Cow's milk can be replaced with almond, rice, soy, lactose-free versions. Animal jellies are substituted with fibre and starch etc. Pure eggs today have an exceptional replacement: aquafaba, the cooking liquid of chickpeas.
Just replacing some of the common ingredients with one of these can already widen your supply pool to more intolerances. But don't forget to test it first, as replacing one ingredient can affect the whole recipe. Sugar, fats and fibres must be carefully rebalanced.
DO NOT CHANGE EVERYTHING JUST YET
Although the special diet sector is booming, completely changing your recipes to adapt them to all types of diets and intolerances is highly discouraged. In fact, although this would greatly simplify our life, it would end up irritating the vast majority of customers who still eat according to traditional diets and are still tied to that type of flavour.
Lastly, however, I would like to add a personal consideration: everyone has the right to eat as they see fit and to follow a healthier lifestyle according to them. However, the choice of a special diet is often the result of an ethical choice, not a physiological need. For the former, their choice must be respected. For the latter, I would encourage everyone not to declare intolerance to a certain type of food without due medical diagnosis and consideration.