Hey, restaurants: I give you a huge portion of my expendable income. I take my friends to sit in you and listen to their woes while paying through the nose for wildly marked-up small plates of brassicas and little tumblers of Viognier. I am also, despite being neither celiac or lactose intolerant, one of those people who will ask for things to be substituted on the menu if I have to. It might be irksome, but it doesn't make me a clueless asshole.
Chefs are beginning to speak out about how intolerant they are to the word "intolerant." Fair enough. There are swaths of people out there—I know a few—who have an inherent belief that wheat is bad. They are most definitely not intolerant. Rather, still stuck in that post-Atkins-y mindset of carbs being bad and fattening, and so will ask waiting staff to have the chef remove the carb-y bit of a dish and replace it with something else, or refuse to eat risotto because they believe it contains the deadly gluten. But not everyone making a omission or substitution request is the same.
If you're a chef who would wince at me kindly asking to have the beef shin ragu with some greens instead of pasta, you might be upset, but you don't know anything about why I'm asking.
With the set-up of most exciting new restaurants being small plates or tasting-menu-only affairs these days, it's becoming far easier for those with dietary issues to navigate menus (certainly, any chef who only cooks a set menu will, if you let them know in advance, prepare something different and suitable), but there are still restaurants out there who aren't following suit and where people like me, the "intolerant," have to ask embarrassing favors of the kitchen.
But here's the thing: If you're a chef who would wince at me kindly and quietly asking to have the beef shin ragu with some greens instead of pasta, you might be upset, but you don't know anything about why I'm asking. You only know that I've asked.
Food issues aren't black and white. We're not all following the same ignorant, I-don't-eat-carbs-because-I-think-they're-going-to-make-my-belly-wobbly herd. Personally, I struggle with wheat, red meat, and pulses because of a near-fatal burst appendix a decade ago which has necessitated several subsequent surgeries and more gross digestive problems than you can shake a fork at. I'm not part of the 500 percent increase in UK hospital admissions for food allergies since 1990, and nor am I allergic to anything. I do feel quite ill if I eat pasta, though, and a few slices of bread will have me lying belly-down on the cold tiles of the bathroom for relief while everyone is eating dessert.
Am I going to explain all that to a chef via a waiter? No. I shouldn't have to.
As someone who is friends with many chefs, has one for a brother, and whose grandfather worked for Auguste Escoffier, I have been privy to several conversations over the years about how customers' dining requirements are the bane of chef's lives. Some of my earliest memories involve listening to whining in thick French accents about how overcooking prime cuts of meat should be "against ze law."
The customer isn't always right. In fact, customers are—in my experience as both a waitress and shop assistant—a bunch of braying, uptight bastards.
I get it. You're working with fantastic produce, and have designed a menu that best reflects that, as well as your expertise and your imagination. Deviating from your vision is hard. It's the same in journalism—anyone who's ever had an editor will say they find it hard to have sentences swapped out of their work, whole paragraphs changed, or the angle of a piece bent to fit a publication's whim. To use another simile, a chef composes a menu and their dishes like a carpenter—building and whittling bits away until the end result is, in the eyes of its creator, concise and beautiful.
But it's all subjective.
The customer isn't always right. In fact, customers are—in my experience as both a waitress and shop assistant—a bunch of braying, uptight bastards. But they have power. They keep money in the till and in the bank accounts of staff. A grey area must be allowed.
It's wrong for servers—like this one—to assume that anyone who is avoiding wheat is faking an intolerance. Just as it's wrong to assume that everything a chef creates must be enjoyed by a customer exactly as it is created. Yes, you probably wouldn't go to an Italian restaurant if you had problems with wheat, but what if you liked the sound of other stuff on the menu? What if everyone else you're dining with wanted to eat there and you with your wheat issues are the anomaly?
Marco Pierre White might have been famous for throwing people out of his restaurants for asking for salt and pepper, but when some of the greatest restaurants in the world bend over backwards to accommodate customers these days, it seems ridiculous that people feel embarrassed about asking for slight tweaks to dishes coming out of a kitchen. Food they might have saved up for weeks to eat.
It might pay for chefs and waiting staff to know more about the digestive system in the first place. I know a chef who says he refuses to take croutons out of a salad, for example, "because people are fucking sheep who'll believe anything they read about bread being bad." But I question how making sweeping, un-researched statements about the intolerant is any less annoying than those claiming to be intolerant in the first place.
When I ate at noma last year and apologised for leaving some of their wonderful bread (I was anxious I'd be in pain for the rest of the epic meal), the serving staff made a point of patiently explaining how loaves that had been made with starters, i.e. sourdoughs that had already fermented, were much easier on the digestive system than other breads. They told me not to worry if I couldn't finish it and that they'd find me something else to mop up their virgin butter and pork fat with, and I didn't feel embarrassed. I had saved up for most of the year to be able to spend a weekend in Copenhagen and eat there and I imagine, in all my teary enthusiasm for every crumb put in front of me, it was obvious.
I can't help but feel, while noma is perhaps an exception, that this is the kind of attitude that makes the most sense in the restaurant world. People are spending their hard-earned money to eat nice food, and assuming the worst from your picky customers isn't helpful to anyone. You might think, Well, go somewhere else, but do you really want to lose that person's business?
In situations like this, I like to draw wisdom from Ellen Degeneres' Seriously… I'm Kidding. "You should never assume," she says. "You know what happens when you assume. You make an ass of you and me. Because that's how it's spelled."