It started with a tweet. In a light-hearted nod at modern eating, one of Scotland’s leading chefs chose to share the news that he’d just gone through a whole service without facing any dietary requirements.
“It was like the Nineties all over again – when the words pescatarian, flexitarian and f***witarian didn’t exist and the only allergies were hay fever,” posted Craig Millar of the highly rated 16 West End in St Monans in Fife.
Some inevitably took offence but what was more noticeable were the numbers of chefs and restaurant owners who praised him for saying what they felt badly needed to be said. Restaurants are part of the hospitality sector and the very definition of that is “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers”. On that basis no one, including Craig, is denying the right of people with serious food allergies to eat out and be safe and well looked after.
However there is another issue here in the burgeoning demands of some customers who view every meal out as an exercise in attention-seeking behaviour. For Craig that has included people who request a vegan menu in advance and then decide to order fish or customers who ask for everything to be dairy-free and then finish off with a cappuccino.
Every chef has similar stories. Favourites include the customer who asked for fettucini pasta instead of penne because they were “allergic to some shapes” or an eggs Benedict but requested without the yolks.
What is becoming confused is the difference between allergies and intolerances and food preferences with some diners deciding to elevate a simple dislike into a supposedly serious medical condition. We can shake our heads and laugh at them as mugs but that misses something more serious here. In the fug of hare-brained demands, there are people who are requesting something a certain way because their very well-being depends on it. They deserve special care and attention but that becomes harder when every table in a restaurant is requesting some variation on what is being served.
On top of that is the strain all this puts on restaurants. Last year one Scottish restaurant went bust every three days. It is hard enough to make a living in the business without the endless demands of consumers who want their steak tartare cooked or sweet-and-sour pork served not too sour. Every business needs a formula to be successful. When you buy a car you get the basic model. Any specifications or alterations come at a price and that is accepted because it requires changes that take time and thought.
Over and above all this is the question why are these picky dietary fadists even eating out in the first place? Surely the whole point of visiting a restaurant is to surrender yourself to the skill and knowledge of the chef.
If he thinks the slow-cooked lamb is served best with harissa and pomegranate, what is the point in trying to strip out key ingredients because you might possibly not quite like them? These people need to stay at home and eat macaroni cheese. As long as they can substitute rigatoni for the macaroni, of course.