PICKY eaters masquerading as the genuinely afflicted are like the boy who cried wolf, writes Jane Bradley
A friend recently invited her brother in law and his new girlfriend round for dinner. On asking if there was anything the lady in question did not like to eat, her brother in law told her no: that she was vegetarian, but other than that she ate anything. No problem, thought my friend.
But half an hour later, another text message arrived from her brother in law. He was wrong, he said. He had now consulted his girlfriend and there were actually a lot of things she didn’t eat.
Not only was she vegetarian, he said, somewhat sheepishly, she actually also avoids dairy, gluten and sugar. Eggs are okay, as long as they are free range and organic.
My friend, who has a goddaughter with coeliac disease and knows the effect that even a small amount of cross contamination can have on someone with a real allergy, asked how carefully she needed to prepare her kitchen. Did she need to make sure she had bought a new, uncontaminated pat of butter for her guest to use? Did she need to be careful that particles of flour in the cupboard did not contaminate anything else she might eat?
Her brother in law said no. His girlfriend’s dietary restrictions were entirely by choice. He had known about them when he had sent his first message, but had assumed she might relax them for one night meeting his family, especially as someone else was cooking. He was wrong. My friend dutifully researched and cooked a gluten free, dairy free, sugar free meal and watched while her demanding guest ate it, with barely a thank you. But she couldn’t help feeling slightly resentful.
A real allergy is one thing - and she would have happily gone out of her way to cater for someone suffering from such a problem. But to find that these dietary choices were just that - choices - were galling to say the least. Her guest had very specifically engineered what she, as the host, was allowed to cook, based on her own, very specific, preferences. Indeed, the line between a dietary requirement and a dietary choice is a fine one. Of course, even choices should be given some gravity. If someone has a vegetable they absolutely hate - or a meat which makes them queasy - then saying so when accepting an invitation is not a faux pas.
But are guests now going to begin to request specific dishes when invited to someone’s house for a meal? Should I say, when asked by a friend planning to cook dinner for me, if there’s anything I don’t like, that no, I eat pretty much everything, but tomorrow night, I’m actually in the mood for hand dived scallops and black pudding, so forget the garlic roast lamb you were planning, I have a dietary requirement.
And the backlash against fussy eaters has extended to restaurants.
Recently, a raging social media war broke out between a Dublin cafe owner who vented his frustration at vegans on his Facebook page and a disgruntled customer.
“ATTENTION VEGANS,” he wrote. “Please do not waltz into our cafe with no advance notice and look at us as if we have ten heads when you realise that there aren’t 50,000 items on our menu that suit your idiosyncratic dietary requirements. Our chef will be more than happy to prepare a number of dishes for you, but a little heads up in advance of your visit would be appreciated. Fair is fair like.”
The vegan in question spotted the post and went nuts (see what I did there?), sharing it to different vegan Facebook sites. While Stenson’s ensuing tongue in cheek retorts went down like a side of lamb at a Vegan Society annual dinner, he perhaps had a point. It appeared that this diner had been rude and unpleasant when the kitchen had been able to offer her only a small choice of dishes catering to her vegan requirements.
The question is, should we expect restaurants to be able to cater for all dietary requirements with no notice? For smaller establishments particularly, this could prove tricky.
Some chefs have even warned that picky diners masquerading their preferences as bona fide allergies are actually putting true allergy sufferers at risk.
Restaurants have claimed that their kitchen has gone to great lengths to cater for someone with what they believed to be a severe dairy allergy, only to have them tell a waiter at the end of a meal that they would relax their diet “to treat themselves to a little ice cream”.
This, they say, is putting people with dietary requirements too much in the camp of the boy who cried wolf. Mark Greenaway, who runs a fine dining restaurant in Edinburgh, has been plagued with guests claiming to have an allergy “to anything green”, as well as one customer who has only mentioned an alleged nut allergy at the end of a meal during which they had munched their way through a tasting menu, with the issue only raising its head when the diner requested an alternative desert to the hazelnut tart on the menu.
For customers who have true allergies, he says, he has strict protocol in place, as extreme as a pastry chef plating up a shellfish allergy sufferer’s food in case the regular chefs had a trace of shellfish still on their hands.
“It would be fine if they just said ‘I don’t like that dessert, can I have something else?’” says Greenaway. “But claiming she had an allergy sent me into a panic wondering if there was a trace of nuts in anything else we’d given her when we didn’t know. If she’d had a real nut allergy she would have, as many of our guests do, told us very carefully at the beginning of a meal - or even when booking - that she cannot eat anything with nuts. It is a serious problem if you get it wrong.”