In my youth, my parents would take me to Joe’s Steakhouse in Montreal where we would eat massive rib steaks on wooden cutting boards with copious amounts of butter and sour cream lathered on baked potatoes. A posh dining equivalent might include a chateaubriand for two, expertly prepared tableside.
While cognizant of my own rose-colored glasses, I still recall that no one back in the day seemed to have any food allergies or restrictions – order what you want was the name of the game. Today, however, those who dine unrestricted are in the minority. A dinner amongst friends may include the following: vegan; vegetarian; Jain (no products that end a life cycle, including root vegetables); kosher; halal; pescatarian; pollo-pescatarian; ketogenic; lactose intolerance; gluten intolerance; nut allergies; no carb; shellfish allergies; and so on.
Everyone eats, yes, but the peculiarities of our own dietary codes have become a constant topic of conversation, as well as a consternation for audacious chefs who must now appease all parties. Nevertheless, as hoteliers who invite and accept all persons of all dispositions into our homes, we must do our best to satisfy our guests. So, what can you do?
1. Train your wait staff to always ask every diner about dietary restrictions and food allergies. It starts with online reservations. Often a diner with special requests will advise when prompted during the initial booking. Your team should identify these notes at the time of the diners’ arrival and identify the individuals who are making the special request. It is not up to us as hoteliers and restaurateurs to question why a restriction exists, no matter how unusual the situation. Servers must take particular care to advise the chef and to give the right dish to the right person, as even a minor mistake here can have disastrous consequences.
2. Know all your ingredients. A listing of all components for each dish should be readily available, including substitutions that are possible as well as those that are not. This would include soup stock (vegetable, chicken, fish or beef), frying oil (peanut, sesame, coconut or lard), garnishes and sauces. If you are using ready-made products, the ingredient listings are easily identified.
3. Try to have at least one menu item in each category (appetizer, main, dessert) that would satisfy a vegan or strict vegetarian. Next, identify these on the menu accordingly. Similarly, having almond or soy milk on hand is an obvious way to support those who cannot have traditional dairy with their coffee. Part of the fun with all this modern dietary diversification is that it has also paved the way for a myriad of obscure substitute ingredients to now attain mass appeal. As a rather esoteric one, you might even consider carob for those with chocolate sensitivities.
4. If a diner has a special request to modify a menu item by eliminating or replacing an ingredient, encourage your wait staff to defer that decision to the kitchen. Often it is relatively easy, but one never knows. A chef may feel as though a specific substitution will compromise the integrity of the dish and thus not want to oblige the request. If the kitchen is unable to do so, wait staff should be trained to respond accordingly by offering a satisfactory explanation as well as another alternative.
It’s our legal obligation to protect our guests from harm. It’s our code as hospitality professionals to make patrons dining with us as comfortable as possible. As our patrons’ behaviors change, so too must we adapt to meet their expectations. That pertains to dietary habits as well as most every other aspect of operating a hotel.