Life as a difficult customer

It has occurred to me that my last post, about The Smokehouse at Sorrento, could be accused of being just a smidge on the gushing side. And, of course, the Smokehouse deserves gushing praise. But perhaps those of you who are not terminally difficult customers might not quite understand what all the fuss is about. So this is my attempt to describe our typical restaurant experiences.

For background, and the benefit of those who are not regular readers (shame on you, I say!), I will summarise my family’s food situation: ghastly.  Perhaps a little fine detail might help: I have coeliac disease and fructose malabsorption, and need to eat gluten free and fructose friendly. One of my daughters also needs fructose friendly. The other has silent reflux, which in her case goes hand in hand with severe intolerance to dairy, citrus, tomato, pineapple, and a range of other things. On the bright side, none of it is likely to kill us.

For both the gluten and the reflux, cross contamination is an issue – meaning there can be not so much as a trace of the problem food stuffs in our meal, or we will suffer for it. It means not using the same utensils, same cooking surface, or letting so much as a crumb or drop of our problem foods anywhere near our meal. Feeding us is, to put it mildly, a little tricky.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

Anthelme Brillat Savarin, 1825

“Difficult.” Me, 2010.

We are painfully aware of the burden this places on the shoulders of any chef bold enough to try to cater for us. Gluten free food is, fortunately, becoming easier to find, but the rest of the set is very poorly understood. For the fructose part, it is usually enough to say “Gluten free, no onion, no garlic”, because the rest we can eat around. But even that is hard for some restaurants to do, where almost every dish has onion or garlic integral to its sauce or marinade.

Before we go to a new restaurant, I always call them to make sure they can cater for us. If they don’t understand gluten free already we generally won’t go, because every time I have tried to explain gluten free to a restaurant I have been poisoned by cross contamination.

Having found a place that can cater for us, I am always careful to restate our needs when we order, to make sure there is no confusion. It’s difficult, because I am well aware that we are asking an awful lot – we usually need several meals created from scratch, quite different to anything on the menu. Many restaurants refuse, point-blank, to even try.

“Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent.”    Epictetus, ~100AD

Once we have located a restaurant that thinks it can feed us, we have to be ever vigilant. I have, in the past, found croutons (made from regular bread) in my “gluten free” meal. I have found cream glueing my daughter’s dairy-free pavlova to the plate. Her citrus free fish has been served with a wedge of lemon sitting right on top. My gluten free omelet has arrived on a piece of toast.

But these are the easy ones. The worst are the ones you can’t see, and don’t know about until it’s too late. The soy hot chocolate made in a jug that had cows’ milk in it before, and has not been washed. Or just steamed using a steaming wand that still has milk on it. The gluten free steak cooked on the same surface as something with flour. The chips fried in the same oil as something battered. These ones we find out about when the symptoms strike.

Recently we went on holiday to Brampton Island, in Queensland. I was very nervous about going to an island with only one restaurant, and no self-catering facilities, so before we booked I called several times to make sure they were going to be able to handle it. “No problem!” they assured me. “Just call us a week or so before to make sure we order in the right foods, and it will be fine. When you get here you can meet with the chef and plan a menu.”

Call them I did. And I emailed them the details, together with a list of safe foods. And I repeatedly tried to speak directly to the chef, but the phones were apparently playing up, so that didn’t happen. But they assured me it would be fine. I had a bag full of safe snacks, just in case, but I was confident that I had done everything possible to make it ok.

When we got there I went straight to talk to the chef, to make sure that he understood and could help us out. He was quite agreeable, pointed out all the things on the menu that were gluten free, and assured me that he could alter things to suit our needs. There was no question of providing a dairy free dessert for our 3 year old, though. That was apparently too hard. Fortunately I had come prepared with plenty of lollies and chocolate, so that was manageable.

Then came the actual meals. I wrote out lists of safe foods, and to make it easier on the chef, I ordered the same things for all three of us, so that he didn’t have to create 3 different special meals. Nonetheless, I was poisoned twice by foods that were allegedly safe – and another time I spotted the bread in the dish just in time.

When we asked for a dish of steamed veggies, they came out on a plate with mashed potato steeped in butter, with garlic and onion as well.  My 3 year old was so badly poisoned that she wound up throwing up (something that doesn’t usually happen with silent reflux, unless she eats a very large amount of the wrong food). I won’t disturb you with my symptoms.

Other than food, the resort was great, and to be fair, the front of house staff were fantastic. They tried their best to mitigate the chef’s appalling carelessness. Still, eating there was a nightmare. Holidays are clearly going to be tricky for us from now on.

This is the complexity we face whenever we try to eat somewhere new. This is why The Smokehouse was such a find for us.  There, we are not made to feel like the incredibly difficult customers that we clearly are. There is no sense that we are a burden, a problem, or a pest that they would really love to see scuttle out (under) the door. Under the circumstances, a little gushing seems appropriate.

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Smokin’

You might want to stand a safe distance away today – there’s a chance I might explode. I am suffering from a surfeit of chocolate mousse and smugness. This is always a problem after I have visited The Smokehouse of Sorrento. I need gluten free and fructose friendly food, and my daughter needs dairy, citrus and tomato free, which together make dining out a challenging option, if it’s possible at all. We recently went on holiday to a resort in Queensland, and despite many preparatory phone calls, emails, and assurances that it would all be fine, the food part of the trip was a nightmare, with repeated poisonings and an utterly recalcitrant chef.

The Smokehouse, by contrast, is proof that there is a heaven on earth for those of us with complicated diets. Owner and chef David Stringer clearly loves food, and loves to share his delight. Many of his dishes are gluten free by default, and the famous smokehouse pizzas come in a gluten free option which, to be honest, I wasn’t sure was gluten free the first time I had it – it tasted far too good!

Many things I can order straight off the menu, but if I need an alteration, nothing is too much trouble. Last night I wanted to try the rabbit (please don’t tell my kids, who would be horrified at the thought. “Rabbits are friends. Not food.”), but it comes on a bed of lentils – a strict no-no in fructose friendly land.  In many restaurants I won’t order something that doesn’t come fructose friendly by default, because it’s too complicated trying to explain and find an alternative – but not at the Smokehouse. David gives it careful thought and always tries to offer an alternative which is not only safe, but delicious. In the end I had the rabbit on a bed of roasted vegies (which usually come with another dish), without the beetroot. It was heavenly.

We go to The Smokehouse whenever we are in Sorrento, but that’s only a handful of times a year. Nonetheless, David knows my name, remembers that I am gluten free, and my penchant for chocolate mousse. The menu currently contains a chocolate mousse cake which includes a pastry base (and is not gluten free), so whenever I make a booking David puts aside some of the chocolate mousse for me, without the pastry, in my own special gluten free dessert. I don’t even have to ask. There is a range of desserts, several of which are gluten free, so he really doesn’t have to go to the extra trouble, but he does it automatically. You get the sense that David wouldn’t be happy if a customer left The Smokehouse in anything other than a state of blissful contentment.

It’s not just David who makes the Smokehouse such a delight – every member of staff gives the impression that they are thrilled to see you, and dedicated to making you smile – even if you bring a horde of ravening children with you. Show up at the door with small people and the staff immediately grab the textas and colouring sheets – and they carefully select the right pictures, conferring in very serious tones with each small person to make sure that they have picked the best possible picture. They make them feel so special and welcome that our girls adore the place, and always clamor to go there.

Of course, the food is magnificent.  I am always encouraged to branch out of my conservative dining habits and try something new, and the results are invariably delectable. I must admit, though, I rarely have anything other than the mousse for dessert.

The only problem with the Smokehouse is its popularity – it’s always wise to book ahead. Once when we went there on the spur of the moment the only seats left were at a bar around the edge. I was heavily pregnant, and although I sat there quite happily, David was not content with the arrangement. Within about 5 minutes a table was magically arranged for us.

The Smokehouse is a wakeup call to other restaurants – it is possible to cater for strange dietary requirements cheerfully and well. It is so hard for us to find a restaurant we can all eat at, and so often it’s a huge drama to get things that we can eat safely. We wind up leaving many places feeling frustrated and unwelcome, as though we have asked the world, wrapped in a solid gold ribbon. Yet despite being the world’s most difficult customers, we always leave the Smokehouse feeling cosseted, smug, and full of chocolate mousse. It’s sheer, unadulterated, chocolate flavoured bliss. We’ll be back!

To absent friends

stained glass flower

17 years ago, when we were planning our wedding, my soon-to-be mother-in-law insisted that the reception include a toast “to absent friends”. At the time I was blase about it – my friends weren’t absent. They were at the wedding. That was the whole point, wasn’t it?

These days I have a profound understanding of that toast, particularly in the lead up to Christmas, surely one of the most bitter-sweet times on the western calendar. Renowned as a time to spend with loved ones, Christmas contains a heart rending sadness when some of those loved ones are out of reach. It’s a time to ache for friends far away, but even more for friends gone forever.

I have never been good at letting go – limpets have a grip that is positively lax in comparison. I have been known to pine for defunct friendships long past the point where rational people would let go. And I have many dear friends overseas, out of reach of the hugs I long to share with them, but at least there is the phone.

It’s the friends I can no longer call that really break my heart at this time of year. I tend to be expressive and affectionate, so there is not much I left unsaid. I don’t regret not telling them how important they are to me – they certainly knew. But at a time when we reconnect with our loved ones, their absence is a gaping wound in my heart.

rose

They say that time heals all wounds, but it turns out there are some wounds that don’t heal – you simply learn to live with them. 14 years on I still cry for my best friend, Di, killed in a car accident at the age of 24. We never got to say goodbye. And nearly 4 years on I still cry for my kindred spirit, James, whose body finally gave out on him, 15 years after the doctors first predicted his death. He was in his 70s, we did get to say goodbye, and it turns out that saying goodbye isn’t a great help.

This year my friend Mike died of pancreatic cancer. He left behind a young family, and a horde of grieving friends. Another desperate hole in the world, where there should be light and laughter.

Our hearts reach out to those we have bonded with, especially now. For those we can touch, the bond, and our hearts are strengthened. For those we can no longer reach, the ache is fierce. They are alive in spirit as long as we remember them.

Reach out to your friends and loved ones. Make the most of these moments when you can touch them and tell them what they mean to you.  And remember those you have lost. Let them live in your heart. Here’s to absent friends.

Coming home to work

Last week we had the end of year staff dinner for the school I teach at. (Did you hear that? I love the sound of that. “The school I teach at.” I’m a real teacher now. The kids have to call me “Dr McIver.” I can’t even call myself Dr McIver without cracking up, so it could be an interesting year.)

Although I have 13 years tertiary teaching experience, I am new to teaching in schools, so I was the target of a lot of advice from my experienced colleagues – most of it on the topic of staying sane. “You must make sure that you go home and vent to Andrew on a regular basis. It’s vital.” Hearing his name mentioned, Andrew tuned in to the conversation, to find that it was all about keeping me from going completely postal. He was quick to put my co-workers right. “No, no. She is going to be vastly more sane now.”

Experienced teachers and teachers’ spouses all, they looked amused and sceptical. “He doesn’t get it,” they were clearly thinking. “No idea at all.”

Andrew is right, though. Regardless of the stresses and pressures of teaching, I am a much happier, more stable person with a regular workplace, colleagues, and social contact that doesn’t involve barbie dolls or lego. (Although, actually, there is some lego. But it’s definitely grown up lego.)

lego robots

I am an extrovert. I get my energy, stability, sanity, and even my rationality, from interacting with people. Not just any people. I love my girls, and I love playing with them, but there is such a thing as too much pink. Too many stickers. Too many dolls. Even, and I hesitate to say this, too many teddy bears (something my friends never thought they’d hear me say).

I like to be able to talk politics – and explaining politics to kids, even our highly intelligent 7 year old, is painful, because so much of it is so incredibly inexplicable. “Why don’t they just help people?” “Why don’t they just stop polluting and use renewables?” “Why are they so mean?”

I like to be able to finish a sentence from time to time, without fending off cries of “Muuuuuuuuummmmmmmyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!!!!!!!!!!!”, and I really, seriously, definitely need to be able to use different parts of my brain. I object to people characterising stay-at-home parenting as brainless. It is anything but. It requires a level of creativity, patience and ingenuity that demands every single braincell switched on and 100% focused. But for me, at least, it is an entirely different type of thinking to being at work.

With very young children there are few, if any, downtimes, apart from naps (and some kids never nap well). You can’t even go to the toilet in peace. Usually this is something I can manage at work.  When I am not in parent-mode, I can focus intently on a cognitively demanding task. I can have whole meetings that don’t discuss bodily functions, and hardly anyone at work ever shouts out “I did a poo!”

While I do have to remember to keep myself fed at work (otherwise things go horribly, horribly wrong – trust me on this), I am not responsible for ensuring that anyone else eats enough to avoid becoming a cranky tanty-monster. And should a cranky tanty monster show up at work (it can happen), I have backup. I don’t have to deal with it alone.

I tried working from home for a while, and although I know it’s the ultimate ideal workspace for some, it doesn’t work for me. I need to be able to rampage out of my office. If I don’t have an office, but work out in the open with others, that’s even better (for me, at least – maybe not so much for the others!). If something distressing happens at work, I can always find a colleague to empathise, make me laugh, or tell me to “suck it up, princess!” Friends and colleagues keep me grounded, and prevent my head from getting stuck so deep inside my own navel that I resemble a klein bottle.

A Klein bottle has no inside or outside. photo courtesy of Svein Halvor Halvorsen

My kids need me, and I love to be home with them. But I can’t do it 24/7. They need me sane and grounded, happy and fulfilled. And in spending half the week at work and half with them, I have found a balance that works for all of us.  Just don’t talk to me about school holidays!

I am well aware that I am lucky to be able to do this. Both my husband and I work part time so that we can spend more time with our kids, and part time work can be hard to find, and challenging to maintain. But it’s worth the struggle. Now if you will excuse me, I must go and deal with other people’s bodily functions again. Roll on term time!