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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2 thoughts on “Life as a difficult customer

  1. Gosh, that makes it so difficult for you to eat out. I am a very recent vegetarian and thinking of heading to veganism and eating out is the one aspect that worries me. From my perspective though, there are no medical reasons the change to my eating so no impact if I eat something that doesn’t fit with my plan.

  2. Just a big ‘ thank you’ for this post. I think it’s so very difficult for people to understand how challenging this can be for people with food issues. I’ve ended up unable to eat out, at this moment, because I’m so sensitive to certain ingredients that we have to talk to the farmer of the produce I eat to make sure they didn’t use certain coatings on, say, their citrus, as an example. It makes trying to eat at a restaurant a complete nightmare.

    But, to aid in future travels, if you ever come to the Southwest United States, there is a small chain called Picazzo’s in Arizona that seems to have its stuff together. They are completely gluten free (every item on the menu), almost completely organic, try to keep the food dyes low to non-existent, and when asked, they could even tell me who provided them with every ingredient, as they try to buy locally.

    If they keep it up, they sound like they will be great for any traveling folks with food concerns. :-)

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