The Attitude of A Chef
It is now remarkably easy to be in the US and to be understood when you request food that is Paleo, or ‘gluten-free’ or ‘dairy-free’ – or a host of other dietary requirements.
Regrettably, the negativity in the UK towards those with specific dietary requirements (even from popular health professionals and/or blogger ’nutritionists’ or ‘dieticians’) means that we rather lag behind the US in this area. I am sure we are better than some countries, but realistically we can be very British about things and feel like we’re inconveniencing the restaurants we choose to visit if we ask questions of them or request specific dietary needs are followed.
And yet I once met a chef at a One Michelin-starred restaurant (which would go on to receive two) at which the whole menu was a tasting menu. That basically means that the meals are set, there’s no choice and the seating covers are full, every single service. I was actually touring the restaurant and just happened to be there when he arrived in the kitchen (he’s actually a little bit famous so I was a little shocked he was there). I don’t really know how I got onto it but I mentioned that he would hate me at his restaurant because I’d be the annoying person asking him to mess with his beautiful (like, absolutely stunning, seriously!) creations.
He, quicker than I could finish my sentence, told me not to be so silly. He insisted that as a chef his pleasure was creating food that people could eat. It might not be the full tasting menu, he said, but he would be failing as a chef if he couldn’t find food and ingredients and flavour combinations in his kitchen which would wow me, even with numerous food intolerances.
I was amazed, impressed – and filled with respect.
Eating Out On Paleo or AIP
I don’t imagine his attitude is universal. And yet, with what I have come to learn about the respect for food that is innate when you are looking at life through a whole-foods, Paleo-style lens, you really only want to eat in restaurants where chefs are that respectful – of both you AND their produce.
Don’t get me wrong, you cannot eat out easily on Paleo. It’s even harder on AIP (though not that much, ironically). But you can forget about finding a restaurant that serves ‘simple’ or ‘plain’ food and assuming that it will do. There is a world of practices in restaurants which are tricky to avoid – and this means that you have to know how to spot the potential pitfalls, ask the right questions and assess the situation before you begin to eat.
Let me explain…
All restaurants do something called ‘mise en place’ – which is basically prepping things beforehand, and often part-cooking or at least pre-marinating and pre-preparing proteins so that dishes leave the kitchen quickly once they are ordered. Veggies are chopped, seasonings and dressing prepared. It’s why preparing a meal takes you forever but at a restaurant it’s within 15 minutes.
And yet this is a problem with food sensitivities and preferences, simply because the ‘normal’ way to make things often comes with something that is typically avoided.
If you are avoiding generalised seasonings (which you will be on Paleo or AIP, especially if you’re sensitive, because they may contain gluten) then you are at risk of an exposure. If you’re avoiding things being cooked in reused, processed, very hot oils (which you should be because they are full of rancid and oxidised fats, and almost every restaurant uses these oils) then you will also struggle. And if you’re avoiding dairy, including butter (which is completely individual depending on your sensitivities and stage of AIP)… then everything that’s in the mise en place is likely to be ‘off’ your plate of possibilities simply because butter is a really flavourful cooking ingredient and many sauces are made glossy using it.
Now obviously, how fussy you want to be will largely depend upon why you’re following a Paleo diet, and whether these ingredients will really negatively effect your health in the short- and long-term. But if you’re someone for whom digestive issues are still plaguing you and you’re trying to be sensible, these might really make a difference.
To be clear, rancid and oxidised fats are really unhealthy, for everyone. However, the occasional exposure whilst eating out in a lifetime of care and using good quality fats at home may be the compromise that is on your ‘reasonable’ list. Likewise with the gluten in packaged spice mixes or seasonings. If you have coeliac and/or real intolerance symptoms with gluten then you are probably unwilling to risk this gluten exposure. And yet if you choose to avoid gluten because you feel your body just ‘feels better’ without it then the amount of gluten in those spices or herbs is highly unlikely to cause you an issue.
Therefore, where and what you can eat when eating out depends on the following:
How fully you are needing to stick to your Paleo principles – or the AIP principles if you’re in that phase of healing
But it also really depends on the following two factors too:
- How capable you are of authoritatively saying what you need to the restaurant staff
- How much you TRUST the restaurant staff to follow your instructions – FRONT & BACK of house – remember that messages must be relayed from your waiter and then order requests must be followed by ALL of the chefs and the kitchen staff
Tips to Bear In Mind
All of this said, if a restaurant is somewhere that you trust and you feel able to confront this challenge, the next tips will come in handy.
- Be aware you may need to wait a little longer for your food. If the mise en place rules out the part-cooked proteins or pre-prepped vegetables then they will have to cook you something from scratch. There aren’t a million spare pans and hobs in professional kitchens so they will have to make time and space during service to do this for you. Be patient, enjoy your drinks and your company in the meantime
- If you’re ordering something like a steak, remember it’s highly, highly unlikely it’s grass-fed which means that whilst it’s most likely going to be ‘easy’ for the kitchen as most steaks are cooked from scratch, the fat on that steak is going to contain any toxins of the animal’s rearing process, antibiotics and diet. This may not be a big deal to you, certainly not on the odd occasion, but this is one time where you may wish to judiciously avoid any fatty edges
- You may wish to state, up front, that you will tip the waitress more… see the first one of ‘Sentences to Say’, below
- Be polite, stick to things which are recognisably whole foods on the menu
- The chef, understanding as he might be, may appreciate you more for NOT trying to rework one of his menu meals to suit your needs (think, “I’ll have the [x] but without the [x] and the [y] and could you possibly serve it with [z]”). He will appreciate you FAR more for being specific, off-menu and just sticking to whole proteins that you know they must have in supply (look at the menu, it’s obvious what they sell) and the vegetables that you can see in their ‘sides’ section (just remind them that sautéing in butter equals using dairy)
Sentences to Say
So you know what you’re looking for and what to avoid. But, literally, HOW do you ask for it. With our conscientious shy-ness, what on earth do we say? Here’s some good ‘lines’ you’re welcome to steal!
“I am going to be your fussiest customer tonight, for which I apologise, but please be aware that I do this not because I’m actually fussy but because I have real health consequences from eating certain ingredients and I need your help so that I can avoid them tonight and enjoy this meal with my loved ones. You should know that I will tip you for your patience and efforts in helping me out.”
“When your ____ is cooked, can I just ask you to double check with the chef themselves that no spice mixes or dairy products (including butter) are used?”
“I really would love just simple protein and vegetables cooked in olive oil as the fat (Victoria’s note – this is not as toxic as you have been led to believe and may actually be better for you than their other oils). I know it’s an interruption to the normal flow of things, and I’m super-happy and prepared to wait until the chef has breathing space to do this.”
“Can I just say to you that your normal portions of vegetables are probably about half of what I need so be liberal with the veggies and charge me whatever your kitchens think is reasonable for my order, given this is all I really want to eat.”
FOR MY AIP & SENSITIVE FRIENDS who can’t do Black Pepper (I know the feeling!): “This is a bizarre thing but on top of the everything I’ve already mentioned, but I’m also super-sensitive to pepper – as in black pepper the seasoning I know this is a pain, because it’s literally everywhere, but can I ask you to double check with the chef that no black pepper has been used in making my food. I know he’ll hate me because he’s a pro and it’s a great flavour. You can let him know I 100% agree with him and I wish I could eat it, but I just can’t.”
“If your salad is normally just waiting to be served with the croutons already in it, please don’t serve me one simply with the croutons removed as even those trace crumbs really will make me ill. If getting fresh leaves, untouched by other ingredients, is impossible then I will leave the salad, thank you very much.”
Things To Remember
- Whether you lie is up to you – but be careful. I personally never lie, because I hate the feeling when I do. “I’m allergic to” will get you results, but you will sound like a lunatic if you then reel off 10 things. Honesty is always a much more open place to start from and in my experience the waiters can feel that. However, I often ask to speak to someone in the kitchen (only do this if the restaurant seems quiet). This makes sure that you can befriend the staff and the chef and make them want to help you, regardless of your reasons for your dietary specificity.
- You are paying them money. You are asking for a service. You have already committed to paying above average to compensate them for their efforts (see Sentence One above). You are a nice person. You deserve to eat out. Everything in this point means that if you get attitude, if you get flack and/or if you get the sense that you’re being bitched about or made to feel uncomfortable… you have the right to refuse to tip (and even take the ‘included gratuity’ off the bill if necessary). You also have the right to complain (formally, informally – whatever). You can also choose to not go back. You can take to social media and publicly shame them… and yet – all of this must be done with care. (If you eat their food you are choosing to trust them not to have put anything in there which may aggravate your issues…!)
- If you do get a reaction that evening that you can guarantee is associated with the food that you ate, feel free to return to the restaurant during the daytime on another occasion and just make the restaurant aware that your needs weren’t met. Don’t be harsh, don’t be angry, don’t yell and don’t even really complain. Just gently point it out and thank them for trying to help you, but make them aware that they didn’t fully follow your requests. ALSO – don’t ask for anything. They tried, and you ate the food – you aren’t due a free meal or any compensation. They do, however, need to know that they aren’t doing well enough for those with allergies and that next time the result might be a lot more serious.
Eating Out With Digestive Issues and Eating Out Abroad
If you are choosing to do all of this whilst tackling digestive issues, the same rules above really do apply. You have to prioritise what you need to make sure you’re not willing to eat that night. If you’re following a Low-FODMAP approach and you really know that onions and garlic are a killer for you then you must be specific about it and explain that you’re really ‘reactive’ to them.
If you’re doing all of this in a foreign country then there may be a language barrier and there may be ingredients that you don’t recognise. As we come towards the holidays I may be writing a ‘travelling with digestive issues and chronic illness’ post, but the rules for eating out are still the same. Befriend the right people (usually the chef, or the English-speaking (always!) maitre d’). They will help you. Additionally, holidays do not have to mean eating out each day/night. Find local markets with fresh produce and create your own meals that you know are ‘safe’.
More than this, know how you need to help yourself if you do experience some form of reaction. My best tips, whether travelling or in the UK are as follows:
- Drink plenty of water – after the meal, during the night and the next day
- Rest – allow your body to detoxify itself naturally as best it can through allowing yourself to sleep if possible. If abroad and you’re in a hot climate, try to stay cool and keep out of any direct sunlight
- If you become constipated really try to ‘fix’ this using natural methods which work for you. Think Magnesium and high dose Vitamin C, Epsom Salt baths, again – lots of water, and if you’re someone who likes coffee to help your bowels move then this might be a good time to use it (obviously not if you’re following AIP)
- If you get diarrhoea, keep hydrated. Keep up with your electrolytes also, which basically means using Himalayan Pink Sea Salt (on food, in water) and keeping up with eating potassium rich foods like bananas and avocados or dried fruit if you can tolerate it
- If you taste something suspicious, accompany it with Activated Charcoal (Bulletproof’s is my favourite) and I would highly recommend taking some away with you if you’re going on holiday
- Lastly, whilst green juices and powders such as spirulina and chlorella are notoriously good for detoxification and assisting with clearing stuff out of your system, I would never recommend them if you have not taken them before. Clinically, those with health conditions (especially immune-related ones) don’t always tolerate these stronger algae-compounds and you could end up making a problem worse rather than better!
- Also… trust your body… which brings me onto…
Stressing About Eating Out
If you have read any of my material at all you will know that I am a big fan of holding dietary specificity ‘lightly’. This means that whilst there are real needs that some individuals have in order to maintain their health and live well, these are longterm lifestyle choices rather than rigid rules which can be completely ruined by one exposure. There is a lot of scaremongering about ‘one single gluten exposure will set your GI tract back 6 months’. I have yet to see evidence of this.
Our bodies are powerful, wondrous machines. The fact that some people need, for whatever reason, to only fuel them with certain substances in order to keep them feeling vibrant and healthy is not a reason to be fearful of food and of life. Our need for dietary specificity emerges out of our bodies’ ability to handle the substances which we are choosing to eliminate. Eliminating them and still fearing them gives them enormous power over our biology.
This is anecdotal and totally ‘n of 1′ but I have witnessed my body have totally different reactions to the same food, entirely dependent on whether I’m freaked out about it or not. I also know that when I push my body far too hard and start to worry that I’ve done ‘damage’, a lot can be offset by internally reinforcing the message that “I trust my body”.
I have spent years evaluating where the break points are which make us struggle with digesting and assimilating certain foods. There are real genetic components, and a lot of our need for dietary avoidances has nothing to do with the root cause and everything to do with an attempt to ameliorate health conditions which have arisen after years of over-stressing our bodies. Diet can heal, certainly. But so can the choice to venerate and respect your body’s ability to heal itself.
When you are choosing to eat out you may feel like you are throwing yourself into the lion’s den. In reality, you are making a choice to enter into a social eating situation. This is phenomenally important because food is not just about fuel and nourishing our bodies – it is about communing with loved ones and enjoying nourishing our souls at the same time.
Having the courage to eat out may require that you install all of the boundaries and security tactics listed in the article above. But having the courage to enjoy eating out demands that you surrender into the experience and trust that – no matter what – your body is on your side and will benefit from the whole experience. Even if you eat something that your body struggles with, the power of the social connection and the emotional enjoyment may just be more than enough to counteract it. Hell, you may not even notice…