Aren’t we all different?

May 24th, 2011 | Posted by greg in Daily life...

In our part of the world, special food diet, dietetic requirement and allergy is somehow not as widespread as in the US for example… or so we like to think.


As a chef and unless you or your family is directly concerned by such condition, you will, somehow, see it as a pain in the neck to do something different than your usual daily menus. Indeed, planning, purchasing and cooking whole different menus over a certain period of time for your guests will bring you out of your comfort zone and it will shake your world. Chefs have a tendency to create a menu with normal food items and vegetarian food items with the little awkward green leaf logo next to it; emphasizing an odd healthier fare. And that’s about it.

In America, the attention given to those special needs is amazing.

From peanuts to honey passing by gluten, dairy and sodium, each allergy or condition has an association creating awareness amongst the society. With this awareness, people learn and restaurants change their perception and behavior towards these needs. I don’t think the US has more or less cases as the rest of the world, but I’m certain they make sure the rest of the world is aware of their conditions… ok… and perhaps everyone knows how lawsuit is such a popular practice there, so restaurateurs better get their selection together at once!

Being aware of conditions and having paying customers expecting us to be adaptable and delivering quality products is nothing but normal. Until now, most of the customers with special needs would look at a menu and pick the only item they could eat, if any. But with a better awareness from our side and our much sought after adaptability, they can discover new dishes, flavors and a wider variety of food.

If you’re a chef and you think all of this is non-sense, then you’re in the wrong job – special need guests have the same rights to expect top quality food in top quality restaurants as anyone else. It’s not because someone is allergic to dairy products that crudités and green salad needs to be on the menu everyday!

These special needs give us a kick, challenges us and push us to think further than before. To judge a chef on his ability to create magnificent showpieces of sugar work or on cooking the world best black truffle risotto is one thing. But to judge a chef on his ability to adapt to special needs and requests is a whole new level of skills.

That said; I have to single out a very important point here. Just like when you blow your nose, 99.9% of people will look inside the tissue (It’s a psychological reaction…) Well… it’s almost the same when, for example, a gluten free person comes to dine, everyone turns to the pastry – which is the single most gluten packed place in the whole world – and ask: So what can we do gluten free? And every time it happens, I smile.

Yes, I understand the attraction of creating a cookie that isn’t meant to be gluten free, abracadabra and turn it into an actual delightful gluten free treat…

Baking without gluten is a great challenge and even if we can do it very well; but I think all of us need to take a step back and think about creative ideas on what is possible to do for special needs customers, not just for gluten, but for everything.

So here is my point of view. I compare food allergy with blindness. If you were born blind and never knew what a rainbow would look like – I could describe it to you all I want, you will still only imagine it. If you saw an actual rainbow and became blind later – you will miss it forever. To me, eating special need food is the same. If you tried it once in your life, you will remember it forever. If you were born and raised with a condition, gluten free bread for example will taste delicious to you, while it might make other people skeptical…

I like to think that if there are 99 people with 3 arms and 1 person with 2 arms: who is different? Sometimes, you need to put yourself on the other side of the fence to understand who is different.

Churning a dairy free ice cream for a 5 year old kid might not seems like the greatest achievement of your culinary career, but for that kid, it will mean the world.

Photos are from my book “Never Skip Dessert”

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16 Responses

  • Reminds me of a quote by Chris Rock: “We got so much food in America we’re allergic to food. ALLERGIC to food!
    Hungry people ain’t allergic to shit. You think anyone in Rwanda’s got a
    fucking lactose intolerance?”

  • Rachelle says:

    Your last quote is so touching :) And those food photos are some SERIOUS pieces of art!!!

  • Great post chef. My hat always goes off to people creating amazing tasting food for those with special dietary needs. Heck, I can’t even imagine an eggless cake which can be awesome for my vegetarian friend because as you put it – I’ve always had eggs in my top cakes, how can it be great without them? I can’t imagine it and if I miss it after baking a vegan cake, will my vegetarian friend enjoy it? This stops me from venturing into that direction, for now.

    • Anonymous says:

      I hear you… when we always enjoy a certain type of food, it becomes an habit, part of our own customs, very much etched in our cognitive memories… and then one day, you take away one key ingredient and of course, your taste buds will tell you “What is going on here?!”

  • Gregoire, what a beautiful, emotive and honest piece on professionalism and food allergies have you written!. I congratulate you for thinking this way, being open to experiment other people´s needs as it was you who´s suffering of those needs just talks about your kindness and the high respect you have for others, like that lovely 5 year old kid, and to your profession.

    Chapeau!

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks Heidi!
      I’m sure your hubby knows the feeling – when anyone with special food request shows up and you successfully add a pinch of magic to your recipe, making them go WOW! It really makes your day! I just love witnessing kids eating a dairy free chocolate cake or another pastry and see them laughing and jumping around! Awesome! :)

  • Gregoire, what a beautiful, emotive and honest piece on professionalism and food allergies have you written!. I congratulate you for thinking this way, being open to experiment other people´s needs as it was you who´s suffering of those needs just talks about your kindness and the high respect you have for others, like that lovely 5 year old kid, and to your profession.

    Chapeau!

  • Gregoire, what a beautiful, emotive and honest piece on professionalism and food allergies have you written!. I congratulate you for thinking this way, being open to experiment other people´s needs as it was you who´s suffering of those needs just talks about your kindness and the high respect you have for others, like that lovely 5 year old kid, and to your profession.

    Chapeau!

  • As you know my darling my middle daughter has food allergies from birth and now they have increased in the last 2 years when they were suppose to decrease at her age, she’s 12 now..that’s how it goes sometimes. 

    So lovely to read a thoughtful post from a chef’s point of view.  I couldn’t agree with you more about allergies being an opportunity for the cook to challenge themselves to create outside their comfort zone.

    This is a subject close to my heart and I get tired of reading food critics or restaurants complaining about customers with fussy diets…it’s a breath of fresh air to read someone who takes things seriously…I wish they were more chefs like you! :)

    • Anonymous says:

      Thank you Azelia!
      I sincerely thought about all this and just now I was thinking about a little girl, 3 years old, I’ve met at last Easter’s egg hunt. She had lots of rashes all over her body, with bandage on her arms, not sure what was the reason – but it was definitely an illness. She sat down on my lap, just like that, even she didn’t know me. And she obviously couldn’t go to the pool with other kids because of her skin condition. And there again, it wasn’t food, but it didn’t feel right – I had the same feeling as I have with food – when a person, and more so kids, come to dine, it only takes goodwill and motivation to make anyone smile and satisfied.

      I very much understand how you feel with your daughter! :-)

  • Simon says:

    Hello Gregoire,
     
    Great post!
    I worked at an awesome restaurant in the UK called Terre a Terre many (many) moons ago.  It was primarily a vegetarian a la carte place and we would also have nut free, gluten free, vegan and dairy free items available. 
    Whenever an order for a nut free dish came in (at least one a night) the chef making the dish would quickly change board, knife and thoroughly wash their hands/arms.  During some of the busiest services i’ve been in it was cool to witness.  Like a doctor preparing for surgury (….kind of).
    They now have a book out which I would like to recommend.  The book is a bit eccentric but then the restaurant is in Brighton.
    BTW i also really like your ‘never skip dessert’ book.  Cool take on the classics.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks Simon! :)
      Nice to hear people care like that! It’s missing these days… Your story reminds me of our kitchen now when a gluten-free breakfast is ordered, hands sanitized, cutting board and knife are changed and we’re using a separate toaster to make sure nothing is “contaminated” – I love to witness that everytime it happens! :)

      Just discovered your blog – very nice stuff! …My boss is also a Kiwi! ;)

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