Food News

Dietary requirements: intolerances, allergies and crazy quirks

It’s not unusual for a menu to cater to dietary requirements. But even the most accommodating chef has been challenged by requests that go beyond the typical demands for vegetarian, gluten-free and vegan dishes

By Lee Tran Lam
Lennox Hastie at the Firedoor

At Lennox Hastie's Firedoor in Sydney, a guest once told the chef she was "allergic" to the orangewood used to smoke the salmon. After he switched to applewood instead, the diner confessed she just wasn't a fan of salmon. "The most bizarre request was possibly one guest who claimed they can't eat things that are purple," says Hastie, "while another guest said they can't eat swordfish as they mate for life and it is too tragic." Duncan Welgemoed of Adelaide's Africola was once given advance notice about a diner with a nickel allergy. This meant he had to exclude most green vegetables, nightshades, any alliums, most fish, all shellfish, all red meat "and you can't use any saucepans or frying pans to cook in". So Welgemoed got creative and planned a menu that relied on a bamboo steamer and nimble work with a pair of wooden chopsticks. The diner didn't show up.

These days, says Naomi Hart, co-owner of Sydney's Hartsyard, it's common to receive booking requests with extensive footnotes: "Three people attending are vegetarians, one of whom doesn't consume fruit with the exception of lemon, capsicum and tomato. Apologies for the hassle!" But the willingness of some diners to compromise their health to try the food is a recurring theme, too.

One guest was prepared to go into anaphylactic shock to eat Hartsyard's peanut butter and banana sundae with pretzel ice-cream. "'I want it,' he said. 'I'm allergic to dairy, but don't worry, I've got my EpiPen!'" says Hart. She laughed and said she really wasn't comfortable with him taking that risk.

"We had another guy who ordered the sundae, but told me to hold off placing the order as he was running to the chemist to get lactose tablets."

Vegan basil-almond meringue with aquafaba from the menu of Detour
Vegan basil-almond meringue with aquafaba from the menu of Detour

In less extreme circumstances, though, accommodating diners' dietary requirements is pretty standard practice. This wasn't the case when Matt McConnell, of Melbourne's Bar Lourinhã, was an apprentice chef 26 years ago. "When I first started cooking, chefs' attitudes to customers were very contemptuous," he says.

"Most of my head chefs during my apprenticeship had a 'fuck 'em' attitude." He's since witnessed a shift: "I learnt more about customers and how much easier it was to say yes than no."

It's an outlook shared by Peter Gilmore. At Quay he has a dedicated menu for any situation. Pregnant? Vegan? Allergic to shellfish? Can't eat garlic, onion or pork? He has you covered. "The menus were introduced as a response to the increased demand from customers with dietary issues," he says. "We always like to look after our guests."

Chef Jock Zonfrillo of Adelaide's Orana, welcomes all diners – even if it means creating up to seven different menus a night – because he knows what it can be like. Zonfrillo went into anaphylactic shock at a London restaurant when he was 17.

"I left the table unable to breathe and I started to go white in the eyes," he says. As he gasped and wheezed, he went outside for air. Strangers asked if he was all right as his face started to swell up.

"I went into a phone box and rang my mum. I had no idea what was going on."

As she tried to calm him down, they realised he was reacting to the mussels he'd just eaten. She told him to get antihistamines from a pharmacy immediately, so he hailed a cab. Zonfrillo was so close to passing out the driver had to pull him out of the taxi and drag him into the shop.

"I came round slumped against the chemist bench behind the counter, chewing antihistamines. It was awful."

Despite being allergic to marron as well, Zonfrillo still loves to cook with it. "It doesn't stop me from using it," he says. After all, he was able to eat marron until a few years ago and the fact he outgrew his mussel allergy gives him hope. He keeps his EpiPen nearby in any case.

"I've given my EpiPen to someone in a restaurant who's had a reaction to shellfish and they just didn't know. And we have antihistamines on hand for exactly the same reason."

Hayley Ryan is even more proactive – she has an entire EpiPen station at the ready in her Adelaide café, The Little Fig. "My sister-in-law has recently been diagnosed with allergy to sesame," she says. "A close friend has nut allergies and I've had to witness many terrifying anaphylaxis incidents."

She trained her staff on how to deal with the equipment and cope with potential incidents. "Allergies are real, anaphylaxis is real and the reality is people lose their life to this."

Gluten-free desserts come in the form of a labne and pistachio cheesecake
Gluten-free desserts come in the form of a labne and pistachio cheesecake

Instances of anaphylaxis induced by food have doubled in the past 10 years, according to Maria Said, CEO of Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia. "Australia has one of the highest rates of food allergy in the world," Said says

But people unnecessarily cutting gluten, milk and other foods out of their diet complicate the issue, she says. Especially when diners swear they can't eat gluten or dairy, then order pastries or ice-cream

Queen Chow chef Patrick Friesen recently weighed in on faux allergies on Instagram in a post that quickly went viral. Citing diner stipulations such as "shellfish allergy but loves oyster sauce" and "gluten-free but loves gluten as long as it's not a piece of bread", he called out fake allergy sufferers and their contradictory dietary requirements for making it "really damn hard for people with actual allergies and dietaries to go out to eat". The chef's frustration was reported everywhere – from Germany to Thailand and Finland, mostly with headlines such as "Annoyed chef hits out at fussy diners with 'fake food allergies'" and "'Allergic' diners driving chefs crazy with picky demands".

When it comes to vegetarians and vegans, however, chefs are increasingly relaxed, even about the odd inconsistency. "I don't understand people complaining about vegetarians who eat fish or vegans who will have cheese," says Mike Eggert of Mr Liquor's Dirty Italian Discoin Sydney. "All they're doing is giving you all the information and options they can. Don't take it personally, don't attack them for not being a strict vegan – be grateful they eat cheese!"

Eggert and his fellow chef Jemma Whiteman are well known for catering to all comers at their Pinbone pop-ups. He sees plenty of creative upsides in working with dietary restrictions. "Every time we've done vegan nights or changed menus up to accommodate someone, we've taken something with us in our repertoire – it's invigorating and helps you grow," says Eggert

Shannon Martinez agrees. She runs Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli, two popular vegan eateries in Melbourne, and says limitations are only restrictive if you're lazy. "Vegan food – you don't learn it at school," she says. So she has pioneered vegan alternatives for everything from Roquefort to blood sausage. "It takes time, playing around and experimenting."

Richard Ptacnik is inventive with the long-running vegan menu at Sydney's Otto, too – creating the likes of beer-battered zucchini flowers with cashew cheese, and mango and passionfruit pavlova with coconut cream. He credits a vegan diner who has visited fortnightly for the past nine years with providing the inspiration. "She was the one that challenged us all those years ago."

Otto's vegan cheese plate
Otto's vegan cheese plate

Some chefs, meanwhile, take dietary requirements into consideration when writing their menus. "We design the menu in a way that ingredients can be removed without altering the dish dramatically," says Matt McConnell. "In larger group dinners, we ensure customers receive their own course rather than changing the entire menu."

Zonfrillo, for one, enjoys the challenge of inventing memorable alternatives. A diner with a vinegar intolerance, for instance, required left-field thinking "because we ferment so much stuff". It meant getting old-school and reducing many contrasting juices. "We created a new raft of things for us to play with."

And as far as he's concerned, special dietary requests aren't a recent phenomenon.

"It's always been there. I remember being an apprentice and dealing with dietaries and that was a fucking long time ago." While working with Marco Pierre White in London during the 1990s, he produced dairy-free and nut-free menus and catered for coeliac and pescatarian diners – requests Zonfrillo still sees today. "It's nothing new."