The diner was allergic to anything starting with the letter "A". Chef Louis Tikaram was working at Tetsuya's in Sydney when the request appeared. "Is she allergic to aubergine, but eggplant is okay?" he asked. After all, they're the same thing.
Shannon Martinez, who runs Melbourne's Smith & Daughters, remembers a waiter telling her someone was allergic to "shiny" food. "I thought I'd heard everything," says the chef. She walked up to the wine-sipping diner for clarification. "Those grapes that made the wine you're drinking were shiny at one point and there's a shimmer on top of that wine right now!" she said.
Despite these extreme examples, chefs are aware that legitimate allergies must be taken seriously. Brent Savage, who co-owns Sydney's Bentley, Monopole, Yellow and Cirrus, has seen how physically debilitating a food allergy can be – his sister can't process gluten. "If she even eats the smallest amount, she'll be vomiting; she'll be sick for 24 hours," he says. "I have seen how ill it can make somebody."
It's why Peter Gilmore is so inclusive at Quay in Sydney, where he offers 12 different versions of his tasting menu. If you're lactose-intolerant, coeliac, vegan or allergic to nuts, you can still sit down to a meticulously executed meal by the harbour. Gilmore's welcoming attitude is a reflection of diner demand. "Over the last 10 years, dietary restrictions have increased every year," he says. In fact, it's gone from being a rarity to 10 per cent of all diners at Quay.
Some establishments aren't worth entering if you can't enjoy the full experience (Minamishima's sushi counter in Melbourne isn't recommended for vegans), while other restaurants can accommodate diners' restrictions with advance notice.
"We've always been a 'yes' restaurant," says Lee Ho Fook's Victor Liong. But during Melbourne's lockdown, his restaurant was forced to pull back from catering for all diners. Given his reduced staff count, Liong could only offer a standard and vegan tasting menu. Recently, he had to turn down a coeliac, fructose-free meal request.
Liong questions having to overhaul your whole restaurant to cater for the minority: "Let's run a Chinese restaurant without soy sauce, just to keep one per cent of the population coming through our doors?" As the special requests stack up – no garlic, no onion, no gluten, no ginger – he wonders if he'd still be classed as a Chinese restaurant at all.
Altering a 10-course menu to suit just one diner – against ever-changing lockdown restrictions – was too taxing. "I don't want to be that guy, but unfortunately I'm forced to be," Liong says. Still, his stance is temporary. "[When] everything goes back to normal, I get my staff back – throw curve balls at me all day."
Martinez agrees that pandemic restrictions have forced chefs to be less accommodating. "All restaurants have stepped back a bit," she says. "To have set menus and do a full dietary list is impossible, really." Especially as Smith & Daughters is already vegan. It's extremely limiting once diners ask for food without onions or garlic, particularly when your menu is Italian.
On the flipside, vegan food can be very accessible for people with other restrictions. Pregnant women drop by her Smith & Deli eatery for vegan salami and mayonnaise. Martinez's smoked-salmon bagel crafted from watermelon has left diners crying with nostalgia. Jewish people savour her vegan "shellfish", because technically it's kosher.
Going above and beyond is something many chefs will do out of generosity. Scott McComas-Williams spent three months perfecting a gluten-free pasta at Sydney's Ragazzi – it's made with buckwheat, besan (chickpea flour), rice flour, potato starch, maize flour and eggs. Currently, he runs it through a cleaned pasta machine, but he's "investing in another machine that will never touch wheat flour".
Adam Wolfers spent many months, too, at Gerard's Bistro in Brisbane, getting the fermentation time and flour combination right for his gluten-free lahoh (Yemenite-style bread), which is made from fermented potato and chickpea flour.
"You can't just give someone who is gluten-free a salad and say 'there's your replacement for bread', because it's so important that they receive exactly the same wonderful food, flavours and experience as anyone else," says Wolfers. And, despite a third of diners revealing their dietary requirements on the night, rather than in advance, Wolfers is determined to give them "the full restaurant experience, like anyone else".
Diners, too, can be instrumental in making a restaurant more inclusive. The vegan menu at Sydney's Otto was inspired by diner Margaret Madden, who first asked for it more than a decade ago. "The vegan menu around town at the time was non-existent," she says. "Otto accommodated my request and each time I went there, they had different food for me."
The restaurant's vegan menu is now older than her 16-year-old niece, and Madden has regularly enjoyed it, dropping by nearly every three weeks since 2003. Due to health reasons, she now asks for a vegan and gluten-free menu – and Otto has no problem delivering.
Madden never feels like she's missing out, and singles out head chef Richard Ptacnik's bright-pink ravioli, made from pickled beetroot with vegan cheese, and zucchini and carrot spaghetti, as two highlights. "It's definitely a first-class dining experience," she says.
As a coeliac, Ella Martin can find eating out challenging. She once became sick after consuming gluten-free toast that had been placed in a toaster that held crumbs of regular bread. "Whenever I go to a restaurant or café, I have to ask them to cook it under the grill on baking paper," she says, noting she feels guilty making these requests. But the severity of her condition means that if she inadvertently consumes gluten, she'll suffer three days of migraines, followed by two weeks of being in a low-energy fog. "I can't really function and it's difficult to do daily tasks," she says.
However, Martin doesn't feel that it's "unfair" if restaurants don't have gluten-free options. "It's just a shame that I have that disease and it's quite rare." (Only one per cent of the population is coeliac.) She often avoids Thai restaurants because of their heavy use of soy sauce, understanding that the flavour wouldn't be the same if they removed it.
For Yu Ozone, being unable to consume gluten, dairy and eggs was what inspired her to start Comeco Foods, a gluten-free vegan café in Sydney's Newtown. Ozone grinds her own flour to ensure it's not contaminated by allergens, and even flew to Japan to learn how to make rice bread. She admits it's "very hard" to create successful desserts without gluten, dairy, eggs, nuts, sesame and soy, but says it's worth it to see customers' smiles. One woman, who had avoided doughnuts for 20 years due to her allergies, cried while trying Ozone's sourdough version.
Personal attitudes can shape how inclusive a venue chooses to be. Fifteen years ago, Brent Savage dined at Barcelona's Pinotxo Bar with his then-girlfriend Fleur (they're now married with kids). He asked an employee if they could have the eggplant and capsicum dish without anchovy, as Fleur is vegetarian. "He said no," says Savage, who was surprised by the stubborn stance. "I was already doing vegetarian tasting menus and it was obvious that you look after everyone around you."
Even today, Cirrus – Savage's seafood restaurant – offers vegetarian options. At Yellow, his vegetarian restaurant, he's encouraged chef Sander Nooij to go "all-out vegan" with the menu. Savage has one regular diner whose allergies are so specific that they're detailed on a 26-page spreadsheet, but he's managed to cater to her needs for years.
Savage's welcoming attitude made a lasting impression on Louis Tikaram, who worked at Bentley early in his career. So, when Tikaram became Longrain's head chef in 2011, he made every dish on the menu gluten-free. He was partly inspired by the high quality of artisan soy, fish and oyster sauces coming out of Thailand, all of which were gluten-free. The oyster sauce was pressed from smoked oysters and the fish sauce was pure anchovy, with no additives. "That's how it started to evolve into a completely gluten-free, dairy-free and egg-free menu," he says.
Every curry was gluten-free and vegan – including a smoky-yellow version using cauliflower that was slow-roasted until it resembled tenderly cooked meat. Diners returned again and again, and brought new vegan, vegetarian and gluten-intolerant friends with them.
"Sometimes people forget that the word 'hospitality' is from the word 'hospitable', and being hospitable to everyone," says Tikaram. "It doesn't matter if you're vegetarian or have an allergy, everyone can come and have a good experience."
Nowadays, Tikaram runs Stanley in Brisbane and designs his menu to be as accessible as possible – so someone can walk in and try multiple dishes, not just the token vegan or gluten-free afterthought. It makes it easier on his staff and also ensures diners feel welcome.
Does he have a "miracle dish" that cuts out all common restrictions? "I always have a miracle dish," he says. It's currently his zucchini mapo tofu. "It's gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian – everything. It's really good." He marinates sliced zucchini in doubanjian (broad bean chilli sauce) and a bean paste, then cooks it so it has the same velvety texture and mouthfeel as pork.
Tikaram has the utmost respect for chefs that have a "my way or the highway" attitude – one of his friends is a northern-Italian chef who would be insulted if you asked him to pre-slice your pizza – but Tikaram prefers to cater to every demographic, restrictions and all. "I'd rather be loved by everyone."