1. Plan it like you’re going on vacation
Do your research and save up some money, because that’s what you’re doing…you’re taking a vacation from your illness and your stove.
2. Pick a really nice restaurant
It doesn’t necessarily have to be an expensive restaurant, but it should be a nice one, a place known for incredible service. The tone of the entire restaurant is set by the chef and/or owner. You might not be able to inspect the kitchen, but you can probably judge how much you can trust the back of the house by the attitude of the front of the house.
Example: Annisa, New York City
I was fortunate enough to do my culinary school internship at Annisa. Chef Anita Lo is a world-class chef and one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Her leadership sets the example for her entire staff. I saw the craziest requests come into that kitchen and no one batted an eye. They just went ahead and sent out some of the most delightful dishes you could ever hope to eat.
3. Read the menu ahead of time
Most restaurants have a menu on their website and, while it might not be totally up-to-date, it will give you an idea of whether you can eat there and whether you want to.
Quickly scan the menu and mentally cross off anything you know you can’t have. (No wheat? Skip the pasta section.) Zero in on the remaining options. If you spot one of your triggers, ask yourself “Is it critical to the dish? Would it be difficult to take out?” This can take some practice and you can’t be 100% sure, but it will be worth the effort. Also, research anything unfamiliar. If you venture outside of your comfort zone, you might be pleasantly surprised.
The other reason to read the menu to build anticipation. Remember, this is a your vacation. Don’t dwell on what you can’t have, fantasize about what you could. A good restaurant should ignite the imagination and hopefully inspire you back home.
Example: Wild Rocket, Singapore
I recently had an inspring meal at this very nice restaurant (just read what Chef Willin Low has to say about his staff). I had done my research and the menu had several good options. I was really hoping for the Tom Kha-Style Quail, but the waiter informed me it contained dairy. To my surprise, however, I could have the Roast Chicken Soto Ayam but without the begedils. I had never heard of it before, and now I am absolutely going to try to “spot clean” the begedils at home.
4. Make a reservation, and be nice too
Whether you do it online or over the phone, give the restaurant a head’s up that you have some food issues. Make it short and sweet–they don’t need to know your whole medical history, but do be clear about your limitations and also be clear that you are very excited about what you can have.
I say something like this, “Please note that for medical reasons I cannot have wheat, dairy, nuts and soy. Otherwise, I am an adventurous eater and will be thrilled with whatever the chef cares to provide.”
[Note: A few rotten apples outright lie about their food preferences, and chefs don’t like liars, but that shouldn’t spoil it for the rest of us. Do I have a nut allergy? No. Do I have a medical reason for avoiding them? Yes. Have I ever left a restaurant in an ambulance because the barware was cross-contaminated with peanut oil? YES.]
5. When in doubt, go without
If for any reason, you sense that the restaurant might not be able to accommodate your request, don’t take it personally. Some chefs have spent a lifetime composing their recipes like a grand symphony and just can’t change a note. Some chefs specialize in a cuisine that is just off limits for you. Some chefs have had a few too many rotten apples and just can’t take it any more. And yes, some chefs are just stuck in their ways. Don’t stress about it, just go somewhere else.
6. Arrive on time and with a good attitude
This is where the anticipation comes in. When you arrive, remind the host and your waiter about your food triggers and tell them how much you’ve been looking forward to the dinner. You will be rewarded.
Example: No.9 Park, Boston
My husband treated me to dinner at No.9 Park, Chef Barbara Lynch’s landmark Boston restaurant. Our waiter and I went through my food list and discussed the menu with great interest before she went off to consult the chef. She came back with a huge smile and said, “Now the kitchen is getting very excited. We know you can’t have pistachios, but are you okay with lobster?” (I am.) Yep, they replaced pistachios with medallions of lobster, and that was just the appetizer. It was seriously one of the best meals of my life.
What hadn’t occurred to me before is that in my excitement, I had given the kitchen permission to go off menu. Think of it this way: even if you love your job, how often does someone come in, tell how great your work is, and then ask you to be really creative in exchange for their complete adoration and eternal gratitude? Attitude matters.
7. Enjoy your meal
Admire the presentation. Smell the aromas. Feel the contrasts in texture. Play with different combinations of sauces and sides. Describe it in words. Share with your table. If they can’t share back, ask them to describe in return. Ask questions. Smile. Enjoy yourself. Remember, you’re on vacation.