Whining and Dining

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Our preoccupation with “dietary requirements” has become an obsession, creating a society of picky eaters and havoc for hosts. Cue the demise of the dinner party.

Over the last two months, I’ve tossed a trio of dinner parties. On each occasion, guests proffered their unsolicited lists of dietary requirements. A couple in the first group informed me that they were “non-gluten pescatarians,” forcing me to quickly ace a Thai fish curry.

The second, more casual affair included a woman with a no-carbs edict so austere even vodka was struck from the menu. I laid out do-it-yourself (wheat-free) enchiladas with a buffet of discretionary trimmings. A guest on the third evening issued his “protein-and-greens-only” mandate … three hours before he arrived. I ordered in.

Suffice it to say, if you whipped up an elegant truffle risotto for six these days, half your guests would willingly starve. While dinner party meal planning is meant to be fun, the list of possibly prohibited foods has inflated so riotously over the past few years that the modern host/hostess is left to bake a salmon, toss some greens and pray no one arrives with a genuine allergy to fish.

My condolences go out to the proprietors of dining rooms these days.

A friend who owns a small luxury hotel tells me it’s become routine for guests to check in, pre-confirmed as “vegans.” Then, having compelled the chef to come up with an array of dishes the kitchen wouldn’t normally serve – nor frankly enjoy cooking – eight out of 10 of them will order the homemade ice cream for dessert.

While a central expectation of any five-star establishment is getting whatever you want, this scenario neatly encapsulates the new attitude. That, outside of catering to true vegetarians, those with actual allergies or genuine medical issues, it’s now obligatory, be it at dinner parties or professional dining rooms, to craft ancillary dishes for guests whose “dietary requirements” are more diet than required.

“We do our best to adapt to anyone’s food limitations and offer vegetarian dishes as well,” says the hotelier Michael King who oversees Kamalame Cay on a private Bahamian island where almost everything must be flown in.

“But when we’ve spent time devising egg- and dairy-free sauces and dressings, importing soy products and crafting brunch menus without bacon, omelets, butter or pancakes for their visit, only to discover these same guests have cleaned their mini fridge out of potato chips and wine, neither of which are ‘vegan’ … well, it does get tiresome. Outside of which, we have the non-glutens, the carb-frees, the sugar-frees and the occasional Paleo who doesn’t do grains, legumes or salt. Try cooking without salt. And it all happens more and more these days.”

While haute chefs are used to accommodating menu changes, the requests have traditionally been of the maximalist epicurean variety: More lobster! Top it with caviar! Béarnaise sauce, please!

Today, they endure the reductivist nitpicking of fat/starch/sugar/salt/grain/meat/dairy-opposed hordes who have reduced the dining experience to mere strategic eating. Falsely billing their preferences as necessities, while blithely forcing the rest of us to accommodate pedantic food issues that should – correctly and politely – be attended to with a little basic self-control.

Order around what you don’t care to eat. Skip the soufflé. Decline the bread basket. While most chefs aren’t put out by a request to swap the potatoes for greens, when you deconstruct the entire meal – sauce on the side, no dairy, are the carrots organic? is there wheat in this bread roll? – they just wish you’d stayed home.

“The new expectation is for restaurants to cater to whatever the diner wants,” says Brandon Olsen, sous chef behind two of Toronto’s most lauded dining rooms, The Black Hoof and Bar Isabel.

“I’m totally open to being accommodating but, as a chef, I’ve created a menu that takes you on a journey, so it’s not great when someone treats it like a buffet where they can make meals their own way. I see a lot of people use the word ‘allergy’ when, really, they’re just picky eaters or watching their weight,” adds Olsen, who trained at Ad Hoc under Napa Valley food god Thomas Keller.

“They’ll insist their order cannot include certain things and then you see them tasting their partner’s dish, which includes all of those things. I’ve also had vegans come into Bar Isabel and comment that there’s only a couple of vegan choices on the menu, and I have to wonder: Why is a vegan eating in a restaurant where the entire concept is meat heavy? I don’t go into a vegan place and tell them I’d like a rib eye.”

As we speak, Olsen has just come off a three-day guest chef stint at the acclaimed People’s Eatery in Toronto for which he’d conjured up a swank menu inspired by 1970s Gourmet magazine cuisine; a culinary elegy to classically rich, old-school recipes that revolved around creamy sauce Normande, mackerel in aspic and Gruyère-coated lobster thermidor.

“So I was very clear in advance that I wasn’t doing on-the-fly alternates for the gluten and dairy intolerant. There are people who will go to something like that and still expect that you’ll accommodate the way they eat.”

Meanwhile, when not discourteously aiming to lose weight at your table, the Food Fanatics are cleaving to “health” claims that strain rationality.

At the cottage last summer, one friend was able to enjoy an Oreo only after scouring the list of ingredients for pork lard. While the cream filling hasn’t contained this “impurity” since the cookie went kosher in 1997, the fact that each one contained 15 per cent of his daily sugar allowance didn’t put him off.

Neither did the fact that Oreos contain high-fructose corn syrup, that widely maligned “industrial food product” that triggers the release of triglycerides and cholesterol, spikes insulin and offers a far worse affront to “wellness” than 0.02 of a teaspoon of animal fat.

“Over the past decade, I’ve noted great changes in the dietary practices of my patients,” says Holly Fennell, a naturopathic doctor and co-founder of Inside Out, one of Toronto’s top naturopathic clinics.

“Internet resources, Dr. Google, fad diets, increasing food sensitivity tests, it’s difficult to discriminate between fact and fiction. But diet goals and food allergies are two very different things. I encourage patients to be realistic and not be so rigid they throw common sense out the window. I lead a vegetarian lifestyle and avoid grains so I’ll often have a protein shake before a dinner party and then focus on the parts of the meal I can eat. Another strategy is to offer to bring a side dish that you can enjoy and share with other guests.”

Last month, a friend showed up at my place for lunch and announced that he was unable to eat the meal I’d been joyfully slaving over all morning – if it contained any chicken stock. A vegetarian for decades, this same man had spent the previous year devouring rare beef like it was Carnivore Fest but was now back on a meat ban that jettisoned even poultry broth from skimming his lips.

I assured him the dish was “completely” vegetarian (a lie), then took perverse silent pleasure in watching him consume two bowls of delicious harvest wagon stew to no ill effect.

He wasn’t “unable”; he was simply “unwilling.” There’s a difference. Why is it my responsibility to satisfy someone’s relentless, merry-go-round of neurotic food constraints? Irked at the presumption – especially when delivered at the last minute – I had to marvel at how the modern food obsessives never perceive themselves as tedious or inconsiderate.

There are three meals in the day, 21 each week. People have been watching their figures and/or have been nutritionally conscious for decades; they’ve just been polite enough to manage it on their own time. Have a light breakfast and lunch; then splurge at the table someone has been good enough to invite you to. Whatever your personal food calculus may be, dining in restaurants – and certainly in someone’s home – should not be a test of the host’s ability to survive myriad, elective diet prerequisites.

“When ‘special’ diets came into vogue, there were a few eye rolls since catered events are typically designed to be sumptuous special occasions,” says Russell Day, vice-president of Daniel et Daniel, among Toronto’s leading catering outfits and one that’s artfully navigated food fads for more than three decades.

“Now I ask about allergies and restrictions during the consultation, so we’re able to design an all-encompassing menu. Everything is prepared in advance, and we cannot un-marinate the tenderloin should someone inform us during service that they’re allergic to garlic. On the other hand, it’s vexing when you’ve carefully planned a dairy-free menu to accommodate a particular guest and then see them chowing down on the crème brulee at the dessert table. Our repertoire is vast, and we have much to choose from – given enough notice – but we must also be able to react onsite. So we always include fruit plates, as well as gluten-, dairy- and nut-free dishes.”

“Rather than cooking,” I vented later to a friend who dines normally, “perhaps I should just meet people in restaurants where they can order off the menu while badgering waiters about their restrictions and substitutions.”

“Our parents’ generation would never have dreamed of telling someone who had graciously invited them to dinner what they would deign to eat,” she sighed. “They’d never have been asked back. Basic manners dictate that you don’t annoy your host – not that you clear your plate.”

Recall the classic maxim “You are what you eat”? Perhaps Fussy and Inconvenient should be taken off the menu.

Orthorexia nervosa [from the Greek ortho, “correct” and orexis, “appetite”] translates as “correct appetite” and is characterized by an excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy or impure.

Introduced in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman as a parallel to other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, orthorexia is not yet validated by the American Psychiatric Association.

Do you skip foods you once enjoyed in order to eat only the “right” foods?
Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat anywhere but at home, distancing yourself from family and friends?
Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy foods?
Are you planning tomorrow’s menu today?
When you eat the way you’re supposed to, do you feel in total control?
Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet increased?
Have you become stricter with yourself?
Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthy?
Do you look down on others who don’t eat this way?


If you answered yes to two or more questions, you may have a mild case of orthorexia nervosa.