Preference and allergies, courting comfort and pushing comfort zones – there’s a lot to be considered in today’s dining and event industries. Here are notes from the table and the kitchen when it comes to dietary specifications and dining out, from three people passionate about good food and a great experience.
Dalia Kohen, restaurateur
Kohen opened the vegetarian restaurant The Coup in Calgary, Canada’s beef capital, 15 years ago; it soon became known for its inventive take on meat-free cuisine. While at the time spots such as these were still a bit of a novelty across the country, Kohen now finds she and her team must shift focus to entice new diners – while retaining faithful fans – as the plant-based culinary scene expands.
I feel that Calgary really is a place of getting the maximum amount of food, and the meat-substitute type foods more than the classy dishes. Like, a mushroom burger with vegan American cheese would sell a hundred times more than rhubarb steaks with local and seasonal products for that dish. Smoked crab-apple sauce – that sort of thing inspires me and that’s where I want to go, but Calgarians currently want cheap, fast, vegan-substitute-type foods, and I’m hoping it’s just a fad. I feel a lot of pressure to keep those things on the menu to keep people coming back in, especially as there’s more competition for us.
Richard Choo, real estate agent
Once an adventurous eater, Toronto-based Richard Choo developed a seafood allergy in his adult life that keeps his cravings in check – most of the time. As the severity of his condition grows, he’s become more mindful of what’s on his plate, but admits it’s not always easy to say no to former favourites.
Before the allergies started hitting me, I never worried. I was always up for anything. It’s only since about two years ago that this all started; I noticed changes in my body [and] reactions that I was not accustomed to. I never used to have any reactions to foods previously, so the before and after has a stark difference in some ways. If a server doesn’t pose the question, “Are there any allergies at the table?", I’m getting more used to chiming in and being like, “Is this menu going to pose a problem for me?” When I’m in finer dining establishments, they’ve all been great. But when I go to your average family neighbourhood place, sometimes there’s an eye-roll, or a kind of a miss in terms of knowledge. I’ve had an [allergic] reaction when they said I should be fine; it turns out there was an ingredient in one of their dishes that made me react. I think it’s contextual, but I do find that the more money I’m paying, the more conscious they are.
Julie Westland, chapter manager YPO Maple Leaf
A vegetarian since childhood, Westland has made the move to veganism in the last year, taking up the challenge of trying new products to satisfying her cravings. Working in Toronto for YPO, a multichapter leadership organization, she also manages event menus for some of Canada’s top business owners – a challenge in another way, as she must negotiate between traditional palettes and those more willing to try something different.
I don’t necessarily tell people when I’m dining out that I’m vegan. I don’t want there to be the immediate protein question, and it always is if I’m with new [people]. I’m not training for a decathlon. You need a lot less protein than you think you do – it’s a very common myth. When I go out locally, I can definitely ask for what I need. Sometimes it’s a little defeating to try and “veganize” something on a menu. I guess I approach this as an experiment, because I didn’t know what would be sustainable. I didn’t know if it would last, or if I could do it.
When I give people the option through work, they’re generally grateful because a third of my guest list, no matter what, has some kind of gluten-free, dairy-free, veg, vegan thing. It’s becoming more and more common, and I have to account for it more. If I can interest people by giving them some unexpected vegan or vegetarian things, it’s cool but it’s not something I want to foist on people because that’s not what they’re paying for.
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