Last summer I found myself in my own personal food allergy hell - New Orleans. Beautiful city full of art, music, history, interesting people and amazing restaurants... restaurants specializing in spices, tomato sauces and seafood, especially shellfish. Until this trip I had been managing my allergies pretty well and thought I had a good system for working with restaurants to help them accommodate my needs safely. This town put me through the ringer. The first night I was literally on the verge of tears as we wandered the streets of the French Quarter looking for a place to eat. Around 10 pm a suited older gentleman, smiling, dancing and eating from a plate of italian food on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant gently took my husband's arm and turned us toward the door. He smiled and nodded towards the door. "Go eat," he said. My husband shook his head and explained my allergies (nightshades, shellfish, egg, nuts) and told him italian wasn't usually a good choice for me.
"You go in. Talk to the waitress. They'll make you whatever you want." The relief and gratitude was overwhelming when combined with extremely low blood sugar. My tears flooded over as we sat down on a terrace overlooking the spectacle of Bourbon Street. After some discussion with the waitress and the cook we decided the only safe bet was grilled chicken and steamed veggies. This was not the food I was hoping for in one of the culinary centers of the world but I was grateful for a safe meal and enjoyed the view.
After that experience we realized it might take a little more planning than usual so I polled my FB friends, some of whom lived in Nola, and talked to the hotel staff to find out which restaurants would be most able to accommodate a special needs diet. I specifically asked for small, chef run places where the chef was likely to be in the kitchen and food was cooked to order. Everyone said the same thing - The Green Goddess Restaurant - and it was just a block away from the hotel. I checked it out online and it looked amazing! I was going to eat there every day, lunch and dinner. That night we stopped in around 5:00pm. It was a weeknight and they didn't open until 6. We planned it this way knowing the chef would be likely to be in the kitchen prepping for dinner but not too busy since they hadn't opened yet. We talked to the hostess who was setting up and she sent us on our way. "No, we cannot accommodate you." It was as simple as that. I was so stunned I didn't argue, ask more questions or ask to speak to the chef. I had never, ever been turned away from a restaurant before.
The next day I sent an email to the chef and received a nice reply that they were sorry but they just really couldn't guarantee that their food would be safe for me. I have spent the last 20 minutes trying to put into words that I appreciate their concern for my safety and respect their decision but I can't do it. I am a 20 year veteran of the restaurant business and have worked every position in the house, front and back, from dishwasher to manager. I understand how a kitchen functions and I know what "can" be done and what "can't". My understanding of the situation is not that they "could not" accommodate me safely, but rather that they chose not to.
It was still early so we continued our search for a safe meal and ended up on one of the most beautiful patios I have ever seen at Cafe Amelie. We checked the menu which looked less traditional New Orleans and more California but very appealing and were assured by the hostess that the kitchen could accommodate special orders. We were seated by the fountain, ordered a glass of wine and sent my list to the chef for suggestions. My heart sank when I saw the waitress returning with a manager. It wasn't so much that she had the manager with her, it was the look on both of their faces. He knelt by the table and apologized sincerely for not being able to help me on this particular evening. He explained that all of their proteins are pre seasoned or marinated early in the day to prep for dinner. Here I am again, crying over dinner. He suggested that I call in the morning and let him know which protein I would like and they would set something aside for me for dinner the next day.
The next day, my last in New Orleans I was wandering the French Quarter on my own while my husband attended work conferences. I was going to go have lunch at our lunch spot where I could get a plain ham and cheese Po-Boy, boring but safe, and listen to some live Jazz while sitting outside. I got there a little early so decided to wander a little more and came across a little place in the French Market called Meals from the Heart. It was a food counter in the Market. I stopped to look at the menu because it was obviously different from the other places. The focus was on heart healthy food. The plates in front of the diners looked and smelled delicious but it didn't look like someplace I could eat. The lady at the counter who I later found out was one of the owners invited me to sit down and have lunch. I explained my situation and she said, "Don't you worry. We'll take care of you." And she did. The chef made me a beautiful grilled salmon on brown rice with veggies and it was seasoned so it had flavor! After days of plain veggies, dried out chicken breasts and dry sandwiches (which are a last resort due to a mild wheat allergy) I was so very happy.
Later that night we went back to Cafe Amelie and had one of the best meals I have ever had in my life including meals eaten before my allergies. I don't even remember what I had but I can remember the feeling of pure bliss as I savored my food on a rainy night seated in front of a fireplace. The same manager was there and he coordinated our service with the waitress and the kitchen. I cannot wait to go back to New Orleans and eat here again.
When relaying some of these stories and going through similar experiences the following week while vacationing with my in-laws my father in law asked, "Well, you can always just get some greens or vegetables and plain chicken can't you?" Sure I can. And I have. At some places the only safe food is lettuce greens with oil and vinegar. I have made this my lunch multiple times. But food is connected to our culture and while traveling I have always tried to eat in local eateries vs chain restaurants. The food of a place is part of the experience of traveling and I don't believe anyone should be condemned to boring, tasteless nutrition while those around them enjoy not only the nutritive aspects of food but the variety of flavors and textures that are unique to each culture or chef. As someone who loves to cook, I know it can be done. As someone who has experienced some truly amazing meals in restaurants I know it can be done in a restaurant kitchen. It doesn't matter what is on the menu as long as there are some ingredients in that kitchen that are safe and a chef who is both creative enough to come up with something wonderful within your limitations and willing to do so.
I tip my fedora from Goorin's to those managers and chefs in New Orleans who were both. Thanks to Cafe Amelie and Meals from the Heart for being creative, skilled and compassionate and giving me some excellent food memories from New Orleans.