Last week at the Food and Drink Innovation Network’s annual FreeFrom seminar, Chef Dominic Teague explained how he came, last year, to relaunch Indigo, the much-loved restaurant at five star West End hotel, One Aldwych with a totally gluten and dairy free menu. A menu, be it said, that has been greeted with glad cries by allergic, coeliac and ‘freefrom’ diners from far and wide.
Many of you may already have read the story here on this blog or on the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards website but what was really interesting this time was the insight Dominic gave us into the chaos caused in a busy kitchen by too many requests for ‘special diets’. A chaos that none of us who have asked for a ‘freefrom’ dish had intended – or imagined.
Any restaurant, be it in a local café or in a five star West End hotel, will have a menu which the chefs have planned. Sauces that can be, and will have been made, in advance, dressings created, decorations prepared and stored. So that, at the height of a busy evening, for each dish, only the actual meat or fish may need to be cooked. All of the accompanying sauces etc are ready prepared and have only to be heated and arranged on the dish.
But, if you or I go in and ask for a milk free meal, for example, any of those prepared sauces, dressings or decorations that include milk or butter, or cream – and probably most of them will – cannot be used and alternatives will have to be created. Now of course the chef could just say that they cannot do it but, if you run a restaurant in a five star hotel, as Dominic says, ‘not able to do it’ is not an option. Whatever the customer ask for, the kitchen will provide – and will provide at a very high standard. But this means that someone in the kitchen will have to be pulled off their other jobs to make a new, say, celeriac purée without milk or butter for the fish or meat to sit on, a separate sauce with no cream to accompany it, maybe cook separate vegetables.
OK, chefs are competent people and if this happens once or twice, they can certainly manage. But if it happens six or eight or ten times in the course of an hour, and if it is not only milk, but also wheat – or kiwi or hazelnuts or soya…. then the whole organisation of the evening’s service becomes extremely difficult. Which, with the ever growing number of diners wanting either dairy or gluten/wheat free meals, was what was happening at Indigo. And which is why turning the whole scenario on its head and only offering meals that were already milk and gluten/wheat free suddenly seemed like rather a good idea!
Of course, this only works if the gluten/wheat and dairy-free food that you are offering is of the same quality as the gluten/wheat and dairy-filled food that you offered before. But in Indigo’s case it most certainly was. Indeed, for the first three months that they ran the new ‘freefrom’ menu, they did not actually tell anyone about it – and they did not have one single complaint. No one commented that the bread was not as good as usual or the desserts were not as delicious. On the contrary, all they got was compliments about their mouth-watering new menu! (This, btw, is Chef Dominic’s milk-free chocolate mousse…)
Although Indigo was the first restaurant of its class to make this change, simplifying the kitchen’s work by removing allergens is not a totally new idea. Indeed I was amazed when talking to the Director of Catering at Excel last year during the Food Matters Live event, to discover that all of the many hundreds of thousands of ‘bowl/fork’ meals that Leiths serve each year at Excel are not only pork and alcohol free (to accommodate Middle Eastern visitors) but nut and gluten free!! It just makes the whole business so much simpler for the kitchens and caterers – and, of course, so much easier any gluten-intolerants guests.
So roll on freefrom in food service…
Meanwhile, if you want to try Chef Dominic’s new menu, you can book here.