Food & Beverage

Catering for the dietary needs phenomenon

Australia has one of the highest reported incidences of food allergies in the world, and the numbers are growing at an alarming rate. In fact, one in 10 babies born in Australia today will develop a food intolerance.

A food allergy is an abnormal immune response to food. The signs and symptoms may range from mild to severe but an allergic reaction can quickly become life threatening and people can die from such an effect. The most severe allergic reaction is anaphylaxis — a life-threatening whole-body response that can impair breathing, cause a dramatic drop in blood pressure and affect heart rate. Anaphylaxis can come on within minutes of exposure to the trigger food. It can be fatal and must be treated promptly with an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline).

On top of allergies there are a host of diets for varying reasons: health orientated, weight, fads and often just because they are fashionable. They range from vegan through vegetarian onto paleo, pegan (paleo x vegan), gluten free, banting, dash, low carb, no sugar, nordic – ad infinitem.

Then there is produce that is free of antibiotics and hormones.

All of this is on top of catering for international tastes and dining needs.

Flailing in the swell of bestselling diet books, high rating food programs on TV, infomercials for cleanliness and secret tips in glossy magazines, is the credibility of nutrition science. Watching thoroughly-credentialed medical experts tout the addition or subtraction of one nutrient as deliverance — only to change the channel and hear someone equally-thoroughly-credentialed touting the opposite — it can be tempting to write off nutrition advice altogether. This month we hear something is good and next we almost expect to hear it’s bad.

Improvements in diet are clearly associated with significant lengthening of lifespan and dramatic decreases in risk of most chronic diseases. Combining disease and longevity into the concept of healthspan, the number of healthy years of life – fundamentally more important but less readily quantifiable than lifespan – the data in favour of optimising our diets is even more compelling. No one is arguing that diet is less than extremely important to health and well-being, but seemingly everyone is arguing as to what constitutes the best diet.

AMG53-Food Allergies-Garry Kindred 1Finding vegetarian and vegan options is easier than ever, as is finding restaurants that cater to people with food allergies and sensitivities. Many restaurants serve locally grown produce and meats free of antibiotics and hormones.

Common foods involved in allergies include cow’s milk, peanuts, eggs, shellfish, tree nuts, rice, and fruit. Which allergies are most common depends on the country, western countries appear especially prone compared with those in Asia. Risk factors include a family history of allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, vitamin D deficiency, obesity and high levels of cleanliness. Allergies occur when immunoglobulin E (IgE), part of the body’s immune system, binds to food molecules. It is usually a protein in the food that is the problem. This triggers the release of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine.

In the “developed” world about 4 per cent to 8 per cent of people have at least one food allergy. They are more common in children than adults and appear to be increasing in frequency. Male children appear to be more commonly affected than females. In developed countries, a large proportion of people believe they have food allergies when they actually do not have them.

For the restaurateur, chef and caterer or just tour operator, this whole dilemma is a massive problem. A nightmare in fact. Let’s face it, a degustation repast is nigh on impossible when you cater for all of the above.
“The world’s gone mad with dietary restrictions; everyone’s got a problem,” bemoans leading Sydney chef Martin Benn. “Sometimes you feel like you’re working at a hospital, not a restaurant.”

As frustrated as top chef Benn is, he equally recognises food allergies, intolerances and diseases – on the march through greater awareness, better diagnostic testing and environmental factors – are now simply a normal part of running a restaurant. Waiters often ask diners about their dietary requirements even as they hand them a menu, particularly at top-end establishments.

Quay, one of Sydney’s top harbourside fine diners has eight versions of its degustation menu on hand to accommodate guests, ticking off common intolerances such as lactose and gluten and allergies to nuts and shellfish plus a kosher version that rules pork out, as well as special diets for vegans and vegetarians.

“We try and anticipate most possibilities, but every now and then you get a few freaky ones,” says Quay supremo Peter Gilmore.

He points to his mud crab congee. For those who can’t stomach shellfish, he substitutes the crab with palm hearts and white asparagus. The dairy-free version loses the egg yolk-butter emulsion top. For the non-meat eaters, vegetable stock replaces chicken.

He’s also added a stock without garlic and onion for those with irritable bowel syndrome, of whom 40 per cent have fructose malabsorption, a recent phenomenon ruling out a long and varied list of foodstuffs, including wheat and lactose but also many fruits and vegetables.

“It means a table of eight can all enjoy a similar dish,” says Mr Gilmore, whose approach is more the norm among top-enders than the exception.

AMG asked Garry Kindred, executive chef of the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre, how they cope with the complexities of today’s food habits, especially given the number of guests you serve during any function at the centre?

“The GCC&EC kitchen operates with a team of 16. (Adam Hall, sous chef and I, work with three full time staff and 11 contractors.) Our kitchen services events of all sizes, from public events to small gatherings, cocktail functions, gala dinners and banquets plating anywhere from 50 to 3000 meals per sitting.

“On a day-to-day basis, our kitchen is about challenging and indeed changing the thinking of conventions and catering alike – offering a personalised approach to contemporary à la carte style cuisine tailored to each client. Our menus consist of 85 per cent locally-grown and sourced ingredients which allows us to guarantee freshness and quality across each event. Catering is a vital part of the overall event experience so we specialise in developing highly creative menus and service options that complement each client’s culture, style, event, theme, and budget. This is fundamental because we know that food is the first thing that clients and guests comment on, so we focus on creating a lasting impression,” Mr Kindred responded.

“Although catering for food allergies, dietary requirements and food fads may be challenging, we understand that we must rise and meet these because ultimately our reputation is hinged on providing exceptional service.”

How do you adopt a menu, prepare in advance and even quote for these eventualities?

AMG53-FB-Allergies“We have an extensive menu on offer that clients can choose from but we do specialise in tailoring cuisine to events as requested. Indeed, 30 per cent of our client menus are custom designed to complement theming to specific and unique requests. Custom menus can take substantially longer to create from weeks to months including client taste testing – which can include dishes ranging from a handful up to 40 before final selections are made,” said Mr Kindred.

“Catering for various dietary requirements is certainly challenging, planning where possible is critical. This is a highly complex process both logistically and creatively speaking. We have seen these requirements skyrocket in recent years, so much so that we have instated a dedicated chef that specialises in tweaking ingredients and components to meet such needs. The volume and complexity has increased and quite often we are challenged to create dishes on the go because they can arise unplanned on the day.

“This becomes increasing more challenging when catering for larger functions. We know that anywhere from 10 to 30 per cent of our service orders for events will be dietary specific. We order ingredients for planned dietaries in advance and we always include vegetarian dishes for example and have gluten-free products and ingredients on hand. We modify our menu where possible by substituting ingredients so the quality isn’t effected.”

Melbourne’s Andrew McConnell of Cutler & Co, Cumulus and Supernormal, stresses the importance of delivering customers the same dining experience. “Guests shouldn’t be penalised,” he says. “You can’t always substitute an item. . . often you have to make something from scratch, using a component from one dish or elements on the menu, to compose a dish that’s balanced and successful.”

Dietitian-cum-hotelier Karen Inge is establishing the Culinary Nutrition Lab, designing apps and resources, to help chefs, particularly in the “grey area” of intolerances. “What chefs don’t understand is [people with allergies] can tolerate some amount,” she explains. “It’s not up to the chef . . . it’s up to the individual.”

The development of the National Allergy Strategy has been led by doctors and the peak consumer group Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia. Its president Maria Said says the plan is aiming to save lives.

“I’ve been involved in six coroner’s inquests over the last eight years and sadly none of those people were under the ongoing care of an allergy specialist and from my perspective they weren’t given the information they needed to manoeuvre through life with safety,” explained Ms Said.

“Maybe we need something like the Responsible Service of Alcohol Certificate so that all people working in food service have some education on how to respond to a consumer when they disclose their allergy.”

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