A Toronto Chef Talks Menu Intimidation
Have you ever looked at a menu and thought what are all these things. Pickle. But what kind of pickle, and what goes into it? Spice. But what kind of spice? What kind of fat is the protein cooked in - olive oil, butter, peanut oil? If one salad has a walnut garnish, is the whole salad station contaminated? Is the deep fryer shared between fries and the egg rolls/arancini/dessert? What kind of bread do they use, and did the chef consider it's ingredients when making my meal?
My point is, a menu can raise a lot of questions. When they aren't straightforward and simple it's easy to get intimidated and think looks like I can't eat here. That's why people with allergies tend to patronize the same restaurants over and over again, knowing that they're safe.
So we invited The Drake 150's Sous Chef, Amancio (he goes by Cio) over to walk us through their menu and allergy protocols. He broke down a few misconceptions that even had us surprised...
The Drake 150's Menu
Cio has been at The Drake 150 for 3 years as Sous Chef and describes his job as more of people managing than working with the food. He's worked in other restaurants around the city, having attended the George Brown culinary program and studying pastry in Italy prior to settling into his current role. The Drake's menu is Canadian Brasserie so that means plenty of locally sourced fare (including products from 100km foods, which you can read about in an amazing new book called The New Farm). The menu has seafood from all over Canada, as well as burgers, pizzas, and salads. Cio likes that he can put his own Goan spin on the dishes. For example, a cauliflower chutney served atop Canadian pork belly.
On Menu Intimidation
I will admit that I always thought I wouldn't be able to eat at The Drake 150. Not because I thought they didn't have allergy policies but because I saw burgers - can't do, nuts - can't do, complicated-sounding sauces - probably not. As you can guess, their menu intimidated me. When Amancio suggested that I come by and order a grain bowl with smoked salmon or a burger ( no bun, no cheese) I was shocked. A burger for moi? I'll take it!
Cio laid out a few ground rules to help guide potential diners.
What type of restaurant is it? What's their specialty? If you have a gluten intolerance or wheat allergy, of course a pizza place will not be right for you. Similarly I wouldn't eat at a poutine place since my dairy allergy is so severe.
How many sections are on the menu? If a restaurant has many different categories (salads, meats, pastas, burgers, etc.) then the kitchen likely also has several different stations. This could help reduce the risk of cross-contact between different stations. However this would also depend on how organized the kitchen is.
How big is the restaurant? A small kitchen would mean less physical space and potentially higher risk of cross-contact. Equipment is likely multi-use and fewer hands touch more of the dishes. A large restaurant (such as Drake 150) would generally have a bigger kitchen with more dedicated use equipment and chefs at each station.
When to dine? I've always thought it best to eat in off-peak times because I felt my allergies must be overwhelming. Cio pointed out that actually as the restaurant gets busy it becomes a well-oiled machine and everyone kicks into gear. Before the dinner rush there are people doing prep, shift changes, and everyone is just warming up. Have you ever noticed that your food comes faster when it's busy? During the rush everyone's game face is on and they're more attentive.
How To Order
Call ahead! It always helps to call ahead and inform the host of your allergies beforehand so that they can record them. Ever have trouble communicating with a server when it's busy and loud? Calling ahead helps eliminate this problem, but you should remind your server again when ordering. At The Drake 150 they keep this info on file, perfect for catering to their return customers.
Be specific. Let them know if you have an anaphylactic dairy allergy as opposed to just preferring to not eat dairy. Don't spare the details; make sure the server fully understands and has recorded all your allergies.
The Drake 150's Allergy Protocol
As Cio pointed out, chefs at Drake 150 are not newbies. They're all experienced and know what they're doing. So understanding that a dairy allergy means no butter, cheese, etc. should not even be a question. They do have allergy-specific training and chefs know to wipe everything down, change gloves, and use new utensils when there's an allergy. They're expected to have that understanding and as he described it - you can see allergies as a challenge to take head on and crush. They aim to deliver a fantastic dining experience because they want you to come back. If it means making a meal free from however many allergen, they can deliver.
What Has He Been Cooking This Whole Time?
Something from their menu, obviously! Cio put together a beet salad with green harissa and za'atar, both made in house. Beet salad can often be super boring but this was a very unexpected flavour and it was delicious. He left behind a little bowl of za'atar and I've been sprinkling it on things all week. I highly recommend you stop by Drake 150 and try it out.