Negotiating the minefield of menus

An ex-boyfriend of mine once told me that I reminded him of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. And before I go any further, let me assure you it wasn’t for that reason.

It was because, apparently, I have an inability to order straight from the menu as it comes. And that was even before my high-maintenance-ness had reached the dizzy heights of veganism. A little tweak here and there, and only then would I be happy.

Thing is, whatever your diet consists of, eating out is a luxury, and one that you should savour every mouthful of. It all adds up, so surely it makes sense to get exactly what you fancy. If you’re a frequenter of what I call conveyor-belt-pubs, you’re unlikely to be able to ask for variations on the menu because it’s probably going to come out of the freezer in a horrid little package and get dinged in an oven with all of the nutrition-preserving abilities of a nuclear reactor.

But if you, like me, seek out the nice little independent places, any chef worth their salt (pink, Himalayan rock, please) should be happy to make adaptations, whether it’s to accommodate a personal choice, a food allergy or an intolerance.

If, like me, you make the decision to become a vegan, or even a vegetarian, you need to get one thing straight in your head before you start: shy little wallflowers need not apply. In other words, you’re going to be doing a lot of negotiating with chefs and waiters from now on. If you decide to become a veggie, be proud of your decision. And don’t apologise for it.

However, humble pie and humility will serve you well. It’s unreasonable to expect a restaurant to be able to adapt a recipe right there and then, so call them up. I usually give them four or five days’ notice.

And be polite. Not apologetic, just polite. So far, I’ve not had a single bad experience when ringing ahead. In fact, a lot of people are quite fascinated by it all.

Look at what is already on offer on the menu, and if you see something which you think can be adapted, make the suggestion so they’re not doing all the donkey work. The chances are, the chef who will be preparing your meal is probably a meat-eater, so will appreciate any helpful suggestions that will enable him to avoid preparing something completely different just for little you.

But something I always say to chefs is that, if the worst comes to the worst, a pack of veggie sausages in the freezer will stand them in good stead. Just a dollop of mashed potato made without butter or milk, and there’s another option on the table. Ok, so veggie gravy would top it off nicely, but it’s a start.

I was chatting to a chef patron the other day, and he said that so many people are afraid to ask for adaptations and so end up eating a plate of leaves, or, if they have a gluten intolerance, they go home with belly ache.

We had a really good chat. And that’s the other thing: make yourself memorable, because the next time you go to eat there, they will remember you and half the battle is won. It may take a bit of sorting out during the initial conversation, but once that’s done, it’s usually plain sailing after that: my local Indian knows when I phone up exactly what I can and cannot have, and when I go to my favourite café after sweating it out at Bikram yoga, the guy who runs it sees me, smiles and says “The usual, Miss?” I really like the “Miss”, but I love the willing acceptance of my weirdness even more.

So, if you do have a special dietary need, please speak up. The more people who do, the more often these adaptations will appear as an option on menus.

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by George

I’m George Dryden - a slightly-off-the-wall-but-in-a-good-way journalist, blogger and almost-raw vegan. In April 2014, I graduated as a Certified Health Educator from the Hippocrates Health Institute, in Florida, USA (more about George)

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