More than 100 top chefs wrote to the Telegraph this week criticising new EU rules on allergen labelling in restaurants, warning that creativity and spontaneity in the kitchen will be compromised as a result of having to inform customers about the presence of 14 allergens in their dishes. I wrote last year about the disappointing attitude of prominent chefs towards people with special dietary needs, and I’m still disappointed in the likes of Albert Roux and Prue Leith, who should be leading the way in making it easier for everyone to enjoy good food.
I have coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition which means that like 1% of people in the UK, I can’t digest gluten – the protein in wheat, rye and barley. If I accidentally eat it, I can become very ill. When coeliacs ingest gluten, it also damages the stomach lining, impairing their ability to digest food and absorb nutrients. It’s no joke, and it’s certainly not a fad, so I get irritated when I hear the elite complaining about having to cater for people like me.
I prefer restaurants that have proper labelling on the menu. Apart from easily being able to see what I can order, I can avoid awkward conversations with clueless servers, and bad attitudes from chefs. I’ve experienced both when asking about the availability of gluten-free food, from eye rolls to staff being downright rude or refusing to cater for me, to the point where I’ve even walked out. I didn’t choose to have this illness, so I refuse to patronise any restaurant that treats me like an inconvenience because I want to eat out, just like everybody else. The EU legislation is going to make my life easier.
Customers do, of course, have some responsibility. If you’ve asked for gluten-free food, don’t make any exceptions for the chips with the seasoned flour coating or the croutons on the salad. I know a caesar salad isn’t quite the same without them, but if you want your condition to be taken seriously, you have to be consistent.
I find it difficult to believe those 100-plus chefs haven’t got the knowledge and ability to adapt to the market. I know some of the allergens are a bit obscure – lupin seeds, for example – but I don’t know of many dishes that require those as an essential ingredient. Is it really that hard to put a few letters on a menu? It’s a shame they’re not embracing it as an opportunity to be more creative. When I was diagnosed, I suddenly had to change the way I cooked and baked. I’m now more adventurous in the kitchen. I’ve had to experiment with recipes to make gluten-free versions of my favourite foods, and dairy-free creations for my dad’s wife, who suffers from a dairy allergy. I even made a gluten-free wedding cake for friends last year, which was every bit as decadent as anything you’d get from a “normal” baker.
Smart restaurateurs are embracing the trend, such as 2 Oxford Place in Leeds, which has a 100% gluten-free kitchen and menu, along with dairy-free, vegetarian and vegan options. Tt is not a big chain – it’s a small, local business, exactly the kind that Leith thinks will be damaged by the new law. No evidence of this in Leeds, with 2 Oxford Place frequently booked out and online reviews rating it “excellent”. When you consider that 2% of UK adults are diagnosed with a food allergy and one in 100 have coeliac disease, the attitude of Britain’s top chefs is looking pretty outdated and churlish.
• This article was amended on 17 March 2015. An earlier version said that Michel Roux was among the chefs who had written to the Telegraph criticising new EU rules on allergen labelling in restaurant. That is not the case; the chef who did so was Albert Roux
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