Tastemaking: The Overprotective Menu
Is dining out really as scary as it seems?
THIS WINTER, MASSACHUSETTS health authorities proposed new rules for restaurants aimed at protecting patrons with food allergies from dishes containing ingredients such as shellfish, dairy, and nuts. In and of themselves, the rules — which would likely go into effect in July — aren’t terribly Draconian: Print new menus, put up a few posters in the kitchen, and have staff watch an allergy-safety training video. But coupled with the now-mandatory menu disclaimer that "consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness," the regulations make dining out start to sound downright dangerous.
What’s an oyster-loving, steak tartare–slinging chef to do? Get with the times, says Blue Ginger chef Ming Tsai, who as a spokesman for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network helped form the new allergy-awareness program. The precautions are just part of a modern-day chef’s job, he says. (Tsai’s own cooks refer to "the bible," a list of potential allergens in every dish.)
Jay Murray, executive chef of Grill 23, says the proposed rules won’t change how his kitchen operates. "It’s nothing we don’t already know or do," he says. But the regulations do encourage diligence. "If someone has a gluten allergy, you can’t make a salad in the same bowl where you just made a salad with croutons."
From a design perspective, Murray adds, "I wish we didn’t have to list the food warnings. Menus look better without them." But rules are rules: "A food inspector came in and saw that the asterisks [for raw or undercooked foods] weren’t big enough," he recalls. "We had to print new menus."
Rare steaks and fried clams aren’t the only items under scrutiny, either. The raw-egg-white cocktails that have popped up on bar menus (think classics like gin fizzes and flips) have raised red flags for health inspectors in New York, meaning we’re likely to see a rise in crackdowns — or at least in bar inspections — here. There’s no local mandate yet on how such drinks should be presented on menus, says Eastern Standard bar manager Jackson Cannon: It’s up to restaurants to decide if and how they’d like to warn consumers. Cannon groups his under the heading "Oeuf" and the cheeky phrase "Warning: Consuming raw eggs may increase your risk of being held in high regard by the bar." The cocktail menus at UpStairs on the Square and Deep Ellum, on the other hand, list eggs as ingredients but bear no funny and/or ominous health warnings.
The bottom line, says Cannon, is that proper health and hygiene practices—frequent hand washing, good refrigeration, and a focus on maintaining freshness — are what make a difference, and thorough training is just as important as any disclaimer you can print.