Friday, January 9, 2015

When a Restaurant Just Can't Get it Right

Eating in restaurants with a gluten free child is not always easy, but I've always managed to find something safe for my son to eat. Most restaurants have something on the menu, or can adjust a recipe to be safe. After speaking with the server or the chef (or both!)

I'm usually relatively comfortable allowing my son to eat out in restaurants. In the four years my son has been gluten free, I have only had to leave a restaurant without feeding him once, and that was right at the beginning and more my fault than anything.

Until a few weeks ago.

I've waited to write this due to our move taking up most of my time, but even more than a week later, I feel I have to get this out. 

We went out for dinner with my parents and my niece at a local Vietnamese restaurant we've eaten at several times before. In fact, my father eats there once a week when he works late. It's a place where the staff knows us and they have always been able to accommodate my son.

This time, I didn't recognize any of the staff when we went in, but I wasn't overly concerned. We spoke with our server, explaining our son's food restrictions and emphasizing the importance of his not being served anything containing wheat, barley, or rye. We ordered my son plain rice noodles with mixed vegetables, and requested that it be prepared plain, without any condiments. 

When the dish arrived, the noodles and vegetables were covered in a brown liquid, which looked and smelled like soy sauce. I asked the server what was on the dish, and he replied "Soy Sauce." I explained that soy sauce contains wheat, so it was not safe for him to eat. He apologized and promised that a new dish would be prepared. As everyone else ate their meal, we waited for my son's dish to come out. 

My parents had both finished eating their meals by the time the waiter returned. I asked about my son's meal and the server went back to check. He returned several minutes later, stating that my son's special meal wasn't on the bill, so the kitchen hadn't been preparing it. He promised it would be out soon. That was a bit weird, since it wasn't a special meal, but I let it go.

When the dish came out several minutes later, it looked exactly as the first dish had- covered in a brown sauce. I asked the server what was on the dish and he said he would ask. He returned and said "Nothing. That's the colour of the noodles." I knew he was lying, because I've fed my son rice noodles a thousand time before and know that they're not brown, and I was more stunned than angry that he would lie to me. It was the first time in a restaurant that I felt the staff was actually negligent about a customer's medical issue. 

I felt I had to make sure the point was received, because eating that meal would have made my son sick for weeks with diarrhea, weight loss, and more. For allergic customers, that little white lie could kill them. I said to the server, "If my son eats soy sauce, it could kill him." 

The waiter whisked away that plate from under my son's nose without even responding. I was livid, because I knew he and the kitchen staff had lied to me just to get me to shut up and feed my son the meal. He returned and told me the kitchen was making my son a new plate, and I almost laughed out of incredulity. Not a chance in hell. In fact, by the time he came back I already had my jacket on and was getting the toddler's jacket on.

He apologized for the error, and it took every bit of restraint I had to remain calm.

I knew the regular manager wasn't there, so after letting the server know that I wouldn't EVER trust them to cook for my son, we left. I wanted to say so much more, but I didn't want to get angry in front of my son. He is now aware that he must eat differently, and he felt as though it was his fault. He kept saying throughout the ordeal, "It's okay Mommy, they don't have to make me a new one. I'll just eat the one they made." I didn't want to make him feel worse, and I had to explain to him what had happened, so I got us out of there as quickly as possible.

In the car, I explained that what happened in the restaurant was not his fault. We discussed why I was angry, and how I wasn't angry with him. I also tried to impress upon him that he does not need to be ashamed of his food restrictions, nor does he have to apologize for them. It was a tough conversation for both of us. We ended up taking him to the local Wendy's where he can safely eat the fries and a hamburger patty. It wasn't the meal we had wanted to have, but it was better than taking him straight home.

Since we were busy getting everything together for our move, my father went back to the restaurant when the regular staff was there and explained what had happened to the manager.

I've said this before but I will mention it again: I do not expect all restaurants to be able to accommodate my son's dietary restrictions. I'm okay with being told that there is nothing they can do, that the risk for cross-contamination is too high, etc. I get that not every place wants to accommodate special requests, or can guarantee customer safety when it comes to certain restrictions.

What I am not fine with is being lied to by staff about what is actually in my son's prepared dish. The meal I requested for my son is on the menu: vegetables and rice noodles. I simply asked for it to be made without any soy sauce or other condiments. No crazy substitutions, no adding ingredients, nothing complicated. He's been served that exact dish at the restaurant before, which also added to my frustration. This wasn't a new place unfamiliar with my son's dietary restrictions. We chose it because it was a tried and true safe location.

No longer.

Fortunately, there's a nice little place that opened up just across the street where the staff was more than happy to accommodate us when we went in a few months ago. I know where we'll be getting our Vietnamese food fix when we visit my parents.

For some tips on how to eat safely in restaurants, read my post Tips for Eating Gluten Free in Restaurants.  I took it for granted that since the restaurant was safe in the past, it would be safe again. I won't be making that mistake again.

1 comment :

  1. Can only imagine how frustrating and maddening that experience at the restaurant was for you and your son. I'm glad you found a new one (when you visit your parents) that has the courtesy to cook what is needed for your son's dietary requirements. It's quite frightening to realize that there are restaurants with staff who will actually lie about what is being served to their customers.