Update: I received a message from both Chef Andrew Cowan & Head Chef Tony Le apologizing for what follows. I’m going to wait a day or so to respond. Not sure how I feel about a return visit at the moment.
As a celiac, you have to acknowledge there’s always a risk in eating out, both with friends and family and at restaurants. You never really know what’s going on in the kitchen unless you’re there yourself. Over the 13 or so years I’ve been gluten free, I’ve been “glutened” dozens of times. It’s never fun. For years, getting glutened meant horrible cramps & diarrhea for 4-6 hours from even minor cross contamination (crumbs, shared cooking oil, wheat as minor ingredients etc) In the last couple of years my symptoms have moderated somewhat. I now seem to avoid those “classic” issues and have bloating, gas, what feels like heart palpitations, dry mouth shortness of breath, restlessness, extreme fatigue; in short I feel like I have ingested poison. Which, for my body, I really have. I don’t really know why the change (perhaps my gut is healed?) and I am thankful to not have to endure the digestive troubles I used to but feeling like I do as I write this, (almost 20 hours later) is no picnic either.
If you’ve read any of the restaurant reviews I’ve posted since starting this a couple of months ago, you’ll know that I have been visiting restaurants in Edmonton that specifically offer either gluten free menus or gluten free options. If I eat at a restaurant that doesn’t “do” gluten free specifically, I’ll talk to the server, talk to the manager or best of all talk to the chef. Ultimately though, if I get sick, I can’t really blame them. They don’t claim to cater to me, may have no clue what I’m talking about and it’s my “risk”.
However, one assumes if the place has gone to the trouble of developing a gluten free or celiac friendly menu or even just select gf dishes, that they will have some knowledge of what exactly that means, and more importantly, will have trained their staff as to what exactly that means.
So just what happened last night? Well, to quote the old game Clue, it was Colonel Mustard in the Dining Room with Poison.
July 21 was my 46th birthday (gah) and on a Wednesday, which is “date night” for Kim & I. So we decided to head out for a special evening at one of the higher end restaurants in town. We’ve been to La Ronde, Normands, Ruths Chris and a few others but we thought we’d try Lux Steakhouse.
The lead up to the crime.
I’ve been following a few local chefs on Twitter and last week I was able to ask if Lux could do GF. I was assured that Lux not only can do GF, but that they actually have a separate GF menu. Ok then. We’re going. Next I make a reservation on OpenTable.com and highlight that I will be needing the GF menu, mentioning that I had spoken to the chef. I tweet to chef and receive reply “I’ll make sure it is awesome” (irony now apparent) Excitement builds. We’re set.
We arrive just after 6 and are seated immediately with the hostess saying she has a note that we need a GF menu. Score. Kim usually orders off the GF menu on date night so we can share (she’s nice that way) so we both took the GF menu. We did not mention that she doesn’t have to be GF (although she feels better when she is). The bar is quite full but the restaurant is almost empty. Only 3 tables plus ours. This is a good sign, a really busy kitchen can make plating mistakes. We should be easy to deal with.
We order a bottle of Wyndham Reserve Cab Merlot and have a look at the one page menus handed to us by our server. Doesn’t mention gluten free but it is a different menu than the regular one and it does say something to the effect of “we take your allergies seriously…blah blah” OK. It’s a pretty good looking menu with lots of choices which is something not all gf menus offer. Let’s order.
Our server arrived and let us know the soup of the day, oops, not sure it’s gf so back to the kitchen. Point for server. Things looking good. Back to tell us that no, it’s not ok, but the organic tenderloin and organic ribeye both were. And they have some nice Malpeque oysters. We look at the menu and Kim spies her 2 favourite things, Ahi Tuna appetizer and roast chicken. I had my first oysters on our recent trip to Vancouver and discovered I really like them, so oysters for me and the organic tenderloin, medium rare. Oh and truffle bacon cream corn, just because (it’s my birthday right?!)
The scene of the crime.
Our wine arrives and is poured into a decanter. Nice touch found in most of the better restaurants. Our appetizers arrive. Oysters look, well disgusting, but that’s an oyster for you. But oh, they were tasty with a pinch of salt, dash of lime and a drop of hot sauce. Kim’s Ahi arrives (cue Twilight Zone music..duh dee duh da, duh dee duh da).
Being in oyster induced bliss, I’m not really paying much attention but the the Ahi is served much like poke, one of our favourite Hawaiian tuna preparations, chopped raw ahi, sesame oil and in this case some mild hot sauce. The dish was garnished with shredded deep fried daikon (we think) and some chip looking things. Kim thought they might be potato, or perhaps even taro as that would be a natural thing to have with poke. She said they were pretty bland but tasty with the ahi. My gf-dar started pinging a bit at the sight of the chip things, but gluten free menu, talked with the chef via twitter twice, hostess & server comments, slow kitchen. They must be ok right? I broke the first rule of celiac and tried one, without double checking. In this case, it was more like checking for the 7th time but I should have waited. Silly of me really. As I’m thinking about what I just did, I’m thinking more and more that there’s no way those chips were GF. I told Kim this and she went through the same thoughts, we’d checked and checked and they -couldn’t- have made such an obvious mistake…could they?
Shock and Awe
Our server returns to clear the appetizers and asks how the appetizers were.
“Good, but are you sure that those chips thingies were GF?”
“Oh, yes, I remember them at the gf menu tasting we did…mmbbmllee..I think.”
“Can you go check?”
“Ok, be right back.”
(cue 3 minutes of no, they couldn’t have, I’m sure it’s ok?, hmmm)
“They are wonton wrappers”
(cue red flashing lights & sirens)
“Wonton wrappers? There are no GF wonton wrappers that I know of.”
“Oh yes, we get them in specially”
“Ok we’ll need to see the package because 1) we don’t think you are correct and 2) if you are we’d like to buy some because it’s something that we have never seen before.”
“OK, I’ll be right back”
(cue 10 minutes of waiting with no update, basically confirming what we already knew)
Out comes server with our main courses, placing them on the table he says “um yes sorry they do have some wheat in them (cough bullsh*t – they are 100% wheat)”
“Alright then. We have to leave right now. I may be violently ill within the next hour.”
(Remember that my experience with gluten reactions has been limited to cross contamination incidents. This is the first time in 13 years I’ve actually ate a large amount of gluten. I and most celiacs react to parts per millions of gluten; I had just eaten -grams- of the stuff. I had no idea what I was facing.)
“Ok well, I can take care of the meals for you (restaurant speak for free) but you’ll have to pay for the wine”
(internal dialog – Huh? You just poisoned me and you want to charge me for half a bottle of wine we had time to drink?)
External dialog “Really? You can’t be serious”
“Yes, I can only take care of the food. You’ll have to pay for the wine. I’ll be right back with the bill. If you like I can wrap up the food for you to go? No charge of course”
I paid my $63 for a bottle of half finished wine (which we did take with us) and left, drove home and proceeded to deal with now 22 hours of feeling like crap.
So. There it is.
The cover up.
This is what really gets me. Now it’s impossible to know what went on in the kitchen between the server and the chef other than a gradual realization that they had seriously screwed up. My imagination sees something like this.
“Um you know that Ahi for table 16, that’s all GF right?
“Of course, it’s on the GF menu right?”
“They’re concerned about the chips.”
“The chips? They’re just chips. How could wonton have gluten in them? Tell them they’re fine” (cue internal dialog ” They’re like made of won? ton? is there a wonton bush?..hmmm. what are they made of”)
“Dude, they say they want to see the package.”
” Ok, I’ll go look in the freezer. (rustle rustle oh sh*t) Um. Houston we have a problem. Ok, you have to go out and tell them.”
“No way man. I just serve the stuff.”
“Hey I outrank you. Go tell them. But I have an idea. wait until their mains are done, serve them, tell them about the wheat and offer to comp the meal. Maybe when they see the food they’ll not be so picky. Oh, and make sure they pay for the wine.”
Is that what went on in the kitchen? I suspect something very much like it did. But I’ll not know. The chef did not come out to explain (well, really there is no excuse/explanation) or apologize. To me that is the thing that really upsets me the most. I expect much, much more from an expensive (50 bucks a steak) restaurant. On a slow night the chef or a manager should come out a visit all tables. It’s just good restauranting. (last date night we went to Joey South Edmonton, a much less expensive place and 2 managers stopped at our table to make sure our gf meals were good) And if you seriously screw up like last night, the chef, manager or both should have been there immediately. I might have felt sorry for our server for being the bearer of the news except for the “get them in special” comment and the thing with the wine.
So did I get as sick as I thought I might? No. Does it matter if I got a little or a lot sick? No. I still was up all night and have missed a day of work . I still feel lousy.
Apparently, while the chef didn’t want to come out and speak with me, he/she apparaently got on the phone right away to my Twitter contact from the restaurant who had sent me a direct message almost by the time I got home wondering if he could make it up to me by personally preparing a meal for me.
At this point, I’m inclined to say no way. I’m not writing this for free anything. It’s not as if there was a fly in my soup. That may be a “ok, you can make it up to me” offense, but this was in another league altogether. To have taken all the steps to create a GF menu and then have such a basic failure in the kitchen really brings into question whether they have any idea what it means to really offer a safe place for celiacs to eat. Were those shredded potatoey looking things next to my untasted steak deep fried in a dedicated frier? If not they aren’t safe. Dozens of questions. A gluten free menu you can’t trust is far worse than a menu with no options at all. And let’s not forget that this kind of mistake has killed people. Literally. There was a recent civil court case in the US that awarded millions of dollars to the family of someone who died as a result of being served shellfish in restaurant after alerting staff to his allergy. I’m not anaphylactic, but -I could have been-. Instead of sticking me with the bill for the wine (have you noticed that I haven’t quite got over that yet?), they could have been ushering me out of the restaurant in an ambulance.
What I’m hoping Lux will do
Realize the seriousness of the error and how they made things worse by not owning up to it.
Retrain kitchen and wait staff
Review all ingredients and procedures to make sure that they really know what they are doing.
Things I’m going to do.
Hit the Publish button on this post
Write a letter to management of Lux
Update this with anything I hear from Lux
Wait a few days until I feel better, and see if a follow up post is warranted. I’ll see if I think this is a bit too snarky. Right now it feels just about right. I’m feeling lousy, my birthday was ruined (and then there’s that thing with the wine)
I’d really like Lux to post this in their kitchen as a reminder that they are serving people and not tables.
In the end, I have to take some responsibility for this. I ate the damn chip. But it should have never been on my plate in the first place.