(asked by Diane from the US)
I have been reading your blog Ask a Frenchman for a couple of months now and you are wonderful and funny to read. This has definitely been educational.
My question is about the post on customer service. I am considering visiting France at some point eventually and I am from the USA. I have a daughter who is deathly allergic to walnuts, and their use seems more common in France. Would there be any way to get the chef to understand no walnut oil, no Worcestershire sauce, no walnuts at all, and realize that I appreciate his deft, ingenious artistry, but I just want my little one to be safe?
Obviously, I wouldn’t order anything where it were part of the main point of the dish like walnut-crusted roast chicken with mesclun greens; that would just be asinine. But say, strawberry lemon cake or something where I had no idea but I would just want to mention it to avoid surprises and a possible visit to the emergency room. Or should I just cook at home to be totally safe, which I would probably love with all of the fresh ingredients available anyway!
Thanks in advance.
Yeah being deathly allergic to a substance and eating out is not easy. I assume it’s true everywhere, but it’s definitely true in France.
On the “good” side, walnuts are not that commonly used in French cuisine, except for South West cuisine. So for the first time of my life I will advise against eating South West cuisine (but remember, if you’re not allergic to walnuts, you must eat South West cuisine as it’s simply the best food in the world). Concerning the products you mention:
Walnut oil is not that common at all (I want to say only in South West Spring and Summer dishes, but I’m no cook so maybe it can be in other dishes… still, it’s pretty rare), most of oil consumed in France is sunflower oil and peanut oil (no, it’s not olive oil, here is another cliché about France).
Worcestershire sauce, unless you order a Bloody Mary and that it was prepared properly (which is unlikely in most bars of Paris) you shouldn’t worry too much about (unless it’s secretly used in French kitchen unbeknownst to me).
Walnut themselves –except in South West cuisine- usually appear only in desserts, and they’re not extremely common either.
Now, what can you say/ask to the waiter/chef about that?
First, you’re lucky in some sort of twisted way, because when you ask if there are walnuts in the recipe and the waiter doesn’t know or care, it’s most likely that the food is pre-prepared like it is in more and more (touristy, but not only) restaurants, so you shouldn’t eat there at the first place.
Then if you’re in a decent restaurant where the chef cares about the food and that it is actually prepared from different ingredients in the kitchen on the other side of the door, you’ll be facing a problem.
Most of the times, if you explain that it’s a matter of life and death, they’ll be understanding. If there’s no walnut in their cooking, well… good…
If there are walnuts, sure the chef will tell you, but it’s likely that your option will be to go eat elsewhere, because he won’t change the recipe of the dish just for you. If he can do that, I’d actually be suspicious of the quality of the restaurant.
So, yeah, all in all, it is safer to not eat out.
(I have a friend that’s deathly allergic to peanuts, I’ll try to have her comment here to share her experience)