Whether a person has allergies or it’s simply a matter of personal preference, local caterers and chefs are getting plenty of special requests for food.
As corporate executive chef, Josef Huber at AHC + Hospitality in Grand Rapids, explains, “In the past 20 years, you might have one in a hundred people request a special meal. At this point, it’s anywhere from 10-15 percent.”
While some requests are due to allergens, others are based on food preferences. “The food shows on TV really educated our guests. They’re savvier than they were 10-15 years ago,” he says.
Some use the menu as a guideline before altering it, especially à la carte items. Others are allergic to The Big 8, such as shellfish and nuts. In Michigan, Huber says it’s a requirement to have at least one person in the kitchen that is allergen-trained.
Whether someone chooses to be gluten-free or they’re allergic to gluten, he says, “They want to know what’s in there. For us in the kitchen, we need to be prepared to serve a celiac person. We need to take it very seriously.”
Others may be health conscious or following a weight-loss diet. Huber says gluten-free remains their top request closely followed by shellfish or fish. Peanut allergies also continue to be a big request.
Other food requests come from ethnic groups that may ask for halal meals or kosher meals. “We contract with a kosher kitchen in Grand Rapids. We also have quite a few Indian dinners and halal meals. We have to figure out how to make everyone happy,” says Huber.
They are making more and more authentic meals for ethnic groups, such as one that wanted an Argentinian barbecue and Indian weddings that last for three days with up to 1,000 guests where they can partner with an Indian restaurant in town.
For a large group, they plate some vegan meals just in case. “We’re going to cover it all,” he says.
As You Like It
In the last decade, Terra Brock, event manager for Zingerman’s Catering & Events in Ann Arbor, says they’ve seen the number of cases and allergy types increase tremendously, which has affected how they handle them. Ten years ago, she says it was almost seen as “their problem” and guests with allergies or dietary restrictions were left to bring their own food to events if they wanted to have assurance that the food they consumed was safe for them.
“Not that we wouldn’t have done our best to facilitate allergy-related requests back then, but I don’t think clients were even asking the question of their guests because it was a rarity,” she says.
“Now it is an expected part of the eventplanning process and we’re prepared for it and we know how to handle requests effectively and with minimal stress to the clients, the guests and ourselves.”
Today, more clients want more information posted about the menu items, sometimes even the entire list of ingredients for each dish. “We end up augmenting and customizing more dishes for events in order to accommodate guests with allergies,” says Brock.
“In addition, more and more people have self-imposed dietary restrictions and preferences due to diets and other considerations of health. We help clients with all sorts of menurelated questions and requests in this arena.”
For smaller events, when someone has severe allergies, it is common to just make the entire menu clear of the allergens in question. They have systems in place to minimize the chance for cross-contact for their menu items, orders are flagged so every person in the food preparation process is aware of the allergy, and everyone takes it seriously
With larger events, Zingerman’s often labels allergens on the food signs so anyone with any allergy knows what is safe for them to eat and what to avoid. Although there is always the chance of cross-contact somewhere along the line, most people know how sensitive they are to their allergens so they can make educated decisions about what to consume.
“We believe everyone should be able to receive a meal at any event they attend that is not only really great food, but safe for them to eat,” Brock says. “Every guest is equally important and no one should fall through the cracks and not be able to eat the food provided.”
The biggest uptick for special requests, according to Traci Bahlman, director of sales for Holiday Catering, the catering arm of Holiday Market in Royal Oak, is gluten-free. For a good size event, about 10 percent of the room is eating gluten-free whether it’s for allergy or preference.
Cheese and sushi made in-house can be gluten free and gluten products like crackers and bread typically associated with other items can be served separately from the meals. “We are really careful about cross contamination with gluten-free requests,” she says.
For meetings, Detroit-themed food stations have become a popular request that’s a big hit with out-of-town visitors. Personalized requests are also popping up, such as a wedding with a bride from Michigan and a groom from Maryland. Their favorite food was Mediterranean, so their celebration featured foods from all three categories.
“Those planning an event have a heightened awareness that wasn’t there even 10 years ago. People sometimes ask for locally sourced for smaller events and we do it as much as possible for larger groups. Organic and vegan are also popular selections for a more intimate event,” says Bahlman. “With vegetarian and gluten-free, I don’t even write a menu anymore without thinking that way.”
For Erin Sonntag, pastry chef and owner of Bella e Dolce Cakes in Walled Lake, gluten-free is also her biggest request and the buttercream she uses for cakes happens to fall into that category. “We’re typically asking before they come in for a tasting,” she says.
The other most popular request comes from those with nut allergies. “Because we bring out every cake flavor and all the filling flavors for a tasting, we try to make those with nut allergies the first appointment of the day,” adds Sonntag.
Although she doesn’t make dairy-free cakes, she can refer people to a safe kitchen for those requests. The same goes for vegan that’s starting to pop up more and more with sweets.
“Pastry tables have become popular for weddings and some even replace the cake. Guests choose whatever they want and I can stay at the wedding and man the table with French style pastries they might not recognize. I also give them carryout boxes so they can take a treat or two home,” she says.
There are so many special requests, such as the French macaroons as party favors that she says are hugely popular in a two-pack placed on the guest table. “Everybody still deserves something sweet at the end of the night and they can have options,” says Sonntag.