Safe Dining

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When it comes to food, not asking questions and keeping opinions to myself is a challenging task. Several years ago, sitting on the beach one Montauk summer with a restaurant owner-friend I just couldn’t zip it. “Are the meats you’re serving organic? If not, are they at least hormone and antibiotic free? How about grass-fed?” His response, “I don’t know. And who cares?” I think my jaw just dropped to the sand at that point. I quickly gained composure and said, “You know, not only is it important that you care about what you are feeding your customers, but serving conscious cuisine and boasting that you are will help keep your doors open.” He offered a snarky smile and we left it at that.

Having worked in restaurants and catering companies for many years, I know what goes on behind those double doors from sourcing and storing food to preparing and serving it. And let me tell you this, there are a lot of unconscious peeps handling your eats.

The running joke among family and friends when I got into this whole thoughtful food thing was that I am an embarrassment to go out to dinner with (even to this day my loved ones roll their eyes). I want to know if my meats are properly loved, if my salmon is wild, if the salad dressing is homemade and if real lemons made my lemonade. In fact, I have been likened to Meg Ryan in the notorious diner scene in When Harry Met Sally (the part where she is ordering her food that is). Inevitably someone I am with says, “Honestly Stef, do you need to ask so many questions?”

And that would be a, “Yes!” Sorry to sound like a broken record, but—YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW WHERE YOUR FOOD COMES FROM, WHAT IS IN YOUR FOOD AND HOW YOUR FOOD IS PREPARED. And for some godforsaken reason, when people go out to dinner they just presume that their food is “safe”.

When it comes to food safety, there is no other than Marion Nestle. Her book, Safe Food takes a close look into the many safety issues concerning the food supply from food poisoning (rampant in restaurant kitchens) to how food is being grown and raised. And quite coincidently the other day I met an inspector from the Suffolk County Department of Health at a local joint (she was finishing up an inspection) and from her mouth to my ears, “You know the show, Kitchen Nightmares? Well, I can’t watch it because I live it everyday!”

But my goal is not to freak you out, rather offer solutions for dining out safely. To consider:

  1. Learn about the restaurants you want to go to (visit websites; read reviews; check out handy guides like Clean Plates)
  2. Go for the eateries with open kitchens if you can (or try to take a peek in the kitchen)
  3. Ask questions about the food you want to order (if the server does not have the answers, then insist that he/she gets them for you)
  4. Be specific about how you want your food prepared (the way it is cooked; with or without sauce, etc.)
  5. If your food does not mimic what you requested, send it back
  6. If you have specific dietary needs (like food allergies), ask to speak with the chef directly

The people you are with may roll their eyes (and you my feel a little embarrassed), but in the end you will be better off! When it comes to food, you have the right to know.

Let’s keep this conversation going. Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions. I would love to hear from you!