Personally, I don't like to put a damper on it, but I'm not so sure that it is so easy to ask!!
I was at a birthday party on Saturday. It was held at a local pub. Everyone else but I was eating. I was not eating by choice. I quite frankly couldn't face the bother. It was a large party and the order had being placed in advance 'en masse' by the friend's husband, and I simply didn't want to risk anything going awry. I'm not normally so cautious, as to not eat altogether, but recent events shaped my reactions...
Not so long ago I went out to eat for another friend's birthday, where I was expecting to eat, quite safely, as the restaurant is quite expensive and I thought they would be cooking to order.
'No problem,' thought I, 'I've eaten here several times before. Whenever I've checked beforehand, it's all been fine.'
So, a little complacent, perhaps, I turned up on the day, without my usual checks. I simply scanned the menu for something that looked pretty safe and when the waiter came, I asked for advice about the dish I had spotted. It looked to be a fairly simple sea bass dish - they are often my best bet.
He was a foreign waiter, but seemed to understand me. When I asked whether it would be free from gluten, dairy, soya etc. he wasn't all that sure; he thought it would be fine, but would check.
All seemed to be fine, so the order was placed. Another friend ordered the same dish. As both were brought out at the same time (and not by the chap who had taken my order), I asked if the one I had been given was gluten free (always my starting point, as that's the one to which I'm most sensitive).
Confusion flitted across their faces - this was obviously news to them.
'I'll just check!' one said, and off she went. When she returned, it turned out, no, mine wasn't gluten free, but they'd take it away and do it again. 'OK fine,' I thought, 'better safe than sorry - better that they have noticed and put it right, than I eat it and suffer later.'
I waited quite a while longer, before the dish returned, I started to peel away the wrapper (it was 'en papillote' - baked in a sealed package)... when suddenly a waitress rushed out to stop me!!
Apparently this dish wasn't right either! They were going to do it again!! I was slightly peeved, and by now hungry! My friends were already pretty much finished with their main course, by then, and I was lagging behind. Other diners had come and gone in the meantime, but I thought, 'better safe than sorry'.
Finally the dish arrived and as no-one returned to say it wasn't suitable, I cautiously tucked in. Only by this time, my side order of fries was cold and so was the side dish of greens (which had also had to be returned as it hadn't been done correctly first time either - I'd asked for it to be cooked in oil rather than butter). Oh, and my friends, who I had instructed not to wait for me, were just finishing their dessert!!
One friend's comment really resonated with me. It was to the effect that she could now see why I don't eat out as often as she. (Only she used more colourful language, that I've edited out.)
See my point is, it MAY be 'easy to ask,' but it's not always easy to get the right answer!
What are the potential problems?
1. Langauge barrier
If the waiter/waitress/server does not speak English as a first language, it's difficult to know if they completely understand the message that you are trying to convey. It's the reason why I tend to go self-catering when I'm abroad - if I read labels myself and prepare food myself, I feel much more confident of a safe outcome.
However, in this country it is also quite common to come across staff who don't have English as a first language, and some of those are in positions of management too. It's all very well and good if they are proficient in English, but slightly concerning when you need to get an important message across and are not sure that it IS getting through.
2. Lack of knowledge
Unless you live with food allergies yourself, or have been trained thoroughly there may be gaps in the person's knowledge. The number of times I've been told, 'Oh, but there IS egg in it!!' when I've tried to confirm whether something contains dairy!! Of course, you and I know, that when I say 'dairy', I mean milk and the products made from milk. Milk (usually, although not always) comes from cows. Eggs come from chicken - completely different animals!!
By the way, I usually use the term 'dairy' as it is a much broader term than 'milk'. If I use the term 'milk' people do not always make the connection between milk itself, and other products made with milk, such as butter or cream, or yogurt, or cheese etc.
3. Chinese whispers
You may communicate perfectly well with the waitress/waiter, but what is the communication like in the kitchen? The more times the information has to pass through other people, particularly in a busy pressurized environment, the more chances there are that something can go wrong.
I was particularly impressed with the Disney restaurants in Florida (you won't get the same service in Disneyland, Paris - just so you know), because the moment the server heard the phrase 'milk allergy,'( in regards to my daughter, who was still allergic at the time), they summoned the chef to the table and the chef actually CAME to your table and talked everything through with you. There's not many other places where we've been treated with anything like that care and attention!
It's also one of the reasons I love restaurants that will repeat back your allergy information as they serve the dish, or stick a label in that says 'dairy free' or 'gluten free' - a la Cote or Rockfish. It's not something that they are required to do by law, but that 'best practice' reiteration of the essential knowledge, gives you more confidence that hopefully the message has really got through!
4. Societal pressure
Eating out with friends and family, or standing in a queue with other people who are are hungry, you can be horribly aware that by asking all the questions you may feel you need to ask, in order to be 100% confident about the food, you are keeping others waiting. Sometimes you get that little shuffle behind you, a sigh, a glance at a watch... Even as an adult, I hate it and feel the need to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. How much more so must many a younger person, especially when peer pressure comes into play??
Only a few months ago, The Hub's nephew (who has been known to be allergic to peanuts and sesame, since he was tiny, and fits into the 16-24 age bracket) had his first serious anaphylactic shock. It was the archetypal teenage error. He was at a party with friends, didn't think to check what was in the dip - it was humus, which he had no idea was made with sesame. He wasn't carrying his Epipens - because never having experienced a serious attack, he'd become complacent. Fortunately, his poor mother was only minutes way, was able to get there, with his medication, in minutes, and the ambulance didn't take long to get there, either. Otherwise, he could have become another statistic.
5. Human Error
Going back to my recent experience, I have no idea what caused the mix-up in the restaurant, it may have been multiple factors, but sometimes these things happen. You just have to hope that they notice in time to stop you taking your first bite. And this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened - although this was the first time it took the best of three, to make it right!
I think we need to be honest here. It is NOT always 'easy to ask,' but for your own safety and well being, the message we need to get across to our young people is... you simply have to be prepared to ...
Oh and if you need an Epipen...
This post is not an advert. I have not been paid to write this post. I am not sponsored in any way, even by advertising. I do not receive products free to review, although I have often been offered them. This is to try and maintain an unbiased approach. Any products listed in this post are here purely because they genuinely are the products we have used and enjoy consuming. They are included here merely to point people who are new to suitable products that they too may enjoy. All views expressed are my own (unless I've asked for The Hub's or Kiddo's). I try to tell is 'as-it-is'.