Cate Devine

Recently I’ve been intrigued to read online comments from Scottish chefs and restaurateurs expressing their frustration at trying to satisfy the increasingly difficult demands of diners. Some of these demands stem from genuine dietary intolerances and allergies, but many appear to be based on nothing more than maddening game-playing.

The chef-patron of a Michelin-starred restaurant posted that he spends more time writing menus for dietary requirements (or perhaps more accurately ‘dietary preferences’) than for what he called “real” menus. “Intolerances, etc., today include: dairy, shellfish, gluten, vegetarian (of course) plus no caviar, lamb, beef, game, processed sugar, orange, grapefruit, squid, melon, cucumber, offal, egg or nuts,” he wrote, adding that “it’s always interesting to see someone non-dairy end their meal with a latte, because they’ve ‘avoided dairy for most of the day’.”

Another post highlighted the frustration of unreasonable demands – and ensuing complaints. “Didn’t get a window table (booked 10min before service). Don’t have Harvey’s Bristol cream, don’t do chips or omelette. Wonder if they do Tripadvisor.”

But intrigue has morphed into deep unease as “faux” intolerances and allergies have started to invade and discombobulate the eating-out scene. I was quite heartened when an Edinburgh restaurateur stepped forward to sum up the situation from her industry’s point of view: “A ‘vegan’ not keen on pasta or gazpacho will have calamari, butternut risotto and chocolate crème brulee. A customer who is allergic to pork products, citrus fruits, unpasteurised dairy, raw/rare seafood and meat, lentils and pulses, wants calamari, venison and tarte Tatin.” She added: “This is why every restaurateur in the land is on Valium or has become an alcoholic by December 25. They [diners] should just write their own menu.” She suggested that restaurants should start demanding doctors’ letters to prove that an allergy was real, and cited a prominent chef describing the situation as critical: the “faux dietaries” were killing the catering industry and were its biggest challenge.

The online response was predictably robust – to the extent that she actually left Twitter for a bit to recover from the vitriol, which included being fat-shamed and accused of being in denial about being unhealthy herself. But one comment in particular caught my attention: “Suppliers of anything need to adapt to what people want, not vice versa.”

And there’s the rub. It’s all very well to claim this, but the problem is that chefs (suppliers) no longer have any idea of what diners actually want from one minute to the next – and neither, it seems, do diners themselves. Coeliac disease and lactose intolerance, say, create real and genuine need for chefs to adapt their menus – and is the reason menus prominently display the letters V, GF, and so on. And I know of at least one top seafood chef who happily expanded his menu to welcome vegans, and many other chefs who have re-thought their entire menus to make them plant-heavy and meat-light for the same reason. They tell me they applaud the opportunity to be more creative with new and exciting dishes that can be safely consumed by as many customers as possible. Obviously this makes commercial as well as ideological sense.

But recent evidence suggests that demands have gone beyond that to the extent that chefs are now expected to dance to the tune of spur-of-the-moment whims of diners on the night – without warning, and thus robbed of the chance to plan and source dishes in advance.

Are people out to have a laugh at restaurants’ expense just to big up the number of clicks on their online platforms? If so, it’s a deeply irresponsible practice that puts hard-won culinary reputations, careers and entire businesses at serious risk. Not to mention making a mockery of those with genuine dietary conditions. No wonder some within the industry are fighting back by outing the culprits online. This too is a risky game that restaurants would not willingly choose to play unless compelled to do so, and I applaud them for having the courage to do it.

To dismiss the culprits as “fussy eaters” is to excuse appalling behaviour. Equally, it would be too easy to conclude that such bad manners are down to ignorance of what running a restaurant entails, and that this ignorance has enabled a shocking lack of respect for the industry – despite the best efforts of MasterChef and other such television programmes to educate and inform. I also suspect that encouraging these people to do some research by reading a restaurant’s menu before booking a table would be futile.

I fear that what’s happening here is a deliberate disruption of the status quo. Dissing those we should most admire, just because we can, is not a good look for a nation whose culinary reputation is increasingly celebrated across the globe. Yet a wedge is being driven between the mutual sense of respect that used to be part of the collective restaurant experience by the rude arrival of an army of self-righteous individuals whose sense of entitlement apparently knows no bounds.

I can only hope that matching faux intolerances with real intolerance will put the disrupters’ gas at a peep – and keep restaurants in business for the rest of us to enjoy.