Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Chef’s Perspective on Food Allergies – an Interview with Chef Ryan Smith

About a month ago fellow blogger, Sarah- Ann of eat. drink. repeat, and I had the most spectacular weekend. What started as a simple dinner at Empire State South (ESS) turned into attending a memorial day BBQ hosted by Kyle Jacovino, Executive Sous Chef at Empire State South, and included the likes of Bacchanalia, Abattoir, Holeman & Finch and more.

At the BBQ I chatted with Ryan Smith, Executive Chef at Empire State South about food allergies. My dinner at ESS had been one of my best gluten free experiences so I wanted to know how they made it so easy. Smith was gracious enough to take some time to answer my questions.

Smith is a somewhat quiet yet extremely passionate chef. While casually talking about foraging (if you don’t know much about it read here), local foods and retirement plans (he wants to be a beekeeper; I’d be the happiest girl alive with a couple of acres and a few cows) his excitement for the history food while simultaneously making it innovative is palpable.

His opinion on food allergies is welcoming. I know firsthand cooking gluten free and dairy free in one meal can easily scare even well-experienced chefs. However, in just the hour or so that we met he took me to the kitchen to eat boiled peanuts and an experiment of pickled boiled peanuts, offered to cook almost anything and mentioned how he should make homemade cider in the fall when the apples are good.

He has definitely made at least one gluten free super fan. Read the full interview below.

Ryan Smith, Empire State
Between you, Hugh Acheson and Jacovino you all seem to take dietary restrictions in stride, when other chefs aren’t so quick to accommodate.  What is it like for you to serve those with special needs?

I think in general a lot of chefs are stubborn about what they try to do and what their food is. They’re not really understanding because they are not interacting with people. It’s an allergy - there’s no way around it. It’s not people being just picky. To me there’s no other option. So of course we do whatever we can.

You mentioned once it can be a good challenge to modify a dish.

Yeah it can be. It can be a challenge when it’s busy but I think it’s fun too; like “what can I come up with?” That’s something we really love to do.

Everyone at Empire State South seems very educated on food allergies. Do you provide any training or is it the breed of staff?

It’s a bit of both. We’re trying to create a really knowledgeable culture among the staff.

During the pre-meal we all sit down and eat together and talk about food and wine and just go over everything. I try to touch on specifics and discuss something different each day to give them the proper tools.

A lot of them are here because they love it and inquire a lot. When we’re slow they’ll be looking at things like Food Lover’s Companion. It’s good to have people like that.

Are there any special methods (separate work areas, fryers, etc) you use in the kitchen to help prevent cross contamination?

Yeah - we don’t have a deep fryer, we do everything in a small pot. [Generally] we at least have two, sometimes three pots, if we’re frying seafood or vegetables to keep them separate.

As for everyday cross contaminating I’m really anal about how people work so I make sure everyone works really clean.

Nowadays with the knowledge of gluten, it is actually harder for me to order a dish without dairy over gluten. Do you find it harder to eliminate dairy in certain dishes?

Gluten is really easy for us [to avoid]. It can be very easy [for dairy-free] but it depends. When the waiter comes back and says someone is dairy-free and asks what can they have - that doesn’t help me. I want to know what they are interested in. I can do whatever; I just need direction.

So it’s easier for the guest to choose between two or three dishes they’re interested in rather than going through the whole menu?

Yeah it’s much easier that way.

If you had to give up either gluten or dairy for just one day which one would you choose?

That’s tough.... I’d probably give up gluten.

What is your favorite dish currently on the menu?

We’re doing a salad right now that I’m really excited about. Which I think is not usual :)

It’s a bunch of greens that are foraged. One of our farmers is really into foraging and wild foods which I am too. He brings down a lot of lambs quarters and wood sorrel and a bunch of really unique bitter greens so we’re doing that really simply with these really bad ass little melons called charentais. They’re like mini cantaloupe but the best cantaloupe I’ve eaten in my live.

So it’s really simple... but I really want people to be more accepting and excited about wild foods.

*Smith is probably regretting letting me use this photo now. However, I think it is awesome.