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Allergies? Vegetarian? Luxury restaurants no longer off-limits

Chefs at top-class restaurants have learned to adapt to diners’ special demands — concocting menus to accommodate gluten-free, sugar-free, lactose-intolerant, meatless or other restricted diets

By Remy Zaka  /  AFP, MONTPELLIER, France

French twins Jacques, right, and Laurent Pourcel prepare food at their Jardin des Sens restaurant in Montpellier, France, on Feb. 27, 1998.

Photo: AFP

When French superchef Alain Ducasse stunned the world of haute cuisine last year by dropping meat, boosting veggies and lightening up his menus, he was less bucking convention than joining a trend of accommodating vegetarians and people with food allergies. Fine dining at top-class restaurants run by uncompromising chefs might once have been unthinkable for such clients — but no more.

“Twenty years ago we were lost when a client told us they had an allergy. We’d bring out an artichoke and a salad,” said Piet Huysentruyt, owner of the Likoke in the southern town of Les Vans, France, a one-star restaurant in the fabled Michelin Guide.

“Now it’s no longer a problem. It’s second nature,” he said.

Once again, the much-touted Mediterranean diet — low in meat and high in fish, vegetables, herbs and healthy fats like olive oil — has come to the rescue.

A recent gathering in the southern city of Montpellier, France, of 58 chefs from 10 Mediterranean countries — the sort of Michelin-starred elite who scrutinize every dish that leaves their kitchens — confirmed the trend. All conceded they have had to “adapt,” including Ducasse and his famous cohost Joel Robuchon.

“It’s more and more frequent. For every table of five or six people, there is inevitably one who has allergies,” said Laurent Pourcel, who runs the one-star Jardin des Sens in Montpellier with his brother Jacques.

“We have one or two clients like this every day with a whole range of problems,” he said.

Most called the Mediterranean diet “a good ally” in concocting menus to accommodate gluten-free, sugar-free, lactose-intolerant, meatless or other restricted diets.

“There is less milk and butter, fewer potatoes, and you use more olive oil, fish and vegetables,” said Hermance Joplet, who runs Le Castellaras, newly awarded a Michelin star, with her husband Quentin in Fayence near the southern resort of Cannes.

Olive oil is definitely “more digestible and generally more acceptable,” nutritionist Christian Recchia said.

Ducasse led the trend when he boldly dropped meat at his renowned two-Michelin-starred Plaza Athenee on Paris’ exclusive Avenue Montaigne, just up from Dior, Prada, Saint Laurent and other luxury shops.

Less radical at his three-starred Louis XV restaurant in Monaco, he has nonetheless cut down on meat dishes and uses less salt, sugar and fat.

As for a hallowed basic in French cooking, the butter, cream and egg-packed sauces, chefs said they now alter them on demand — something that, in the past, might have been dismissed as catering to fickle, indulgent or foreign clients.

Likewise, most chefs today keep a supply of gluten-free ingredients, notably frozen bread dough ready to pop into the oven at a moment’s notice.

“For Saint Valentine’s Day, one client never imagined we could offer a gluten-free menu,” said Joplet, who served up a nutty risotto of locally grown spelt with sauteed baby vegetables.

Vegetarians, too, are no longer shunned. At the Pourcel brothers’ restaurant, dishes like “new asparagus in a cream sauce of morel mushrooms and crumbled egg yolks” sit on the main entry list as proudly as the classic meat and fish dishes.

The hardest problem is diners who are lactose intolerant, said Fabien Lefebvre of the Octopus restaurant, in the southern city of Beziers that was recently awarded a Michelin star.

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