Jan’s Confessions

Edition 1

Confessions from the kitchen and the oddest dietary requests I’ve heard

Here’s the funny thing about human nature, we just love to overcomplicate things don’t we? One of the quickest ways to learn this early on, or at least in my experience, is to find yourself working in the hospitality space. There’s something about this transactional power dynamic between guest and server/ hostess/ concierge/ chef (whatever you are) that can bring out the best, and the worst in people. Truly, is there any bigger red flag on a first date than the person who is rude to a waiter? I recommend you swipe left on that one.

As far as dietary requests go we’re always happy to accommodate the needs of guests. Lactose-free, gluten-free, without nuts or shellfish, vegan (I love going plant-based – sustainability is so important!). But then there are the weird requests, the custom demands and odd complaints, every time I think I’ve heard them all something comes along and makes me pause. Think Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, taking half an hour to order a sandwich, except less fun. After more than a decade spent in kitchens around the world and catering to different palates, cultures and countries, there are some notable requests I’ll never forget.

The vampire special
Few things can be as divisive as the ‘how do you like your meat’?’ conversation. While some of us enjoy the toughness of a well-done steak others opt for the melt in your mouth flavours of a rare piece of meat. But then there are the extremes. I’ve been instructed to burn, yes burn, a steak to within an inch of its life and serve the carcinogenic husk to a gleeful diner, and I’ve watched as people stuck into a bloody, raw piece of meat. Don’t get me wrong carpaccio and steak tartare can be delightful, but watching someone dive into a chewy, raw piece of steak brings scenes right out of Animal Planet to mind.

Avert your eyes from the cheese, please
I have a true affinity for cheese and I’m not afraid to admit it, it’s something you can look forward to at Maria, our specialist wine and cheese room in Nice, the root cellar at Klein JAN in the Kalahari and on request at the JAN Innovation Studio in Cape Town when we do bespoke events. That said, I can understand that a strong Roquefort isn’t for everyone. One of the more memorable requests we’ve received was from a patron stating that, not only does she not want to eat any cheese, but she also cannot bear to see it either. That’s right, the cheese needed to be obscured and hidden from her view, including by the other patrons enjoying theirs. As to what exactly happened between this lady and a piece of cheese to instill such a dislike I can only speculate, but it can’t have been good!

Trout, but not too fishy please
Perhaps one of the more challenging requests I’ve received, a diner once asked for the trout since it was the healthier option, but not one that tasted like fish. While I consider myself fairly competent in the kitchen, the ability to turn water into wine is not one I possess. Thankfully there was a saviour in the form of a good sauce, and lots of it! Turns out you can have your non-fishy  trout and eat it too.

The naked peach
Things move fast in a kitchen, and there’s a structure in place to ensure special requests don’t hold up other orders with them. It’s a well-choreographed dance that we’ve mastered but every now and then something comes along to throw off your timing. Cue the patron who wanted the dish with the peaches but without the peach skin. Peeling a fresh, juicy peach can take the precision of a surgeon if you don’t want a smushed, lumpy result, and doing it under pressure can make you feel like you’re completing a challenge on a gameshow, but nonetheless the guest enjoyed her peaches without the offensive peach skin…

The fad diets
I’ve been around long enough to know all about some of the crazier diet fads that have had attention in the last few years. The five bite diet, the grapefruit diet, the ‘nothing white’ diet and extreme cleanses (aka starvation) are just a few that come to mind. I’m no dietician and everyone has their own unique needs that they find the best diet for, but I generally find that such hardcore restrictions aren’t healthy in the long run (and make it a nightmare for the kitchen when you eat out). I prefer a 80/20 ratio between clean eating and indulging, and recently I’ve made a big push to eat sustainable, plant-based meals as much as possible. That way I’m not only keeping healthy, I’m doing a small kindness to our environment.