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Chef's got a Secret

What happens when someone hates a particualr ingredient, or is even allergic to it?

November 29, 2000|LESLEE KOMAIKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Allyson Thurber is allergic to lobster.

On its own, this is unremarkable. After all, shellfish allergies are among the most common. But Thurber is the chef at The Lobster, a Santa Monica place that specializes in . . . you know what.

"It is kind of ironic," says Thurber. "But I've always worked with seafood and shellfish. Until I started working here though, lobster wasn't the main thrust. So it was no big deal. Here we have eight or 10 dishes with lobster."

Thurber was up front about her allergy when she interviewed for the job. And ultimately, she says, it is really not that important.

"I can taste it [lobster] and taste sauces that it is made with. But I can't swallow it, because it makes me ill."

Can a chef who is allergic to lobster prepare it as passionately and successfully as one who eats lobster weekly or even daily? Thurber insists that her allergy might actually benefit diners. "It's good in a way because your personal taste doesn't inhibit you. I can be more flexible and open-minded because it's not for my personal taste. I know I'm not going to be eating it."

Though Thurber's situation is especially dramatic, many chefs have food allergies. Darcy Tizio, for example, pastry chef at Michael's in Santa Monica, is allergic to pineapple and caraway. "If I cut a pineapple, it irritates my skin to the point that my hands are almost bleeding. So I wear rubber gloves. But even carrying the cutting board I need to be careful the juice doesn't drip on my coat. So most of the time when I do use pineapple, I delegate it to someone else because it's such a miserable thing for me."

Surprisingly, Tizio can eat pineapple: no problem. Not so caraway. "If we make pumpernickel bread, I can't even taste it. I despise caraway anyway; my body knows not to like it. But pineapple is kind of a bummer because I think it's delicious."

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Even more common than food allergies are food dislikes. Chefs are sometimes reluctant to admit disliking a particular ingredient or ingredients. It's as if there were an unspoken rule that chefs must like everything.

Consequently, when asked if there is anything they dislike, chefs often answer, "I love everything." Push a little harder however, and it turns out that chefs are human too.

"I really don't like peanut butter because I didn't grow up with it," says Dieter Doppelfeld, a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the Napa Valley. "Would I go out and buy a jar of peanut butter, grape jelly and white bread? No. Do I cook with peanut butter? Of course.

"It really helps if you are very open-minded to food," Doppelfeld says. "This doesn't mean you have to like everything. But personal preferences should never interfere with professional life. They should not take over the kitchen."

Raphael Lunetta, chef-owner of JiRaffe in Santa Monica, names organ meats, oily fish such as sardines and mackerel and okra among his least favorite foods. Nonetheless, he does occasionally run sweetbreads as a special. Usually, however, they play a secondary role, appearing, for example, as the stuffing for a winter dish of roasted squab.

"Because I'm not crazy about these things," says Lunetta, "it's really a challenge to make them so I would consider eating them."

Nancy Bastian, a private chef who divides her time between the West and East coasts, doesn't care for mushrooms. "When people find that out," she says, "it totally shocks them. They're in disbelief. They're like, 'It's such an unbelievable ingredient.' I say, 'I'm not disagreeing. It's a psychological problem.' "

Once Bastian made cream of mushroom soup for clients. "Of course I had to taste it," she says. "That was the worst. The people I made it for loved it. Maybe I'll make it again, but I'll have a housekeeper or assistant taste it."

Bastian also occasionally makes a warm wild mushroom salad. She sautes the mushrooms with pancetta, de-glazes the pan with Sherry vinegar and serves the mushrooms on greens, topped with toasted pine nuts.

"I love the aroma," she says, "but I don't love eating it. When I go to taste, it's like, it tastes terrible! I know in my heart that I could tell if it were really awful."

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Some chefs develop dislikes because they've seen a little too much of something in the past. David C. Slatkin, chef at Fenix at the Argyle in Hollywood, grew up in a kosher household where salmon was a favorite. Now, he admits, "I'm not a big fan. Poached salmon or hot salmon . . . I don't really eat it. Maybe it's because when I was a kid, I had to eat it so much. But I still have it on my menu."

Slatkin does love smoked salmon. Why the exception? "It has a better texture," he says. "And it's sliced paper-thin, so you're not getting big chunks. It becomes a more mellow meat."

Andrew Pastore, chef at Michael's in Santa Monica, has a "blatant dislike" for cardoons. He discovered this a couple years ago while working for Wolfgang Puck at Granita.

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