The owner of an Indian restaurant in North Yorkshire, England, was sentenced earlier this week to six years in prison after being convicted of causing the death of a customer with a nut allergy. The customer had ordered chicken tikka masala to go from the restaurant, Indian Garden, and specified the order was to contain no nuts. He had ordered from the restaurant in the past without incident.

But prosecutors in the case, which is detailed in this article from the New York Times, had argued that because the owner was deep in debt he had started to cut corners. He had replaced an almond powder with a cheaper blend of ground nuts, and, perhaps more significant, he had hired untrained, undocumented workers to cook at his six restaurants.

That last part is key. Restaurants cannot be complete allergy-free zones. I’ve always advised customers that it is incumbent upon them to communicate their allergies to the server, who must then be trusted to tell the cooks, who must then be trusted to understand the possible severity of the situation and the possible consequences of not following the request to omit ingredients that could cause sickness or, as was the case in Britain, death.

The owner of the Indian Garden was cutting corners, but other owners, servers and cooks have become more cavalier with guests’ claims of allergies because they don’t take them all that seriously. Take the issue with people who prefer to stay gluten free in their diets. Precious few of them can actually claim a diagnosis of celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to react differently when gluten is ingested.

That’s not to say that people who have eschewed gluten from their diets don’t actually feel better. Yet a lot of people will simply tell the server that they’re allergic to gluten, just to ensure they are served items without any. Some servers may not believe them and don’t pass the note along to the kitchen as serious.

OltarshDominick Rice, the chef who found a home in the kitchen at Slate after leaving the restaurant he moved to Central Florida to helm before it could open, has left Central Florida. According to Slate’s general manager, Shawn Tierney, Rice’s wife was offered a job in New York and the family has moved back there.

Rice, who had worked in Central Florida before going to New York, including in the kitchen at Luma on Park, was originally lured back to the area with the promise of leading the as-yet-to-open Boca on Park Avenue in Winter Park. However, due to conflicts with management, Rice separated from the company before Boca could open. He landed at Slate and opened the restaurant on Sand Lake Road almost one year ago. (Slate will celebrate its first anniversary on June 11.)

While Slate searches for a new chef (using the services of Restaurant Talent Scouts), Nick Oltarsh (left) has stepped in as a sort of guest chef. Oltarsh has worked for parent company Concentrics Restaurants in Atlanta as well as with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group in New York. His resume includes Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Tavern.

Tierney stressed that Rice’s departure, though unexpected, was understandable. “We’re a culture that is family first,” he said.



STK is next up in the ongoing procession of new and elaborate restaurants opening at Disney Springs, the reimagined dining, shopping and entertainment district formerly known as Downtown Disney. The NYC based STK will start serving to the general public beginning with dinner service on Wednesday, May 25, (lunch hours will be added soon). On Tuesday evening, the restaurant will throw a grand opening party, by invitation only. (I'll be livecasting from the event on the SJO Facebook page.)

On Monday, I got a sneak peek at the restaurant, chatted with the Orlando restaurant's chef, James O'Donnell, and tasted a few of the dishes that will be offered.

Stylistically, the new restaurant has design elements characterisitc of other STKs. The photo at top was taken last Thursday at the STK in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan; below it is the Disney Springs. Besides this main dining room, there is a loungish area next to the bar in the front of the restaurant, and an upstairs dining area, also with bar, and a balcony that overlooks the newly filled Springs (although we're supposed to believe they've been there forever).

Although the name STK, when enough vowels are purchased, evokes steak, O'Donnell says his menu offers lighter fare. "We do a much better job with seafood, appetizers and vegetables." He calls it a " twist on the steakhouse that's light and modern with a little more seasonality."

Cognac front

As a restaurant critic, I’m used to being asked by locals and visitors for recommendations on where to dine, whether in my home area of Central Florida or in the various cities I’ve visited on my own travels.

(And no, to answer a question I’m often posed, I don’t mind being asked for recommendations. In fact, I’ll mind it very much when people stop asking.)

Especially when we travel, we want to know that a restaurant will be as close to a “sure thing” as possible. I’m no different. Yes, I enjoy the thrill of finding an out of the way place that no one else has written much about that delivers an extraordinary dining experience. But if I’m vacationing in, say, France, I don’t want to waste a meal on mediocre food. I want all of my meals to be exceptional.

So then, how does a restaurant critic find new places to visit when traveling? Well, sometimes I do the same thing others do: consult my counterparts in the cities I’m visiting. I also do other research, reading online reviews, though being careful to take extreme praises and condemnations with the proverbial grain of salt, and looking through articles and comments.

I also look for more oblique clues.

Such an indirect clue led me to Brasserie Cognac in New York recently. I cancelled a reservation I had for an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side and made one at Cognac all because of an interview with Eric Ripert that was published in the New York Times earlier in the month.

Ripert is the celebrated chef of the much lauded Le Bernadin just a few blocks away. (I also revisited Le Bernadin on the recent visit and will share my experience there with you soon.) In the opening sentences of the interview, by reporter Jeff Gordinier, Ripert is described as sliding into a banquette and ordering without even opening a menu. If Ripert, a native of France, finds the restaurant so classically French, and an exceptional place to be interviewed in, I’m there.

What a huge disappointment it was.

The annual Chef's Gala, one of the year's best food and drink affairs, is Saturday, May 21.

As always, the event is held at Epcot’s World Showplace, the biodome-like structure that also houses the weekly Party for the Senses dos during the International Food & Wine Festival.

Unlike the Senses Parties, however, admission to Epcot is not required to attend Chef’s Gala. The way they get around that is by busing attendees from a special area in the Epcot parking lot to the Showplace via the theme park’s backstage area, so besides attending a really terrific food and wine event, you also get an insider’s — or backsider’s, if you will — view of what’s behind the Epcot facades.

Tickets to the event are $275 per person or $500 per couple with all proceeds going to Heart of Florida United Way. Chef’s Gala supports programs in the areas of education, income, health and basic needs.

“Heart of Florida United Way is humbled each and every year by the community support we receive through Chef’s Gala to help more than 400,000 people in the tri-county region,” said Robert H. (Bob) Brown, president and CEO of Heart of Florida United Way. “Chef’s Gala is certainly one of my favorite events due to the impact we’re able to make with the help of volunteers, contributors and sponsors.”

This link will take you to the Chef’s Gala website where you can get more information and purchase your tickets. Also, you can bid on silent auction items, even if you're unable to attend. See below for a list of participating restaurants: