A Dining Story – Part 2

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A Dining Story – Part 1

I sit at my computer to check the park hours of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. While I’m notating particulars about Extra Magic Hours for Disney resort guests, a pop-up box notifies me that I have received an e-mail from someone named Chef Patrick.

I open the letter to read a thoughtful note from the chef of The Hollywood Brown Derby.  He explains that he was contacted by Brenda, the head of Disney’s Special Dietary Requests Department, about our family’s circumstances and is very interested in enabling us to visit the park.  He then requests an e-mail back specifying the items that my children cannot eat.

I am quick to put my current task aside.  After all, if our dietary dilemma does not get resolved, Extra Magic Hours will be meaningless anyway.  I feel much like Milo when he cohesively organized all his research in hopes of securing passage to the lost city of Atlantis, and I carefully begin construction on my dietary epistle to Chef Patrick.  Since the list of foods my children can eat is more brief and specific than the list of foods they cannot eat, I start my small e-book with this itemized list.  After that I give an abridged explanation of my children’s medical diet, the science behind it, and our current position in its progression.  This is all followed by explicit warnings of the potential physical, behavioral, and neurological consequences for my children if their food is not prepared within the set guidelines.

As I proofread my e-mail, which is probably worthy of publication in a medical journal, I wonder what Chef Patrick’s response will be.  The diet actually is a return to whole foods in a very restricted and pure form.  However, I am acutely aware that to most contemporary persons, the kids’ diet seems like a maniacal menu designed by The Swedish Chef and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew.

I expel a heavy sigh and acknowledge that the note cannot be helped.  If I am going to trust this man with the health of my children, I need to be sure that he understands the magnitude of our situation.  So with some reservation, I hit the “send” button, and my short novel takes off through cyberspace to an inbox somewhere in Orlando.

Several minutes have passed, and I’m back to searching the Disney website for details on height restrictions of attractions and recommended activities for toddlers.  Another pop-up box informs me that Chef Patrick has responded.  Already?  I know that Disney tries to be timely in responding to guests, but this is very impressive.  I open the new message and read, “May I call you right now?”

“Oh my!  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?” I wonder.  I oblige by sending Chef Patrick more specific contact information and wait for the phone to ring.

Over the last two years, our family has received a wide variety of reactions to our diet.  But the most common reaction is one of disbelief.  In spite of the evidence that my children’s recovery provides, most people seem unable to grasp that our extreme dietary measures have been completely necessary (as if I was putting us all through these severe restrictions just for fun).  When Joel (my husband) and I first encountered these responses, they were shocking.  Then they grew to be infuriating.  At this point, they are expected, but they have never become less painful.  So – more often than I care to recall – my experience when conversing about my family’s diet has been negative.  I brace myself for what I may confront in my next phone call.

The phone rings, so I pick up.  I’m greeted by a kind voice, “Hi. This is Chef Patrick from The Hollywood Brown Derby.”  I return the greeting.  Chef Patrick explains, “I’m sorry to bother you.  I received your e-mail and have looked it over.  With all my experience in dealing with dietary issues, I’ve never seen the likes of this.  I’m calling because I want to make sure that I fully understand it.  Is it alright if I ask you some questions?”  I take a big breath and agree to answer his questions even though most of these types of conversations turn into something resembling an interrogation.

We start off discussing the kids’ medical condition and its affect on their digestive system.  I explain that most likely the reason he is unfamiliar with their prescribed diet is because most individuals on it are unable to visit restaurants.  This is why we haven’t been in a restaurant as a family in two years.  Chef Patrick exclaims, “Two years!”  But rather than with disbelief, Chef Patrick treats my research and experience with a sense of respect and admiration.  He continues to ask very specific questions about ingredients and cooking processes.  His manner is one of genuine interest, and he asks me to occasionally pause so that he can catch up on his notes.  I find myself feeling slightly at ease with Chef Patrick.  He is very likeable, and even though I am neurotic, he seems to take me seriously.

After all the questions have been answered, I express my fear that the meals could accidentally be cross-contaminated due to the nature of a restaurant’s operation.  Chef Patrick very calmly addresses me, “I want to lay all your fears to rest.  Should you decide to come to my restaurant, your meals will be treated with the utmost care.  My restaurant is the only five-star restaurant within a Disney theme park.  For this reason, we have two kitchens – one that is rarely ever used.  If I’m on duty that day, not only will your meals be pulled off the main line and prepared in an entirely separate kitchen but I will also prepare them myself.  I want your family to eat in my restaurant.  You have been through so much.  Please allow me to serve you this way.  I truly want to feed your family.”

I nearly choke as my eyes tear up, and I struggle to catch my breath.  His words ring in my ears. IWANT to feed your family?  Of all the times I’ve witnessed reactions to our story, I’ve never encountered this.  I’ve seen arrogant condescension.  I’ve seen irritated tolerance.  At best, I’ve seen sympathetic compassion.  This is the first time though I’ve seen aggressive inclusion, and I am moved in a powerful way.

It is in this moment that I know I can place the safety of my family’s health in the hands of this incredible man.  He has succeeded where so many have failed by being humble and realizing there are some things that he can still learn in life (even from a Neurotic Disney Mom).  Because he has made himself teachable, he has also made himself trustworthy.  My defenses are coming down, and I smile as I imagine my family enjoying the luxury of a restaurant together for the first time since Elle’s birth.

Chef Patrick and I end our discussion with my promise to make a reservation and his promise to remain in touch.  He says that he plans to periodically check on our progress before we arrive, and once again I’m awestruck by his desire to be so “hands-on” with us.

I feel most of my apprehension melt away.  In its stead, the familiar feeling of Disney excitement grows.  Somehow this saintly man, disguised as a chef, has broken the curse of Disneyphobia that has tortured me for too long.  Upon recognizing this, I whisper a prayer of thanks for his entrance in my life.  He is the Genie in a lamp that I’ve been waiting to find, making my Disney wishes come true.

*Contact information for Walt Disney World special dietary requests:

(407) 824-5967; WDW.Special.Diets@disney.com;  http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/special-dietary-requests/

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Posted on January 28, 2011

44 Responses to “A Dining Story – Part 2”

  • Oh my god I cannot wait for part 3 of this story. I want so very much to hear that you went to DHS and had a wonderful time, restaurant and all. Please please let that be true…

  • I’m so touched by this story. My husband and I do not have any dietary restrictions, but the very fact that Disney empowers its staff and cooks to work with those that do have restrictions in this way makes every “overpriced” bit worth it. Knowing this makes me happier about spending my money with Disney and dining there despite cheaper offsite options.

    • TsuKata, I could not agree more. The price in instances like this become a non-issue because our experience as a family was “priceless.”

  • What a wonderful story, kudos to Chef Patrick and Disney! As a Disney only travel agent, I LOVE hearing stories like this! This makes me feel so much more confident recommending Disney Dining to clients with special dietary needs.

    • Kim, this is my feeling exactly! I feel like if their chefs can handle what I put in their laps, I am rather certain they can handle everything.

  • What an amzing story and really speaks to the lengths Disney goes for their guests. My friend’s daughter has such severe allergies that the elementary school our kids go to had to even designate a bathroom that no one can use but her and every child has to have their backpack checked and hands washed before entering the classroom. But my friend says the one place they go and feel safe eating out is Disney. I look forward to hearing about your dining experience!

    • Beth, Disney really went above and beyond for my family. And while I do know that the attention we received was more than their standard treatment, I believe they would handle other situations the same way if it was warranted.

  • What a wonderful story! Its things like these that keep use coming back to WDW. Thanks for sharing it, JL!

  • This story should be shared with everyone! I’m glad that you were willing to share this amazing experience and I can’t wait to read about how the dinner turned out!

  • My family is in a similar situation where we are eating more whole foods and staying away from anything processed. I am unsure if you shared the medical conditions of your family in another post but I am interested in hearing more. My daughter has asthma and several food intolerances but because they are not true allergies it has been very hard to diagnose her. We have put her on a gluten free diet which is helping a lot but she is still on tons of medicine. I would just love to get her healthy without the need of all the drugs. As I am sure you are aware, it is extremely difficult for a young child to eat this way. She is 6 now but we have been eliminating foods since she was 3.

    • My children are heavy metal toxic (diagnosed through hair, urine, fecal, and blood tests). They were affected neurologically and had physical symptoms as well. Gluten was one of the first things that we had to remove in addition to dairy, soy, sugar, eggs, and most carbohydrates (even starchy vegetables). We were on The Specific Carbohydrate Diet for many years and had to maintain a strict rotation of specialty meats, fruits, and vegetables in order to prevent developing more allergies. It was extremely difficult, but it was worth it as they got progressively better. We drink alkaline water now and are closer to a vegetarian diet at this point. Currently, my kids only manifest neurologically in very minor ways (most people would never notice them being different from other kids), and while I still have to be mindful of their diet, they have recovered enough since the time of this story (which was actually back in 2007) that I can ignore the diet some without horrific consequences.

      I have found that changing the diet and water of my family has been one of the most significant things for improving our health. And I always find that if I “stray” in this area for a few weeks, we quickly see a decline. I strongly encourage you to “stay the course” with your daughter as I am confident she will improve with your diligence. All the while, you can trust that Disney is very capable of handling her food preparation during your time there. It was one of the main reasons we ended up buying DVC. With dietary restrictions like this, we wanted to vacation where we KNEW we could eat and be safe. We had no interest in “testing” any where else.

      • Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am at a loss as to where to go from where we currently are but I think we are going to stay the course with the gluten free diet. I think a dietician may be in our future though.

  • I can’t wait to hear about the conclusion to this awesome story! I’ve seen first hand how well Disney takes care of my own dietary requirements but I’m anxious to see how they handle such a situation as the one you’ve presented. Thank you for sharing the story so far, I’m on the edge of my seat :)

    • Kelly, I was blown away by the personal attention that Disney gave our family. It is a testament to their customer service which is tip-top.

  • JL:

    Thanks for sharing this story! One of the things that I love about Disney World is the fact that it is so accommodating to any and all who venture inside. As a repeat visitor, I often search for new things to do, but cast member interaction is a great thing to do every time. I’m glad that you had a great experience and shared that with us. Normally, the only feedback that is provided is negative, so it is refreshing to hear the positive as well.

    • Alex, I was sure to write to Disney about Chef Patrick. He does need to be recognized for his incredible service. I hope that they gave him some sort of reward because he really went out of his way to make a “magical moment” for our family. You’ll see what I mean in Part 3.

  • My children have celiac disease and I can not tell you how many times I have been brought to tears by the chefs at Disney. I interviewed one last week and helped “train” one at the Poly just yesterday. I can’t wait to read that your meal was enjoyable and empowering and I really hope there are pictures! Thank you for sharing your story.

  • What an amazing guy Chef Patrick is! It’s situations like this that make the majority of us continue to travel to DisneyWorld! I’m so looking forward to hearing the end of the story. I already teared up here and I’m sure I will at the end!

  • JL thank you so much for sharing your story! I’m sure it was difficult for you to think back on such an anxiety-prone time and share your story with others. It only reinforces how amazing Disney truly is – that they can give a worried mom a moment of peace and allow her to (hopefully!) enjoy her time with her family. I cannot wait to read the rest of the story, though I will be sure to have a tissue (or a couple of tissues!) handy.

    • Erin, I appreciate the validation. It is a bit scary for me to just put our personal matters out there like this; however, this really is a story that needs to be told. Disney and its chefs need to be commended for the way they welcome folks who are frequently treated like an irritation.

  • I loved reading your story on so many levels. One being that as a person who suffers from food allergies I understand your pain. Second being that as a mom who has spent many vacations at Disney with our seven kids this is the reason we keep going back. The personal attention to meet the needs of every guest, that is unmatched anywhere else in the world! Thanks so much for sharing your story.

    Kat

  • Oh and by the way, you will not be disappointed at the effort to dine at Brown Derby. My husband and I ate there as a special treat for our wedding anniversary and every bite was a memory in the making… not to mention the incredible service.

  • I have one child allergic to cheese, one with a nut allergy, along with eggs and bananas, and my husband can’t eat cheese or tomatoes. I’ve explained this to Disney each time weve gone and it has never been a problem. Special meal…no problem. Special preparations…no problem. I’ve notified Disney before our arrival and at each restaurant the chef has come out to speak to us and determine exactly how our meals should be prepared.

  • What a moving story. I can’t wait for the next chapter.

  • Although I have my “favorite chefs” and restaurants I frequent, sometimes what amazes me is that some chefs at restaurants I don’t frequent remember me. One of them even remembered my preferences. (in addition to my allergies I have foods which my stomach is sensitive to.)

    • Cheryl, this is just evidence of the attentiveness they give these situations. I’m sure that they are incredibly careful because their jobs could be affected by an unfortunate mistake. However, our experience has been that they genuinely seem to care as well.

  • by Dana (aka DragynAlly) on February 1, 2011, at 4:12 pm EDT

    I’m all teary eyed now! That was wonderful! So excited you found someone who respects what your family is going through. Cannot wait to hear how it turns out!

  • Hi Jl , Im your your newer bloggers. I had no sooner registered on this site than saw your amazing post. I remember you saying over the phone how much we had in common . But now thats more than ever the case .

    I also have a child with serious food allergies. So much so that we have recieved a service dog for him to protect him from skin , inhalaton , or ingested contact with any of the offenders .

    Disney was the place he had his first sit down meal and first ice cream . It sounds like a small thing but to us as a family it was priceless.

    During the time we are in the parks my child gets feels a lot more like a normal kid . The smile on his face when he gets that Mickey bar is the world to me. He is used to watching other kids eat things and do things he cant . I have never been anywhere where I was made to feel as welcome or as cared for when it came to my child. Its just one of the many reasons its such a special place to us.

    I am glad you discovered how great the chefs are. I bet your kids will be so thrilled with a real meal out. I cant wait to hear how it all went !

    • Michelle, it was an experience I will never forget, and I hope to put it down in a post in the next month. :)

      I completely understand your experience with your son, and I am so glad that you have found Disney to be a place that you can go as a family and feel “normal” for awhile. That is the way it should be.

  • hope to see aprt 3 to this story…amazing…this is why i go to the world….

  • I patiently waited all Winter for the 3rd chapter — the wrap up from the trip. Are we ever going to learn about the trip?

  • What ever happened to the conclusion of this story?!

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