Restaurants. Again.

Gluten-Freen Hungarian Beef with Paprika

I read articles about how others handle their gluten-free lives with great interest, though, in all honesty, most of those articles have common themes. However, every now and then, a point jumps out at me, or a sentence helps coalesce my thinking about a particular issue.

A recent article got me thinking a lot about communicating our gluten free-ness with others. The author of the article made it clear she considers her gluten issue an allergy, and that lead me to think a lot about how restaurant staff look at an order of “gluten free”.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve been asked if my reason for ordering gluten free is due to an allergy or preference. I live in Los Angeles, ground zero for fad diets, and the question makes perfect sense to me. And how I answer that question communicates the level of seriousness the restaurant must take in preparing my meal.

Here’s why I don’t mind the question (though I do sometimes grit my teeth and silently say, “It’s not an allergy; it’s an autoimmune disease.”). In the restaurant world, food allergies are taken seriously. In the restaurant world, an “intolerance” is a vague term. In the restaurant world, “celiac” is often something that requires a good amount of explanation. Allergy conveys seriousness without requiring a dissertation on the subjection.

For me, calling what I have an allergy is simply a convenient shorthand. It’s a clear, easily understandable word that lets everyone in the food chain know this is a serious issue. Everyone is on the same page, and I think that’s important.

In order to prepare a gluten-free meal to the best of their ability, chefs and others in the kitchen must engage in practices that require them to change procedures. Different pans, different plates, different utensils, different recipes.

Those changes can cost time and money, particularly when the kitchen is slammed with orders (which is why I don’t mind paying a bit more, a reasonable bit, for my meal). Working an efficient line is highly cost-effective. Changing up the entire process is hard. But they do this when people have food allergies because, well, it’s really not good for business when the customer gets sick.

But it’s frustrating when the person who orders gluten-free meals drinks gluten-filled beers and munches on the house bread. While the staff in the kitchen are turning cartwheels to provide the safest possible food — knowing that most restaurant kitchens are not gluten-free zones — the customer is making it clear their efforts are not worth the effort.

Talk about wasting everyone’s time! And talk about making it even harder for those of us who must be gluten free. Restaurant staff get a lot of mixed signals from people who are “gluten free-light”, and it impacts the rest of us. So, yes, I’m fine with the word allergy (see next week’s article for more on this word.)

I get that many people eat gluten free for reasons other than celiac, gluten intolerance, or allergies. Just feeling better is a fine enough answer for me. But, for the sake of all us who must eat gluten free, please don’t be cavalier about your choice, if only because it’s hard enough to eat out in restaurants when you’re gluten free. It’s important that everyone in the food chain understand this is a serious issue, and take ever precaution they can to serve safe food.

(Not to mention that when restaurants know they’re serving a gluten-free clientele, they will start to consider ways to make their menu safer!)

Diet fads come and go, but when you switch from gluten free to all-out gluten consumer, I’ll still be avoiding the bread, the pasta, soy sauce-based dishes. I’ll be munching on boring salads. And I’ll be wondering why restaurants aren’t making more progress in creating a safer space for all of us!

And, yes, I will be declaring my autoimmune disease as an allergy. For everyone’s sake.

Tip of the Week

I was recently in Hawaii and noted a restaurant had labelled several items as gluten free. Cool! Until I read the product description. Wontons and soy sauce were ingredients. When I questioned my server, it took a few minutes to discover the only part of the dish that was actually gluten free was the fish, or one single component of the entire appetizer. Even when the menu says “gluten free”, you still need to make sure that means “gluten free as prepared, not gluten free if you modify it like crazy!”

Gluten-Free Meal of the Week

I’m recovering from what I am beginning to think is an endless cold. While my ability to grasp complex flavors is compromised at the moment, my body is telling me we must ingest lots of flavorful, solid soups and stews. I am so on board with that!

(Actually, I’m on board with that idea all the time, so there’s that.)

At first, I thought I wanted a simple beef stew. Then a more interesting chili. Finally, though, it became clear what I really needed was a good beef goulash (or paprikash or whatever). I’m part Hungarian, and clearly genetics asserted themselves. The beef, the onions, the paprika…yeah, and I admit I pulled out my gluten-free pasta and tossed it with a bit of butter.

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One thought on “Restaurants. Again.”

  1. Kassia,
    I find myself very disillusioned with the status of how restaurants in the U.S. handle their GF clientele. I find it difficult going out to eat and when I do find a restaurant with a so-called GF menu it is usually limited to items I usually am not interested in eating. I agree with you that people who tell the staff they are GF should truly eat GF and not order say a beer from the tap because they really are only slightly gluten intolerant or even worse they think being GF is going to make them lose weight or feel like they did 20 years ago. Before anyone dings me about restaurants they have dined at I have indeed come across a few (small number) that went out of their way to make my dining experience delightful.

    Now let me tell you about a trip my wife and I took to the U.K. (England, Scotland, and Wales) back in March of this year. We were there for just under 3 weeks and I did not enter a restaurant that did not have staff knowledgeable about the GF diet and what it meant to be Celiac. Most, if not all had many GF selections including bread with dinner, something I have yet to find in the U.S. The hotels we stayed in almost all had GF biscuits, toast, and other items available for breakfast – something I have yet to find at home, except for a GF dedicated restaurant I managed to find nearby (prices all very high though).

    We have a long way to go to catch up to what I experienced on vacation. This February we are traveling to Sicily and I cannot wait to see how GF prepared they are. I am told it is similar to the U.K.

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