San Francisco’s Great Gold Attracts a Following with House Made, Gluten-Free Pasta

An Italian restaurant that makes fresh pasta is a common sight in many cities these days. But when chef-owner Brandon Kirksey set out to build Great Gold, a modern American Italian restaurant in San Francisco, he prioritized getting fresh, house made gluten-free pasta on the menu. “There is extreme demand for gluten-free,” Kirksey says. “People still want to eat pasta.”

As everything is handcrafted daily in-house, the chef refused to use pre-packaged gluten-free pasta. He purchased a pasta extruder, a kitchen appliance that mixes raw ingredients and, with a flip of a switch, presses the dough through a die-cut brass plate. Add the casarecce plate and short, curled noodles emerge. Add the spaghetti plate and long strands materialize, springing forth from the machine in shape and appearance that is nearly identical to wheat-based pasta noodles.

The recipe is no secret. Kirksey works with Cup4Cup, a flour blend developed in the kitchen of Napa’s French Laundry restaurant to precisely replicate the taste experience of wheat flour. “I like it as it really mimics regular wheat flour,” Kirksey confirms. Though there is xanthan gum as a binder in Cup4Cup, Kirksey adds even more, amping up the binding quality. Eggs, salt, and water are the only other ingredients.  

Like any recipe, Kirksey’s dough recipe is a template, a guideline for working with the unique requirements of that day: gluten-free flours, the size of the eggs in-hand, the humidity in the air that day, the temperature of the water. After a thorough cleaning of the extruder (Great Gold does not have an extruder dedicated to gluten-free pasta making, alternating production with wheat flour pasta), Kirksey first adds the dry ingredients, then the wet, occasionally testing the dough for a just-right dampness, adding a bit more water during the mix.

Unlike wheat flour dough, gluten-free dough in the extruder needs to be drier, more like pebbles, before pressing. The force of the extruder compresses it enough so that a small amount of liquid binds the dough. In his many tests, Kirksey tried damper versions, learning quickly that a wet dough not only won’t fall into the channel that leads to the die-cut plate, the dough comes out too wet and falls apart when cooked.

Once Kirksey found a recipe that worked for shorter shapes like rigatoni and orecchiette, he set out to make strands.  “The elasticity of a longer noodle is an issue,” he noted; The noodle turned brittle when lengthened into strands. Fresh wheat flour pasta is often twisted for compact storage–not an option for gluten-free. It breaks. So Kirksey and his team learned to hold the spaghetti as it emerges from the extruder, lifting it out straight and flat before placing it on a perforated tray to air-dry for a few hours before use. Chef suggests using it within a few hours but no more than two days out. “The longer it sits, the more dried out it gets,” he says.

The Great Gold kitchen serves dozens of plates of gluten-free pasta each night. As with wheaten pasta, these noodles need just a minute or two in their boiled water bath before they are sauced. Kirksey plans a sauce based on that day’s noodle shape. In Italy, the noodle a blank canvas for the sauce, its shape designed to hold on tight to the sauce. “Spaghettis are usually slippery when they come out of the water. They are paired with a thick sauce because those stick to the noodle. Thin sauce calls for a pasta in a cup shape so sauce hangs in there,” chef says. Rigatoni’s hollow interior and ridged exterior “grabs” the sauce.

Kirksey works each day to match the pasta shape with its sauce ideal, cooking sauces down to achieve a similar binding consistency on gluten-free noodles as on their glutenfull bretheren. It is a detail that is helping the chef gain notice in the passionate gluten-free community and the equally passionate pasta-eating community. These pastas, precisely paired with sauce, are a complete expression of pasta.


Bringing Gluten Free to Senior Communities

No matter how old you are when you are given a diagnosis of celiac disease or gluten intolerance, living gluten free has its challenges. But as awareness around the problems associated with ingesting gluten, even in tiny amounts, has grown, more restaurants and food service operators are heeding the call to provide gluten-free options to their clients. That includes senior living facilities.

As interest in a gluten-free lifestyle grows, senior lifestyle communities are investing in the tools necessary to service this community. But what does it take to provide gluten-free meals to communities of seniors?

Caring and Knowledgeable Staff is Essential

“To make a gluten-free program successful, you have to care,” said Kate Hays, Director of Dining Services at Wake Robin, a life plan community in Shelburne, Vermont.  Hays credits her immediate predecessor with building the infrastructure to serve quality food and relies on long-term relationships with purveyors and smart people in the kitchen to execute a successful GF program. “Working with great people is half the battle,” Hays said.

Wake Robin, which cooks all meals from scratch and has an in-house pastry chef to craft exceptional gluten-free desserts, considers food an essential component in building a successful community. “Unlike a restaurant, where people come in and eat once in a while, we are feeding people for years and years,” said Hays. “Food is comfort and no matter their relationship with that, I want them to feel nourished and comfortable sitting with others at their tables.”

Even a tiny amount of gluten— less than can sit on the end of your pinkie— can exacerbate a celiac sprue sufferer’s system, hanging around causing problems for a long time. Ingredients must always be checked by kitchen staff to ensure their formulations do not suddenly include gluten. Awareness around other “hidden” sources of gluten must be explained to prevent them from coming into the community’s kitchen.

“There is a misunderstanding about celiac disease, as often people don’t exhibit any symptoms,” said Alison Precourt, a clinical dietitian at the University of Vermont Medical Center and Wake Robin consultant, “But gluten is in everything. It takes some investigating and can be very challenging.”

Leon Grundstein, CEO and Founder of GenCare Lifestyle senior living communities in and around Seattle, first made the transition to organic food  before committing to a full gluten-free menu with certification from the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG). 

“Since we were re-doing all our menus and recipes, it was a good time to add the gluten-free option,” Grundstein said. “GIG gave us a format to develop our menus, to decide what items are gluten-free, how to store the food separately, how to mark it in dry and cold storage and how to prepare it. We had to learn production from scratch.”

Grundstein said sustaining the program is difficult because of high staff turnover in the culinary department. Not only is it a challenge to educate new staff, but Grundstein retains two people on the culinary team to travel between the GenCare communities and monitor the storage and prep of food to ensure compliance. “We also make sure the culinary director updates the training for the new people,” he said. “We refer to it as ‘repeat the beat.’ You can’t just throw it out there and assume everyone is going to do it.” 

To that end, the staff at GenCare Lifestyle maintain a working relationship with GIG who return to test staff each year. “It’s not ‘send a hundred bucks and you are certified,’” Grundstein said,  “We have to have our staff pass the test every year.” When one of Grundstein’s buildings did not pass GIG’s test, his eyes were truly opened. “I realized that this is serious. It reinforced that this is not a game and we need to perform,” he said. “We need to make sure staff education about gluten-free living is part of the culture. I’m all for the GIG test because it forces us to stay on our game.”

Know Your Audience

“The really interesting thing is someone who says they are allergic to an ingredient but the nursing staff says it’s ok for them to eat that ingredient,” Hays said. “Sometimes I don’t know if it is a loss of cognitive function or the person simply decided the ingredient is no longer important to them.”

Grundstein encourages his staff to balance client requests with an awareness that you cannot please all the people all the time. He did a little test to check on the success of the gluten-free program with diners who are choosing gluten-free as a lifestyle. “We put out some gluten-free muffins in the bistros and we labeled them gluten-free. Some residents tasted them and immediately declared them terrible. So we did an experiment. We put out some gluten-free muffins but didn’t label them. The same ones who complained the first time said ‘hey these are great.’ We have to shift the mindset that gluten-free is terrible. It speaks to the progress of gluten-free food now. It has progressed a lot.”

Health Concerns are As Important as Taste

Precourt notes changes in geriatric patients that may shift their perception of what they are eating. “I see a lot of chewing and swallowing problems as mucus changes when you get older,” Precourt said. Some of her patients experience delirium or confusion which impacts what they are eating and drinking.

Chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, are negatively impacted by sodium, yet “residents will automatically reach for the salt shaker as the population here may not have the same ability to taste something as they once did,” Precourt said. As a result, chefs often try to under salt when cooking for seniors. Instead of putting salt on the table, Precourt suggests looking for spices that help boost the flavor of a dish. “Fresh herbs or garlic powder or onion powder, or even put in an acidic-like vinegar, or hot spices like cayenne or paprika can give another flavor without adding sodium,” she said.  

Make the Kitchen an Ally for All Residents

Hays works with kitchen staff to provide a kitchen environment without cross-contamination.  Never wanting to single someone out for not being able to eat gluten, she seeks alternatives wherever she can, swapping rice flour for wheat flour, for example, to make a breaded item safe for all eaters.

Precourt counsels offering a variety of gluten-free options at every meal. “You can offer rice or potato as a side dish, and keep gluten-free pastas, cereals, and pre-made breads on hand,” she said. “Some people are brand loyal so we offer the resident to purchase and then keep it on hand for them.”

Similarly, the kitchen must be a safe cooking space, ensuring no cross-contamination exists. “If you let in even a tiny bit of gluten, the kitchen can’t be called gluten free,” Hays said. Wake Robin keeps a wrapped set of a purple cutting board, purple knife and purple tongs for each neighborhood’s kitchen gluten-free preparations.

Precourt counsels patients to let her alert the kitchen where they live. It can be a struggle, however, to make it fair to the staff when some need to adhere to a strict gluten-free regimen while other residents may simply be testing out a gluten-free lifestyle. “It can be a fine line between true allergy and a resident’s way of eating at the moment,” Precourt said.

Communicate with the Community

Label every dish with ingredient information, Hays suggested. “Our community will show up early to each meal and want to know exactly what they are going to eat.” In Hays’ kitchen, the menus are marked to identify gluten, dairy, garlic and nuts and will also call out the heart-healthy option. Sodium is a hot button ingredient for the community, as medical needs may dictate how much sodium can be included in a live-in community but not the adjacent independent living community.

Boost Nutrition

While gluten-free foods are often used to replace their gluten-containing equivalents, eating gluten-free can be healthier than a diet that includes foods with gluten. “Add in ancient grains like amaranth and quinoa that are nutrient dense,” said Precourt.  Legumes and beans are other great sources of fiber.  

Trends Play a Part

Hays noted that, though there are a small number of residents who must eat gluten free, many choose to eat gluten free as a lifestyle choice. “It is a dietary choice instead of a necessity. Eating gluten-free has caught on here, as it did in my previous role,” Hays said.

Great food is Appreciated at all Stages of Life

“People really open up around food,” said Hays, who noted how simple it can be to make someone feel well-taken care of with a freshly prepared gluten-free meal. “We do it because we want everyone to be happy. It is the right thing to do and we try to elevate the experience whenever possible” 

To make a gluten-free program successful, “you have to care,” said Hays. Medical necessity or not, it is the staff’s job to make sure the residents are safe. “Sometimes I just need to slow down and make it right. It’s an investment in making someone happy. It is an easy thing – check the list and make it happen.”

Grunstein said that “Maybe 2 to 3 percent of our population uses the gluten-free program exclusively. But it is a big marketing tool for anyone looking for a place as food is a big component in a healthy lifestyle.” 

Tawla Brings Eastern Mediterranean Cuisine to San Francisco

Have you only experienced eastern Mediterranean food through the narrow lens of packaged items found at the supermarket? If so, the time has come to step outside the package and experience the bleeding edge of a food revolution. Mediterranean has expanded to include regional flavors and variations on some now-familiar fare from countries on the far eastern side of that vast sea.

Much more than hummus

As a country, the United States learned decades ago to embrace hummus. The popular dish celebrates the food of a region that spans from Turkey and Greece in the west to Syria and Iran in the east. We have come to love feta, a cheese long associated with Greece but which has expressions around the region. While we have welcomed the foods of the Mediterranean, we are slowly coming to understand the foods specific to the eastern Mediterranean region.

Known as the Levant, the eastern Mediterranean includes a fractured map of nations including Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. We, as Americans, tend to think of the region mostly for what we hear about the area’s politics. But scrap the boundaries formed by western governments of old and look deeper. Look at the food traditions, the shared heritage, the varied styles of feta or how the region’s chefs season their hummus. Into this wide space, chefs are starting to bridge the gap between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. Israeli restaurants, long open in New York, are now popping up across the country. Kebabaries, fast-casual restaurants that focuses on the grilled meats of the region, feature the country’s new favorite barbecue. And new flavors are emerging—flavors of the home cooks who hail from Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria.

Cooking from the heart

Azhar Hashem, owner of Tawla restaurant in San Francisco, is one of those home cooks. Hashem’s background is Palestininan but she grew up in Jordan. Along with Chef Joseph Magidow, who helms the kitchen at Tawla, Hashem brings her family’s recipes to her restaurant. Street foods of the region—hummus, kebabs and tabbouleh—are familiar to many, but the food at Tawla “is the other 90 percent of the cuisine,” said Hashem. Upon coming to the United States as a teenager, Hashem quickly realized that the Middle East is not well understood in the U.S. “What if I could set up a positively jarring lens that allows people to re-examine the region from a more human point of view?” she wondered. “Food that transcends politics?”

The dishes at Tawla are prepared just as they were by her mother in the kitchen of Hashem’s childhood home. In the kitchen, around the family table, borders are irrelevant. Whether gluten free or not (Tawla serves both), breaking bread, a phrase that dates to biblical times, is an important component in culture, an opportunity to share ideas, discuss disagreements, and find, once again, commonality across differences. And bread, as an important part of the regional cuisine, is also a part of the cuisine at Tawla. The menu is not entirely gluten free and includes traditional breads, both gluten free and gluten-full, just as are available in the region. Puffy pita makes regular appearances. You’ll also find borek, or flaky pastry stuffed with cheese, here. Hashem also worked to develop a gluten-free chickpea cracker in a style native to the region. “We try to make sure the food is true to place and ingredient,” said Hashem.

Tradition with a twist

Before opening Tawla in 2016, Hashem and Magidow went through a sort of cooking gymnastics, searching for foods that “are similar throughout the region but shake it up a little.” Two iconic dishes of the region made it onto the menu. Mansal, a lamb dish cooked in yogurt that, according to Hashem, “is fermented and preserved by Bedouin to withstand harsh environments and difficult conditions,” is served over  rice embellished with almonds and pine nuts. “It is very Jordanian,” said Hashem. Mousakhan, the national dish of Palestine, is chicken that spends some time with allspice before it is cooked in a sauce of sumac and pine nuts “to make a crimson crust,” Hashem says.

Tawla’s Muhallabiya

Both chef and owner like to keep things interesting while staying true to the region’s flavors. They look for dishes that are similar throughout the region but express themselves differently from port to port. Moussaka, a dish of eggplant and ground beef with a béchamel sauce in Greece, is a variation that might appear on the menu in cooler months, when a heavier sauce feels right. The Levantine version, with just tomatoes and eggplant, “is good for summer when tomatoes are peaking,” says Hashem. Every dish has a proper name, but variations are as abundant as the number of languages spoken in the area.

No bread needed

As most of the region faces Mediterranean waters, fish is an important component on Tawla’s menu. Molokhia, a dish named for the green mallow leaves (also known as jute leaves) that add subtle spiciness, traditionally contains chicken or red meat. Magidow’s version with shrimp expresses an Egyptian character. “Around Alexandria, this is the local version of molokhia,” explains Hashem.

Tawla’s muhammara

Hashem’s family recipe for muhammara, the traditional puree of toasted walnuts, red bell pepper and pomegranate molasses, is entirely gluten free. Experiencing this dish for the first time at Tawla, the freshness of flavor and complete lack of bread crumbs shocked me. Not only does the dish need no bread, but its addition does not honor the home cooking style of Hashem’s restaurant: “We don’t add crumbs to the muhammara because you don’t need it; bread does not need to be a bulking agent in this dish.” Taramosalata, a Greek-style dip made with fish roe, similarly does not call for bread. As always, variations abound.

Delightful dining

At Tawla, the produce-forward, seaward-facing menu is a fresh approach to the flavors of the Middle East. The restaurant does not serve hummus. However, it does offer a chickpea saffron fritter with Meyer lemon and a cured duck egg. There is no sign of kebabs, but chicharrónes with baharat make a fine substitute. A fish and a vegetarian entrée are always available. Though Hashem wishes to shift the perception of the region as meat-centric, there is lamb as well as the less-expected buffalo steak.  The menu is wide and welcoming, and gluten need not play a part of a large and satisfying meal.

Tawla’s samakeh harrah

Dining at Tawla is delightful, an opportunity to deepen your knowledge of the foods native to this expansive region. Culinary history runs deep here. The chance to experience a single dish in its many regional iterations is a unique thrill. Eating at Tawla presents a chance to experience fresh flavors of the eastern Mediterranean just emerging onto America’s consciousness. Can mainstream mujadara be more than a decade away?

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