In an informative lecture, part of the Addressing Allergies in Food Service event organized by the Allergy & Asthma Network at the World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama, Michael Pistiner, MD, insisted that restaurants need to stop diagnosing customers who disclose a food allergy or intolerance. Not only should staff not ask patrons such as gluten-free diners if they are avoiding allergens by choice or out of medical necessity, but also they should not inquire as to the severity of an allergy. Simply serve a meal free of the stipulated allergen(s) and assume that strict avoidance is required.
Such music to my ears. It is annoying to get asked why I am avoiding gluten (or any other ingredient), and it makes me think two things: 1. The staff doesn’t believe me, and 2. The kitchen has two different ways of preparing a gluten-free meal, depending on the reason for the request. It also puts me on the defensive, a horrible start to a dining experience.
One set of rules
Regardless of the reason behind it, a gluten-free meal request should alert the kitchen to follow a set of safe-handling procedures to prevent cross-contamination with wheat, rye, barley and oats. No second set of instructions should even exist. Yes, some people choose to eat gluten free, but there is no need to treat their orders differently. Why add confusion to the mix when it can only lead to mistakes by the kitchen staff?
Implementing a GF menu
For restaurants undertaking the process of creating a menu for gluten-free diners, make sure it is accurate. As a consumer and consultant, I know the work it takes to create a gluten-free menu, and I applaud all restaurants going that extra mile to make dining out a relaxing and safe experience. Just please do it right.
Label reading is key, along with understanding the labeling law and its limitations. Only wheat is included in the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act—not barley, rye or oats. Barley and rye can hide in malt, dextrin, flavors and seasoning, and only certified gluten-free oats are acceptable.
Some rookie mistakes made on gluten-free menus stem from incorrectly thinking that gluten is a type of bacterium, not a sticky protein that can burn off at high heat. Fryers and utensils need to be dedicated and pizza cannot come into direct contact with a pizza stone—plus, a dedicated cutter needs to be used. When baking in a shared oven, gluten-free food needs to go on the top rack to prevent anything from falling onto it.
So, if you don’t have a dedicated fryer, then all fried foods are off limits. Gluten-free pasta must be cooked in fresh water (not shared) using a clean strainer and utensils. Cook pizzas on a small baking rack on top of a pizza stone. And use dedicated ingredients to prevent crumbs transferring from gloved hands.
Setting up for success
Gluten-free diners, too, bear a responsibility when eating out. Visiting a restaurant for the first time at 7 p.m. on a Friday isn’t ideal because it will be busy; dealing with special requests may be difficult. Call in advance and respect the restaurant’s limitations. Support those restaurants doing it right, and offer guidance to those who aren’t there yet.
Dining out should be a fun and enjoyable experience—working together, we can ensure a success.
News Editor Jennifer Harris is a gluten-free consultant and blogs at gfgotoguide.com.