Imagine this... you are away on a lovely holiday in a balmy Queensland resort town when you stumble across a restaurant that has a menu out the front and to your amazement it is prefaced with a notice mentioning coeliac disease. The notice goes something like this “If you have a food allergy or Coeliac Disease please inform our staff and we will be happy to assist you”. You would of course do a double take, check out the menu (which is very good) and make a note to self to visit said restaurant very soon.
You jump on the phone to make a booking for the restaurant, and before you can spit out the dietary requirements speech, they actually ask if you have any dietary requirements; a minor miracle. With a wry smile, you put down the phone and are even more impressed with the restaurant's apparent care for those with food intolerances. Heightened expectations!
Jump forward to the evening at the restaurant. You just make the entrance when the tropical rain slashes at your heals; you ask yourself, is it an omen? The evening begins well, with the waitress competent at helping you with the menu. But then, she asks, can you tolerate a little bit of soy sauce? Um, what? Uh oh, is this where it all falls apart? From here things being to deteriorate, your partner is now upset with the lack of knowledge for a restaurant that used the word ‘coeliac’ on their menu board. Your main comes with duck fat crackling and at one glance you know that it is deep fried. After educating the waitress (something you weren't expecting to have to do at all), the main comes back and appears to have been prepared again (different bowl, slightly different positioning) but now you feel like a pain in the arse and can’t be sure that they didn’t just take the crackling off and re-plate it. It is absolutely pouring outside now, the roof will probably cave in...
Who is making sure your order translates to the plate?
Bad experiences aside this really does beg the question… with whom does the responsibility lie to ensure dietary requirements of patrons at a restaurant are met? As we have shared in the past there are communication breakdowns between wait staff and the kitchen but for the purpose of the above scenario let’s assume the head chef had some level of understanding that there was a gluten free requirement for the table (he/she had been questioned on suitable dishes so this is not an unreasonable assumption). It most certainly comes down to the head chef to educate the wait staff on how these requirements are communicated and also to ensure the wait staff know the menu and to a certain level the components of the dishes to assist patrons with making good dietary choices. The chef is the only person who knows the breakdown of exactly what goes into each dish and where it is cooked or when it might come into contact with something that could cross-contaminate a gluten free meal. To really do gluten free well it is imperative for the chef to train and educate the front of house staff to work in a way which is simple and easy to interpret, especially when it comes to modifying meals to meet allergy requirements.
The list of dietary requirements is endless and growing. It starts with the really serious nut and seafood allergies, all the way through to a personal choice (or religious requirement) to be vegetarian or vegan. Coeliac disease doesn’t invoke the same level of reaction as anaphylactic shock but it is a serious condition. It seems, unfortunately, that due to a lack of education in the industry and the stigma attached to being gluten free (as a dietary choice and not to treat a disease) we continue to be overlooked.
Will people on a gluten free diet always feel so alone?
This got the cogs turning, vegetarians are well looked after and their dietary requirements are, for the majority, a personal or religious choice not a medical treatment. Why are those requesting gluten free food being treated any differently? If someone with diabetes requested a dish to be served without the sauce because it had sugar in it, surely that request would get through to the kitchen and be granted. Hell, a request for dressing on the side is addressed appropriately 99% of the time. Why is gluten free so much harder? Here are a few thoughts…
- It is a relatively new disease, especially when hoping for a level of common awareness (although Italy have it).
- It is more far reaching than bread and pasta and this makes it much more complex than say, vegetarianism (even when you consider stocks and gelatines in the mix).
- The fad connotation of ‘gluten free’ makes people think you are likely just following the celebrity trend. No people this is a disease - ‘I can’t eat gluten - would you feed a person who is severely allergic to seafood fish sauce?’, ‘No? Well on what level is it okay to serve me a little bit of soy sauce?’.
If a kitchen can manage to prepare vegetarian food properly then they should be able to step it up to gluten free. For example the reason McDonald’s and Hungry Jack’s fries and hash browns are gluten free is because they can’t be deep fried with the crumbed meat, which is good for us because we can’t have the crumbs and obviously vegetarians can’t have the meat! We aren’t going to die from cross-contamination but we certainly will feel the aftershocks and too many of these bad experiences put us off eating out which is neither good for the economy nor our social lives.
Oh and one final grumble if you don't truly understand coeliac disease don't put on your menu board that you cater to it. Expectations get too high and people just get disappointed, tarnishing a night of what was actually very good food.
If you have had a bad experience please share it. Lets get this disease out in the open and make all food service employees aware of how serious it is!