More variety and better flavor serve the needs of an increasing number of diners eating gluten-free
heat gluten is the main ingredient in most foods Americans eat—so much so that the U.S. has tripled its amount of gluten consumption in the past 40 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, the Celiac Disease Foundation, Woodland Hills, California, reports that the number of people going gluten-free has tripled since 2009.
Although the No. 1 reason that people avoid gluten is because they are allergic to it, during the last decade, a gluten-free diet has enjoyed increased popularity. Americans swearing off gluten claim it helps shed pounds and boosts energy. According to an article in The New York Times, 2016 sales of gluten-free products rung up a whopping $15 billion compared with 2013’s $10.5 billion.
“Gluten-free eating is not a fad like Atkins. It’s a mainstay dining habit for people,” says Tony Gemignani, chef/owner of Tony Gemignani’s Restaurant Group & International School of Pizza, San Francisco. “Restaurants need to take this dining segment’s needs seriously.”
Preparing gluten-free foods
Steps that restaurants can take to serve gluten-free foods begins with recipe development. From a chef’s standpoint, constant manipulation of recipes during service is something to be avoided.
“The fewer audibles called during service results in better-quality food, avoids mistakes, prevents delays in delivery of orders and ensures the guest is eating a gluten-free meal,” says Charlie Foster, executive chef at Woods Hill Table, Concord, Massachusetts.
‘To complement gluten-free recipes, there should be a separate gluten-free menu or, at a minimum, gluten-free items on the regular menu labeled “GF.” The kitchen also should use different pans, utensils and gloves when preparing gluten-free orders, or have a separate cooking area.
Panzano, at Denver’s Hotel Monaco, has gluten-free menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch with a combined total of more than 50 items.
“Cooking gluten-free does not mean you’re serving flavorless or colorless meals,” says Nic Lebas, executive chef. “With a little research, a chef can create a recipe that can stand toe-to-toe with a recipe full of gluten and still be sexy.”
Server training is an essential component to ensure food safety. It should include daily meetings to review the menu and highlight gluten ingredients; dissemination of allergy menu guides that list ingredients; and a point-of-sale system that allows servers to flag orders that are gluten-free. Servers also should ask guests if they have food allergies.
“A guest needs to speak up, too, and let servers know they have a food allergy,” says Shawn Grodensky, culinary leader at gusto!, Atlanta. “It’s then the restaurant’s responsibility to prepare a safe and flavorful dish.”
Most states require people handling food to take ServSafe Allergen awareness training and be certified through the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.
There also are organizations that will audit and certify kitchens that are allergen- and gluten-free, such as Northern Colorado-based Kitchens with Confidence and Food Safety Training Solutions, Hagerstown, Maryland. Restaurants that are certified can display a gluten-free icon on menus, reassuring guests that the kitchen is gluten-free.
The evolution of gluten-free flour
Finding gluten-free flour that was pliable, had some rise to it and didn’t taste like cardboard was a treasure hunt 10 years ago. The evolution of gluten-free flours has progressed in the last five years, but it’s critical to understand the nuances in gluten-free flours and which ones give the best outcome.
“So many desserts include gluten,” says Erika Chan, pastry chef at The Publican in Chicago. “But cooking gluten-free allows chefs to experiment with different flours and cooking techniques that might better suit a dish than a gluten alternative.”
Amaranth, quinoa, millet, chickpea and gluten-free oat flours are rich in nutrients and high in protein. They add elasticity to yeast breads and pizza crusts, but for delicate cookies and layer cakes, rice flour and corn flour are more desirable.
Also, because gluten-free flours do not have the properties needed for proper absorption and hydration, it’s a challenge to achieve the right dough consistency.
Matt Fish, chef/owner of Melt Bar & Grilled, which has 10 locations in Ohio, doesn’t promote the chain as being a gluten-free operation because of the nature of the business, which was founded on grilled cheese sandwiches. Instead, he refers to the restaurants as “gluten-sensitivity friendly.”
“What this means is that we’ll go above and beyond to make sure for the guest who’s following a gluten-free lifestyle that the ingredients used to make their food is 100% free of any gluten,” Fish says. But he can’t guarantee that some gluten particles won’t fall on an order.
One-third of Melt’s menu is gluten-free, and 16 sandwiches, four salads and two soups are listed on a separate menu. Additionally, any item that has breaded chicken can be substituted with grilled chicken. “All our food is made to order, so we have complete control over what goes into our food and can make reasonable changes to meet a customer’s dietary concerns,” Fish says.
The Melt kitchen is alerted on tickets that state “gluten-free” when a gluten-free item is ordered. The person who puts the order together will change gloves and use new cutting boards, utensils, pans and pots. Additionally, an allergen guide at each location lists every item on the menu and every ingredient within each item that could have a potential allergen.
Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, has seven food outlets and 60,000 square feet of meeting space. You might think a property that large would use premade sauces, stocks, soups and dressings that often contain gluten.
“We’re an old-world operation, where we prepare recipes from scratch,” says Joe Natoli, executive chef. “This type of cooking ensures that we know every single ingredient used, and can then stand behind our promise to be gluten-free on certain menu items.”
He recently served a 700-person banquet to a group that included many gluten-free diners. The challenge with serving large groups is the risk of cross-contamination.
“When it comes to banquets, we err on the side of caution that there’ll be more food allergies than not,” Natoli says. “So we develop recipes that are gluten-free so we don’t have to make two different recipes. For example, soups and sauces are thickened with a cornstarch slurry.”
At gusto!, 90% of the menu is gluten-free.
At each of the resort’s food outlets where gluten products are used for sandwiches, gluten-free bread is on the line. When a gluten-free sandwich is ordered, it’s prepared on a dedicated cutting board with clean utensils and new gloves. The sandwich is served immediately to help reduce the possibility of cross-contamination.
At gusto!, 90% of the menu is gluten-free. A customer chooses a base of mixed greens, brown rice or half and half, and a flatbread wrap, then grilled chicken, spicy chicken, grilled shrimp or grilled portobello.
Sauce choices are chili/sesame barbecue, chipotle/mango/avocado, tahini/cucumber/feta, sweet soy/Sriracha, ginger/lime/peanut and tzatziki/lemon/artichoke. Gluten-free ingredients are identified with a “GF” icon, and the website illustrates the ingredients in each sauce. “Seeing is believing, and a picture is worth a thousand words,” Grodensky says.
Gemignani uses a Cuppone electric brick oven for gluten-free pizzas. “I still caution guests that while the pizzas are cooked in a dedicated oven, they are baked in a flour environment, so there is a chance of cross-contamination,” he says.