I know a chef: a really smart chef with a background in pastry who used to scoff and mutter under his breath whenever he faced guests who insisted upon being served gluten-free meals. And then his daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease. Now, as you can imagine, his tune has changed quite a bit. In fact, he’s been experimenting with gluten-free breads and claims to have come up with quite a few tasty wheat-free alternatives. In a relatively short amount of time, he transitioned from balker to believer and is now a true champion of the gluten-free revolution. And he is certainly not alone. With rising diagnoses of celiac, gluten sensitivity, allergies, and let us not forget the growing popularity of the paleo/ cross-fit lifestyle, it seems that gluten-free is the wave of the future.
I am certainly no expert, have no degree in nutrition, and am not myself gluten-averse. (I just took a break to clean the baguette crumbs out of my keyboard) As a baker, however, I am required to know a thing or two about gluten, so here is the quick and dirty: Gluten is a protein found in foods containing wheat, barley and rye. It gives dough elasticity and lends structure, chew, and texture to breads and baked goods. Over the past few years, gluten has gotten a bit of a bad rap. One popular theory is that the hybridization and genetic modification of wheat have actually altered its makeup, causing allergies and sensitivity, and possibly even increasing the occurrence of celiac. Those who don’t suffer from allergies or intolerances but choose to do without, simply feel that eliminating gluten is healthy (and will get them into that coveted pair of skinny jeans more quickly). Whatever the reason, gluten-free eating has become such a popular way of life that restaurants are taking notice and acting accordingly.
Creating gluten-free breads is a bit of a sticky wicket, in that oftentimes odd-sounding chemicals are required in order to make the dough behave in a way that is even remotely-bread-like. That makes production expensive, frustrating, and often more like a science experiment than a day in the bakery. Most restaurants that decide to include gluten free baked goods end up outsourcing them, which is expensive, but far less frustrating than creating them from scratch. Others have taken a more conservative route by simply educating their cooks about how to prepare items that are already on the menu in a way that guarantees their gluten-free guests a safe and satisfying dining experience.
You might find that your menu already includes a gluten-free option or two. If this is the case, it’s never a bad idea to highlight those items and market them as such. If you are looking to expand your menu in a more gluten-free friendly direction without the headache of making or buying specialty bakery items, consider experimenting with different starches and wheat-free grains. Keep in mind that guests with celiac disease are so sensitive, even to trace amounts of gluten, that they will become incredibly sick if they are accidentally exposed. Therefore, if you decide to market menu items as gluten-free, you must be vigilant about avoiding cross contamination.
When I was a cocky, young line cook, I used to roll my eyes and groan whenever I pulled a ticket off the printer with any sort of specific dietary request. I assumed that Henry from table 9 was just high-maintenance: not that he had a life-threatening condition that required him to forego the croutons on his Caesar salad. I frequently see this sort of attitude amongst cooks, like me, who are lucky enough to have never suffered from food allergies or life-altering illnesses. Remind your chefs that these requests, no matter how annoying they might seem, must be taken seriously. It’s not up to us to judge a guest’s intentions but to provide them with a wholesome and satisfying dining experience. I guarantee that if you go out of your way to make a special plate for someone who truly needs it, you will not only win their loyalty for life, but that of their friends and family.
While gluten-free products probably won’t completely replace traditional breads and baked goods, they are currently giving them a run for their money. As chefs, restaurant owners, and managers, we have to keep abreast of fads and dietary trends as they arise. It would be ridiculous to modify the menu every time Dr. Oz recommends a new diet book, since so many trends fade just as quickly as they appear. However, when something seems to be sticking around and increasing in demand, like gluten-free items today, it never hurts to make a few changes. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Has your menu changed with the increase in requests for gluten-free items? Have you found ways to provide your gluten-free guests with healthful, satisfying menu options? Please feel free to leave a comment below.