Do you know what gluten free precaution to look for when you dine out in a restaurant? I thought I did, until I decided to call around and ask how much the restaurants knew. Some were great, others were downright scary!
Dining Safely Gluten Free to Avoid Cross-Contamination
I have been both stunned and amazed at what restaurants say they know about gluten cross-contamination.
Please don't get me wrong, there are many restaurants out there that understand how important it is to prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen. I love talking to those restaurants. They make me feel like we are speaking the same language. Other ones just scare me.
Since starting my blog last month, I have been calling and talking to a lot of restaurants. Well over a hundred in the past two weeks. I call, talk to a manager or staff person if the manager is not available, and ask about their safe gluten handling procedures in the kitchen.
I have compiled a list of "the top ten scary things restaurants have told me" list for you so you can get a better idea what to expect when you eat out. I also hope this arms you with some questions to ask your server to ensure your gluten free order is handled safely.
Drum roll please......I will start with the #10 most scary thing and work my way to the worst, #1.
10. "How long are you going to be on this gluten free diet?"
Wow, where do I start? How about for the rest of my life?? As much as I am thankful for the gluten free diet "fad" for helping get companies to put out more gluten free products, it set back those who really need to eat gluten free for medical reasons. Restaurants don't know how to differentiate between gluten free for diet vs gluten free for medical reasons. Many have asked, are you really allergic? Or even better, #9.
9. "Are you really allergic, or are you just trying to lose weight?"
I kid you not. Someone asked me that over the phone. When I replied, "Yes, I really am allergic," the staff person told me I should tell my wait person when I come in that I have a real allergy so they can take precautions. Really? So, if I interpret that correctly, this restaurant only takes safe gluten handling practices seriously when you tell them you have a real gluten allergy. What if a gluten free diner in this restaurant doesn't know to specify?
8. "Our kitchen is too small to use separate pans and utensils."
This is a common problem for restaurants in the Bay Area. I am not sure I fully understand why a restaurant would make an effort to accommodate gluten free diners if they can't do it safely. I am trying to visualize a cook line. It would surprise me if a cook didn't switch pans and utensils as they cook each order. No restaurant would use a pan to make chicken marsala, then use the same pan to make a scampi order, so I don't understand why it is hard to switch to sterilized pans and utensils for gluten free orders. You have to switch to clean pans after each order anyways.
7. "Flour is in the air, so nothing on our gluten free menu is really gluten free."
I understand this completely. Flour can stay in the air for up to 24 hours. Unless you make the gluten free items in a separate area, it is impossible to keep things perfect. I also appreciate the restaurant's honesty in telling me this. My main question is why have a separate gluten free menu? Wouldn't it be a better strategy to state that you can modify menu items, and have the server explain potential cross-contamination to diners? This dialog could be a valuable tool to help the diner understand the risks and make an educated choice.
6. Restaurant: "Our restaurant makes gluten free pizzas in a separate area in our kitchen, away from our regular pizzas. We have separate pans, cutters, and paddles for gluten free pizzas."
Me: "Wow, it sounds like you really know what you are doing to keep gluten free customers safe. Do your chefs change their gloves before they start to make a gluten free pizza?"
Restaurant: "Oh, I never thought of that. I should let my District Manager know."
Well, kudos to the manager who saw value in my question. I hope this information about changing gloves makes it to all of the pizza restaurants in this chain.
5. "I had a friend eat it and they seemed okay."
Seemed okay? What does okay look like? Many reactions happen internally hours, or even days after ingesting gluten.
4. Restaurant: "We prep and cook our gluten free pizzas on a separate sterilized mesh."
Me: "So you put the gluten free pizza dough on a sterilized mesh, and then you take that gluten free pizza on the mesh, and put it down on the same counter where you put the meshes that had wheat pizzas on? Can't wheat flour go up through the holes in the mesh?"
Restaurant: "That is why we don't guarantee our gluten free pizzas are gluten free."
Am I the only one who thinks this is strange? Why have gluten free pizza if you are just going to contaminate it? It seems like a wasted effort on the restaurant's part. Maybe they should put a sign in their menu next to their gluten free pizza listing and refer to #9 above. It could say only eat our gluten free pizza if you are on the gluten free diet as a fad diet.
3. "You should be safe. It is made out of wheat, not gluten."
I will never eat at this place. They have not taken the time to even educate their staff.
And now the top two scary things restaurants have said to me:
2. Restaurant: "We pre-cook gluten free pasta in freshwater. When someone orders a gluten free pasta dish, we warm the pasta back up in the boiling water on the stove."
Me: "Is this boiling water on the stove fresh or designated only for gluten free pasta?"
Restaurant: "No, it is the same water we use for all pasta."
Me: "You do realize you contaminate the gluten free pasta when you warm it up in the same water you warm up wheat pasta, right?"
Restaurant: "Wow, come to think of it, you are right."
Me: "You really need to change that policy. You could really make someone really sick."
I was speechless after this conversation. At least this restaurant manager thanked me. I hope this is corrected asap.
1. "As careful as we are, if my kids had a problem with gluten, I wouldn't let them eat out knowing what restaurants do."
Wow! As a parent of gluten-intolerant kids, this one really scared me. What am I supposed to think? His comment left a LOT out there. What do restaurants do? Which restaurants was he thinking about when he said that? I need to find out so I can avoid those places.
So there you have my list of The Top Ten Scary Things Restaurants Have Said To Me. As you can see, gluten free is very misunderstood in the restaurant world."
This subject is near and dear to my heart. It is why I started this blog in the first place. Please visit my restaurant database and click on restaurants in your area. You can see what their safe gluten handling policies are. Use this blog as a guideline to ask the right questions when you go out to eat. And lastly, please help me get the word out. Restaurants don't understand that misleading statements can really make a gluten intolerant person sick.
I would love to hear what restaurants have said to you!