A component of gluten, the gliadin molecule is a protein, which can cause inflammation, malabsorption, and digestive upset in those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
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Grappling with Gluten

Leah Koenig / December 2012

Chefs are rising to the challenge of coping with the growing demand for gluten-free menu items and finding that it pays off by satisfying an additional and often extremely grateful customer base.

Last semester at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, pastry arts and baking professor/chef Richard Coppedge taught a course on the fundamentals of gluten-free baking. As he has done for the past decade, the author of the cookbook Gluten-Free Baking with The Culinary Institute of America, explained the properties of rice, potato, soy and other gluten-free flours and how they differ from wheat flour. From the outside, it looked like any other pastry class: engaging instructor, note-taking students, and fragrant loaves of yeast bread cooling on racks nearby. And yet the course itself is striking.

According to studies by Mintel and the Mayo Clinic, nearly two million Americans suffer from celiac disease, a disorder that damages the small intestine when gluten is consumed. This is believed to be a four-fold increase from 50 years ago—a number some experts speculate may be linked to people eating more processed foods, or to wheat itself, which over time has been crossbred to manipulate the wheat properties. Millions more have gluten sensitivity, which means they experience negative physical effects (bloating, irregular bowel movement, tiredness) from gluten, but may not have the disease itself. Public understanding and acceptance of gluten-free eating have been mixed, with some critics arguing that it’s little more than a dietary fad. In the kitchen, many restaurants have struggled—and in some cases resisted—to accommodate this growing consumer need. But if the country’s premier culinary school is training its graduates in gluten-free cooking techniques, the food world’s attitude toward customers with gluten issues must be radically changing.

This shift is already apparent on supermarket shelves, where gluten-free products such as Foods By George’s English muffins and pizza crust (created by CIA alum George Chookazian) grew by 40 percent between 2008 and 2010. And over the past few years, many of the country’s esteemed culinary programs, from the Natural Gourmet Institute to Johnson & Wales University, The Institute of Culinary Education, The International Culinary Center, and Kendall College have also begun to include gluten-free instruction in their curricula. “If you asked me 10 years ago if I saw this on the horizon, I never would have said yes,” said ICE’s director of education, chef Richard Simpson. But his school’s internal focus shifted substantially a few years ago when one of their head baking instructors was diagnosed with celiac disease. These days, he said, ICE incorporates gluten-free training into their curriculum and electives—from teaching students what to use in place of soy sauce (which often contains wheat), to offering specific gluten-free bread and baking classes.

This heightened gluten-free awareness has begun to accelerate with graduates of these culinary programs from the classroom to the dining room. Until recently, gluten-intolerant diners or those with celiac disease were regularly met with confusion and hostility at restaurants. Ming Tsai, the James Beard award-winning chef who owns Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has reported that his son was once refused a table at a local restaurant after mentioning his food allergies. “The manager actually told us, ‘We’d rather not serve you,’” said Tsai. “That is absolute discrimination.”

The experience inspired Tsai to introduce a gluten-free menu at Blue Ginger, and to develop formal allergy protocols now used by restaurants across Massachusetts. Meanwhile, from large chains like Outback Steakhouse and P.F. Chang’s to fine dining establishments, restaurants across the country are offering gluten-free menus that invite diners with celiac disease back to the table.

Tsai said that Blue Ginger’s Asian-inspired cuisine, which is filled with naturally gluten-free ingredients like the edamame sticky rice under his miso sake butterfish, simplified the process of developing a gluten-free menu. Similarly, the Southern-inspired restaurant Big Jones in Chicago makes their cornbread muffins with cornmeal and hominy, but no wheat flour. “Wheat was rare and expensive in the antebellum period anyway,” said co-owner/executive chef, Paul Fehribach. “It just so happens that the traditional recipe was already gluten-free.”

Even traditionally wheat flour–heavy restaurants like Italian eatery Tulio in Seattle have found ways to adapt and innovate. Tulio chef Walter Pisano said the restaurant imports corn and rice-based pastas from Italian company Il Macchiaiolo as a gluten-free alternative to his house-made fresh pasta. And chef Leonard Hollander of the Marion Street Cheese Market Bistro in Oak Park, Illionis, sources a garbanzo flour sandwich bread baked at Rose’s Bakery Wheatfree in nearby Evanston. “At $10 a loaf, it costs significantly more than the traditional wheat bread I use,” he said. But with a lunch menu that is centered on sandwiches, it allows him to “serve a wider range of customers’ needs.”

These menu switches help take the guesswork out of ordering, and make gluten-free diners feel more comfortable. But beyond the menu, restaurants face other challenges—particularly avoiding cross-contamination in pans and deep fryers and being aware of “hidden flour” in recipes. “A dish’s ingredients aren’t always apparent, particularly when it comes to garnishes,” Tsai said. Mark Maynard-Parisi, a managing partner at Union Square Hospitality Group’s Blue Smoke barbecue restaurants, agreed. “Our mashed potatoes are a great side for gluten-free diners, but the garnish of crispy fried onions is not.” The same goes for their Caesar salad, which presents no issues except for the croutons sprinkled on top. The gluten-free version simply omits them.

In the kitchen, chefs as well as bakers and pastry chefs, in particular must also learn how gluten-free flours like sorghum, tapioca, brown rice, cornmeal, potato starch, and almond meal, which are void of the offending-but-useful protein, work in different applications. As anyone who has tried to bake a gluten-free cake can tell you, it’s rarely as simple as a one-to-one ratio substitution. Typically, a flour blend includes several varieties, relying on each one to contribute something—like heft, stretch, or lift—to the final product. In response to the demand for gluten-free, some chefs, like Scott Uehlein, corporate chef of Canyon Ranch, in Lenox, Massachusetts, Tuscon, and Miami Beach, have developed their own proprietary flour blends (his is based on buckwheat flour). “We use the blend in all of our gluten-free baked goods including, breads, cookies, muffins, cakes, etcetera, at all our properties.” In addition, he notes that “gluten-free products extend well beyond baked goods, and within the last year we have noted all gluten-free items on the actual menus.” Others swear by Cup4Cup, a blend developed in 2010 by Lena Kwak, a research and development chef at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, California. Cup4Cup is quickly growing and currently being distributed to dozens of restaurants nationwide (“We get new requests every day,” Kwak said), and is available to retail customers via a collaboration with Williams-Sonoma.

Kwak said the blend, which includes brown and white rice flours, tapioca, potato starch, cornstarch, and milk powder, is catching on quickly, thanks to its compelling and consistent results. Executive pastry chef Eric Marie of The Boulders, A Waldorf Astoria Resort in Arizona, for example, started using Cup4Cup three months ago in cakes, cookies, and quick breads, and said it has revolutionized his expectations of gluten-free baking. “I was using another blend that made everything terribly dense,” he said. Marie’s experiments with Cup4Cup in his brioche recipe did not fare as well. (“The dough was too soft and runny,” he said). But when it comes to his dessert menu, he said, “this solved all our problems.” The resort counts a Golden Door Spa among its venues, and Marie says the demand there for gluten-free has even outstripped fat-free.

Beyond the food itself, training staff about the gluten-free diet presents another hurdle. Maynard-Parisi said allergy training—particularly how to treat a gluten-free customer with the same respect and care as other diners—is a central part of new staff orientation at all USHG restaurants. “We also use different colors to ring in allergy orders on the computer, which helps the service and kitchen teams communicate effectively,” he said. Hollander said he makes detailed charts that indicate which of his dishes are vegetarian, gluten-free, and nut-free, to aid servers in answering customers’ questions at the table, without having to double-check with the kitchen.

Small switches like this make a big difference tableside. “The experience of dining out has changed so much in the last decade,” said Shauna James Ahern, a Seattle-based writer and co-author of the influential blog and cookbook Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. “Before, servers would say, ‘Gluten, huh, let me get a manager.’ Now there’s a much greater understanding.”

Despite the extra work involved, Tsai said restaurants cannot afford to ignore the growing population of gluten-intolerant diners. “Making a mistake around food allergies could hurt or kill someone,” he said. “Chefs have a responsibility to let people know exactly what’s in their food.” Luckily, many chefs take the challenge in stride. “Chefs are chefs because they love to feed people,” James Ahern said. Her husband, Daniel Ahern, who was formerly executive chef at Impromptu Wine Bar Cafe in Seattle (they now both work full-time on their site and brand), transformed his dishes to be completely gluten-free so that she could eat everything on the menu. That may be an extreme example, fueled by true love, but James Ahern insists that all chefs share an ultimate goal to “serve great food, regardless of who their customer is.”

Gluten-free cooking and baking also expand a chef’s range and repertoire. “Imagine knowing the texture and flavor of just one type of flour, when there are actually dozens to play with,” said James Ahern. Pisano said he also appreciates the creative opportunities that come with gluten-free cooking and has made some unexpected discoveries along the way. “It turns out, our spicy sausage and broccoli raab dish works especially well with the corn pasta’s hearty texture,” he said.

Perhaps most importantly for a restaurant’s bottom line, catering to gluten-free customers is simply good for business. Few restaurants specifically advertise themselves as gluten-free, preferring instead to focus on flavor and maximizing seasonal ingredients throughout their menu. But when a restaurant does it right, the word spreads. “Blue Ginger is busy for lots of reasons, but one of them is because we’re known as one of the safest restaurants in the country,” Tsai said. “I can’t tell you how many parents I have seen in our restaurant crying with happiness because their family was finally able to go out to dinner together.”