The Ottawa chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association held a general meeting the other night with a panel of chefs from local restaurants. Judi Varga-Toth from Credible Edibles (family run cafe, catering and meal service), Kent Allaire from the Westin Hotel (catering, hotel events), and Justin Giroux from the Fairmont Chateau Laurier (hotel restaurants) all talked about how they offered gluten-free meals to their customers.
I would feel completely comfortable eating at these restaurants. I have eaten at the Chateau Laurier and managed to have two full SCD meals and one gluten/grain free meal. My family goes to the Sunday buffet once a year and each time the chefs were more than happy to prepare me a dish or two separately and show me which of the buffet options I could safely choose from. The three chefs on the panel were very aware of dietary restrictions and food allergies, so I have no doubt they could handle someone with as many restrictions as I have.
One recurring topic that left me a bit disappointed was the obsession with the gluten-free baking. Every question from the audience was about bread, cookies, cakes, muffins, pasta etc. In fact it seemed like the only thing people were interested in was knowing they could get gluten-free bread when they went to a restaurant. I wonder when (if?) the mainstream Celiac diet will focus on wholesome healing foods and not replacements for what made us sick in the first place.
That said, there was a lot of great information shared by the chefs that I will highlight here:
- The chefs all keep a separate area for preparing dishes to serve to customers with special diets. They also changed some of their recipes to be naturally gluten-free for everyone, including salads, soups and sauces. Potato could be used to thicken soups, while sauces are usually made by reducing stock.
- They learned a lot from their customers including how to handle cross-contamination. Judi at Credible Edibles keeps an open kitchen and said her first gluten-free customers would tell them if they were doing anything wrong. Justin from the Chateau Laurier has a daughter with Celiac disease so he really understood the importance of being very strict in the kitchen.
- Chefs can easily accomodate for allergies, intolerances and dietary preferences. If you are dining at a restaurant ask to speak to the chef, they would most likely be happy to speak directly to you. This might not work at a chain restaurant, or if it was a particularly busy time.
- All agreed that it was a good idea to call ahead, but not necessary at all. They could all accommodate specific dietary needs when you walk through the door.
- The chefs all reported increasing requests for special dietary needs. It used to just be vegetarian or not, but now they are seeing customers with food allergies and/or Celiac on a weekly basis.
- They all noted the difficulty in preventing cross-contamination. Separate food prep areas are kept in each kitchen for this reason. Also they stated the difficulty in baking with gf flours in a larger restaurant/catering service meant most of the baked goods were bought from gluten-free suppliers. Making gluten-free breads and pastries on site and free from cross-contamination would be almost impossible.
- Judi from Credible Edibles does make gluten-free items in store, and buys some specialty baked goods.
- All the chefs made a point of stating that going to a restaurant is not just about eating the food, it’s an experience. They don’t want you to worry about the food you’re eating, feeling paranoid that something has gluten in it. They also don’t want you to go home and feel sick later. So, if you do go to a restaurant where you can talk to the chef, you should be in good hands.
- Catering to special diets used to be considered a bit of a nuisance. Now however it seems more like a challenge. They don’t want you to have to compromise and order something you’re not keen on. Instead, they are happy to create a dish for you that you will enjoy safely.
- One chef mentioned avoiding gluten-free foods from the US since they have less strict rules about tolerable gluten levels. So they try to get everything from Canada.
- Finally, it sounds like they make gravy and stock like we do on SCD. Stock is made by simmering bones, meat and vegetables for 12 hours. Then it’s strained and simmered down until it thickens. No need to add any flour to make gravy.
I hope to go eat at each of these places in the next few months. Listening to these chefs talk about their work made me feel excited to eat in a restaurant again.
There is a Canadian Celiac Association National Conference being held in Ottawa this May I’m considering attending. I hope the entire conference does not focus on baked goods. I doubt the speakers will, but the food and vendors might be. Either way I think it would be interesting to hear about current research and recommendations.