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Food Allergy Frenzy

How Restaurants Can Accommodate Diners While Stirring Creativity in the Kitchen

Christina Mueller Welter

Coping with fussy customers is hard enough; figuring out a way to serve a client with one or more food allergies can be downright confusing. Allergy testing and diagnosis continues to improve and more people than ever before are in touch with where their food comes from and how it impacts their overall health. What does this mean for chefs and food professionals? How can your kitchen become “allergen safe?” These are increasingly valuable questions to pose as diners become more and more aware of what they should and should not eat, whether cooking in their own home or enjoying a meal out.

Reason to embrace change – rising demand

Chefs who have built allergen-free menus embraced the issue for various reasons. Owner Adriana Lopez Vermut of Pica Pica Maize Kitchen in Napa and San Francisco opened her first Venezuelan restaurant three years ago. Her menu revolves around the triad of Venezuelan cuisine – corn, plantains and yucca – and the menu offers only one wheat bread. Customers intolerant or allergic to wheat and its allergen-inducing protein, gluten, noticed and thanked her for providing a menu that suited their specialized needs.

Shortly afterwards, Vermut’s grandmother was diagnosed with celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder of the small intestine caused by a reaction to gliadin, a gluten-containing protein found in wheat and related grains, and she began to seriously research the issue. “We were already there, it made sense,” said Vermut. The combination of Venezuelan cuisine’s gluten-free friendly character, in addition to Vermut’s family history, made Pica Pica’s decision to support the fight against celiac disease through the North Bay Celiacs and participate in the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness’ GREAT kitchens certification program a no-brainer.

Whatever reason diners choose to follow particular dietary guidelines while dining out, it is key that kitchens are ready to accommodate their requests without sacrificing the quality of their food; despite the obstacles inherent within the cuisine of the restaurant. Many chefs may assume that Italian dishes would be especially difficult to alter to diner’s allergy-specific demands due to its heavy emphasis on pasta, meat and dairy-based ingredients; but specialty purveyors have made the transition between traditional cooking methods and gluten-free preparations an easy

A prime example is BelGioioso Cheese, which offers over 30 different Italian cheeses ranging from aged asiago to fresh ricotta con latte, all of which are not only based on authentic Italian recipes and the freshest milk, but they are also entirely gluten-free. A perfect accompaniment to pasta and a main ingredient in many of Italian dishes is parmesan. Known as the “King of Italian” cheese, BelGioiosio’s 10 month-aged parmesan is made with without animal rennet, making it a suitable substitute in dishes for both celiac and vegetarian diners alike. This parmesan has won many awards over the years, most recently bringing home 1st Place in the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest and 2nd place from the American Cheese Society.

Finding ways to work with customers’ needs while maintaining the high standards of your restaurant’s cuisine is a recipe that many chefs are successfully executing. In San Diego, Executive Chef Mario Cassineri at Bice recognizes that “pasta is such a comfort food to many. We want people to enjoy their food without feeling like they have to give up certain items. We strive to cater to all diners.” As a result, Chef Mario’s kitchen offers an Italian menu, which includes gluten-free versions of all Primi Piatti since the restaurant’s opening day in October 2009.

In San Diego, Executive Chef Mario Cassineri at Bice recognizes that “pasta is such a comfort food to many. We want people to enjoy their food without feeling like they have to give up certain items. We strive to cater to all diners.” As a result, Chef Mario’s kitchen offers an Italian menu, which includes gluten-free versions of all Primi Piatti since the restaurant’s opening day in October 2009.

Which system is right for your restaurant?

Susan Weaver, partner at Mon Ami Gabi in Las Vegas, says her restaurant instituted an “allergy alert
system” over eight years ago. The Lettuce Entertain You (LEYE) family of restaurants, which includes Mon Ami Gabi and Joe’s Seafood, has a well-established “pink slip” system in place to communicate allergies from the front of the house to the back. 

Once a customer expresses an allergy, the server attaches a hot pink slip of paper to the order with the table and position number and enters the allergy alert on the POS system with an “allergy alert button.” From here, the accountability to produce a “clean” dish goes to the floor manager and the kitchen manager who “must sign off before anything is cooked” said Weaver. After the order is prepared, the pink slip is attached to the dish and the runner is told to which position to deliver the dish. According to Quillen, “the pink slip is attached to the house copy of the receipt so if a customer calls afterward to say “they had a reaction,” we can directly address it.

Not every restaurant will need to develop such an elaborate system. Take Sascha Weiss, Executive Chef for the Plant Café Organic in San Francisco, who tests new staff on the restaurant’s menu and re-checks all staff knowledge every three months. “We leave the gluten-free and vegan symbols off the menu and ask the server to ID which ones are gluten-free or dairy-free,” he said. 

At RM Seafood in Las Vegas, the process to accommodate diners with particular food allergies tends to be improvised, acting as a great tool to stir creativity in his kitchen. Executive Chef Adam Sobel admits he has “no plan” to deal with a diet-restricted customer but says “it’s kind of like an Iron Chef challenge – we have an extensive pantry and a lot of weapons so we can make something happen on the spot. Not every dish is a home run,” he continued, “but it is a great way to check the skills of your Sous and provides inspiration for new dishes.”

Building a repertoire of allergen-free offerings

What if you can’t risk not hitting a grand-slam every time? Chef Adam advises, “Do your research, note the trends, go to the market and find great product that is naturally gluten-free or dairy-free, keep an exciting pantry.”

Executive Chef Jeff Rossman of Terra in San Diego, has offered an allergen-aware menu since he opened the restaurant 12 years ago. He concurs with Chef Adam explaining that “I look at ingredients, at flavor profiles, at trends. If you don’t know an ingredient, educate yourself first, then re-vamp menu. Don’t change prep. Tweak first; take off breading, pan roast, then look at each ingredient in a dish. Is it necessary to the composition or is it a background flavor that can be eliminated?”

Chef Sascha developed a similar process. For a dish to be successful, he chooses to “change one ingredient at a time and go step by step to isolate the flavor and make sure any change can be attributed to the correct new ingredient.” The result can be cleaner flavors. “If you have beautiful vegetables, butter can sometimes mask the subtleties of flavor,” said Chef Adam. “Use just a little olive oil and salt and right away you have a dairy-free side dish.” And just as importantly, an improved taste.

Pick your battles: you can’t please everyone

“You can’t be friendly to all allergies,” said Pica Pica’s Vermut. “Pick one or two and seek out a program for certifying the kitchen and training the staff.” Vermut works with Bay Area-based HIPP Kitchen and is in regular communication with local celiac communities. 

Weaver, whose kitchen at Mon Ami Gabi saw a huge spike in demand for gluten-free menu items this year, realized it was time to take the allergy alert system “to the next level.” She called the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center to understand what gluten-sensitive people want. “What they really want is to eat like everyone else and not feel separate and different.” She researched and found a fabulous gluten-free bread from Rose’s Bakery “that fits our standards of quality for food; we are proud to serve it,” she said. Weaver does offer her gluten intolerant customers a separate gluten-free menu and a unique amuse. “The gluten-free amuse on gluten-free bread acknowledges that we heard their message and makes the guest feel more comfortable,” she said.

Small vs. big obstacles to kitchen change

Small changes to your kitchen in order to accommodate diner allergies can make a significant difference. Chef Sascha conducts additional recipe testing to ensure that allergen-free recipes meet his standards of “100 percent organic, seasonal and delicious.” Chef Adam keeps numerous gluten-free grains, nut flours and rice noodles on hand. The pantry of Joe’s Seafood is stocked with some raw materials, un-prepped every night, so a dish can be changed on the spot. Terra’s team no longer thickens their soups with gluten-based flours but uses rice or potato flour and asks his staff to switch cutting boards for allergen-specific orders. Paying similar attention to detail, the kitchen of Mon Ami Gabi lines sheet pans with aluminum foil to create an allergen-free baking surface.

Although these are manageable modifications to make, larger obstacles can arise. “The hardest thing in my kitchen was training the kitchen staff, as culturally, Latin Americans are not sensitive to these issues,” said Vermut. Baking with non-wheat flours can be more costly also, “up to 30 percent more than wheat-based ingredients,” said Chef Mario, “but we are proud to have it as part of our product mix.”

Similarly, Weaver wanted her gluten-free customers to enjoy as much of the regular menu as possible, including the French fries. The risk of contamination with the fryer is high and hard to control so “we had to look at dedicating a fryer to our gluten-free customers.” The result was a small fry daddy on the front line, managed by the Sous. “We call them ‘shallow fries’ so our customer knows it comes from a different fryer.”

Customer communication is key

Alerting customers to your allergen-free menu items can lead to additional business. Weiss lists gluten-free and vegan items in print and online versions of the menu. Both Weaver and Quillen created gluten-free menus and feature them on their websites. “After we put up the menu, we were contacted by the Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide, and we regularly see gluten-free customers as a result,” said Quillen. 

At a time when every customer through the door is important, small changes to your business can mean additional customers. “We don’t want to turn away any guest and we do what we can to make them happy,” said Chef Mario. This may mean steering a customer away from a certain dish. “Communicate with the guest about what your kitchen can and can’t do, recommend alternatives, listen to your customer,” said Quillen. “Know what you can deliver,” suggests Weaver. Hopefully, for the sake of both allergy-sensitive diners and your restaurant’s bottom line, your kitchen can answer “yes” the next time a guest asks, “is this gluten-free?” Not only will they be healthier, but your business will be too.

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