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An Open Letter to Chefs and Restaurants

11 Jun 2010, Posted by Jennifer Iannolo in chefs & restaurants, wellness

Dear Chef/Restaurant Owner:

We have had a long and loving relationship, you and I. For as long as I can remember, you have been an integral part of my passion for living. I have worked in your kitchen, eaten in your dining room — and championed your philosophy from different corners of the world. You have given me so much pleasure, and I hope I’ve been able to show that appreciation in some tangible way. Your passion has often been my reason for getting up in the morning, and for that I thank you.

Our relationship of late, however, has hit a road bump. You see, for medical reasons, I’ve recently needed to eliminate gluten from my diet. This is not a phase I’m going through, or a low-carb diet — it is a matter of living as a fully functional human being vs. being in excruciating physical pain. It’s been a difficult adjustment, but I’m getting better with it every day.

The biggest hurdle, however, is this: I’ve tried to dine in your restaurant lately, but I have often left your dining room in tears, because there isn’t much for me to eat. Some of your dishes send my mental mouth whirling, where I crave a taste of your yuzu sauce, or a bite of your scallops — but I cannot order them, because one of the ingredients in that dish will make the rest of the evening — and the next few days — a veritable hell for me.

At first, I didn’t want to pester you. I am the last person who wants to diminish your creativity and dedication to texture, to flavor…to an incredible experience for the palate. I did not want to be that customer. I’ve discovered something important, however, and I thought it was critical to tell you: There are many more of me in your dining public than I had ever imagined.

May I request that we work together?

If you could give me a dish that would satiate my palate, yet be totally safe for me, I would joyfully enter your dining room as often as possible. I would tell others like me that your restaurant is the place where we can enjoy a meal anxiety-free, where choosing from the menu is not an exercise in futility, and where the chef is not cursing at me for ruining his combination of ingredients. Where the kitchen staff understands that if bread has even touched what I’m eating, there could be trouble for me.

Where the servers do not see me as a difficulty to be dealt with — but as someone who supports and champions what you all do for a living.

I’m not asking for a whole menu of my own. I simply would love a couple of dishes that would leave my mouth giddy. Much of what you’re already cooking is 80% there, so I’m hoping this is not an unreasonable request. (I do, however, need to recognize Tinto in Philadelphia for a most unexpected treat: An entire menu of gluten-free tapas dishes. What an evening that was.)

And if you could please, please teach your servers that an errant chunk of cookie in my whipped cream is not just an “oops,” but a mistake that will leave me doubled over in pain on the subway ride home, I would be ever grateful.

Will you work with me?

And if you are already working with me, but I don’t know it, will you tell me so? I’d like to know — and share with these gluten-free brethren of mine — where you are, so that we might thank you with our patronage.

With love and respect,
Jennifer

  • Some chefs *are* working with Celiacs and GF folks. Kinda cool. For example, Shaun Doty down here in Atlanta has an upcoming GF event ( http://www.yelp.com/events/atlanta-celiac-safe-dinner ) and is serving GF hamburger buns at a new restaurant. So it’s coming along in surprising places.

    I’m still suspicious that it’s really the ultra-processed qualities in many foods exacerbating the problem. Wish someone could do the research, but I imagine funding is rather difficult to acquire if you threaten to upend the industrial food production line (no longer a food chain).

  • joanna

    Hi Jennifer, this article makes me so happy. I have been struggling so long with what I could possible be “allergic” too that makes me so sick. I have spent many nights at home after an amazing dinner. My body almost shut down after a week of eating pasta, pizza, granola and enough beer to fill a small lake. It never occurred to me that I would be allergic to gluten. Recently went on vacation and was so disappointed with the lack of knowledge from the servers at most restaurants. Needless to say I spent most days “sick” when I should have been enjoying my time off. More people need to know about Gluten and thank you for spreading the word!

  • Amy Wright

    Hey Jennifer! I totally understand! I’ve had to recently start the Specific Carbohydrate Diet for my Ulcerative Colitis. It is like the celiac/gluten free diet, but only several steps more strict with no dairy and other restrictions. I am SEVERELY limited in what I can eat & like you, am in this for the long haul, for life! I hope you can find some chefs that will be more accommodating!!!!

  • Jason, thank you so much for telling me (and us) about Shaun Doty. The more of these we know about, the more we can dine out and savor. It’s a win-win. :)

    Joanna and Amy: I will do whatever I can to spread the word, educate and enlist. I’m on it!

  • As much as gluten-free has grown, it really is at the tip of the iceberg, 1-2% of the population has celiac’s and in some European populations, the number is 10-15% so it really is a huge problem. When Wheat, Dairy and Soy are some of the most highly subsidized ingredients in our food supply, but also comprise the majority of food allergies and sensitivities, it really does create a problem. We are addicted to cheap food…the US spends the least amount of its income on food per year ~10% than any other country, but yet boasts the most calorie-density of every country as well. It’ll be interesting to see how the food market responds in the next 5 years….Chefs and restaurant owners can take the reigns and really flex their creativity, I think it’d be an exciting opportunity since it is still a bit of a wild west out there

  • I wholeheartedly agree. Although not a celiac myself, I have friends who are, and it is infinitely impossible to find somewhere to go out and eat all together, where they’ll have exiting food options to choose from. This whole issue of being stringent in adhering to specialty diet requests is incredibly important, and can be a very difficult one for a busy kitchen. What sets the good restaurants apart is the interest of keeping ALL their customers happy, and not just the majority of them.

    Good restaurants know that they can’t pick the offending allergy/sensitivity-food off of the dish and simply send the meal back out. Good restaurants take pains to educate their staff on these issues of courtesy. Good restaurants are often very hard to identify by their placards and names alone. Sometimes it takes serious effort by the diner to make their concerns heard.

    Sometimes it’s as simple as searching out the listings of specialty-diet-friendly restaurants. Thankfully listings of gluten free restaurants (etc.) are on the rise, and the restaurants are starting to pay attention.

    p.s. I’ve enjoyed stumbling upon your blog. I guarantee I’ll be back to read more!