The annual “What’s Hot” survey of 1,800 chefs by the National Restaurant Association pegged gluten-free/food allergy-conscious items as No. 7 on the top 10 trends list this year. That’s up a notch from its 2011 position. Technomic’s recent “Restrictive Diets Market Intelligence Report” notes that menu items billed as “gluten-free” experienced significant growth between 2010 and 2011, increasing by 61 percent. “Operators are beginning to see that the audience for gluten-free fare is growing and that it includes consumers with gluten allergies or intolerance, as well as those who just feel gluten-free items are healthier,” notes Technomic Director Mary Chapman. According to the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group, gluten intolerance is the most undiagnosed disorder in the United States today at an 80-to-1 ratio—a stat that should grab the attention of chefs already working to meet, or thinking about how to meet, the growing demand for GF items.
Joe Decker, executive chef for Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You’s Wildfire restaurants, began dabbling in gluten-free menu development nearly seven years ago. Since then, he and his crew have developed a gluten-free menu that’s now only slightly less extensive than the restaurant’s regular menu. GF diners’ experience starts with warm, house-made rolls produced with gluten-free flour, a gesture that sends a much-appreciated welcome signal, he says. The rolls double as buns for burgers and sandwiches on the gluten-free menu. Gluten-free, brown rice-based pasta dishes are offered; sauces served with steak, chicken and seafood items have been modified or changed to avoid the use of gluten-containing ingredients, such as soy sauce; fresh-baked gluten-free chocolate chip cookies are offered. The same GF flour used in the rolls and the cookies is used to make gluten-free flatbreads and pizzas. Decker even creates an annual Gluten-Free Week five-course dinner in October, in partnership with the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.
While it’s relatively simple to offer gluten-free menu items, Decker says consistency and attention to details are critical. Those details start with using GF ingredients, but go well beyond. Take Wildfire’s gluten-free pizza. Steps involved in its production include:
- Replacing regular flour with gluten-free flour.
- Storing gluten-free flour in a separate area in clearly marked bins to avoid cross-utilization.
- Use of separate, dedicated rolling pins for the GF pizza dough.
- Verifying with cheese and other topping manufacturers that their products are gluten-free (many cheeses aren’t), and getting it in writing.
- Placing prepped GF pizzas on sheets of aluminum foil before they go into the oven to avoid picking up flour residue that might be left there from regular pizzas.
- Using separate pizza wheels to cut the gluten-free pizzas.
Says Decker, “The biggest challenge isn’t menu development; it’s operational and making sure that we prevent cross-contamination. You have to take a lot of care to make sure that people don’t get sick because someone in back wasn’t paying attention.”
Worth the trouble? Absolutely, he says. “The feedback we get and the smiles we see motivate us even more because it’s so greatly appreciated. Gluten-free items now account for about 10 percent of our sales and it’s continuing to grow. There’s a whole bunch of people out there who maybe haven’t been comfortable about eating out, so it’s a really good thing to do.”