Menu: Where's the wheat?

It's missing from gluten-free menus--and a growing number of customers couldn't be happier.

About one in 133 Americans has trouble digesting gluten and as diagnostics become more accurate, their numbers are swelling. That's a pretty sizable customer base.

For those afflicted with Celiac Sprue disease (a genetically linked condition), gluten-intolerance or gluten sensitivity, the only road to pain-free dining is to eliminate all foods that contain gluten, all the time. Primarily, but not exclusively, this includes wheat, rye, barley, oats (often contaminated by gluten), spelt and their derivatives.

Resources—from gluten-free recipes to product lists—are more available than ever before via Internet sites; that’s certainly good news for the would-be guest who suffers from celiac disease. For the restaurateur, once the decision is made to create a gluten-free menu, someone on staff must be detailed to do the homework. Each of the establishments mentioned here has taken a slightly different path in building its own GF menu, but all emphasize their ongoing relationship with Celiac Sprue organizations and the benefits of mining the wealth of information provided by the Gluten Intolerance Group.

Joel Schaefer, manager of product development and special diets for Walt Disney World Food & Beverage in Orlando, Florida, has become something of a guru in the area of preventing cross-contamination—a serious danger if staff isn’t properly trained. “If we use [gluten-free] mixes for waffles or pancakes, for example, we use small packages from reputable companies,” he says. “You can mix up one small batch at a time with less chance for cross-contamination. The manager then designates a person to prepare the product at a designated time in designated pans and place it on designated shelves in the freezer; there are also designated places to store dry or frozen product.”

For the past two years, the Tampa, Florida-based Bonefish Grill has offered an extensive gluten-free menu in its 140 locations. To ensure the “gluten-freeness” of its items, Bonefish hired the Gluten Intolerance Group to do the research. That fact is now clearly printed at the bottom of the chain’s gluten-free menu, which simply duplicates regular menu items that are already gluten free. The only item in which ingredients were changed is the brownie; it’s now gluten free to avoid serving a non-gluten-free brownie by mistake.

“What prompted our introducing a GF menu was to indulge our guests. Society has changed and we have to be aware of guests’ needs,” notes Tom Popp, Bonefish Grill’s joint venture partner. “We also felt it would be good business. We’ve even added an allergy key on the register; when the server enters the order, it’s programmed in so we’re aware we’re preparing that food.”

For the owners of a tiny 14-seat start-up—who are determined to be entirely gluten free—research into what’s totally “safe” can be time consuming. Such was the case for chef John Yaquinto and his partner, Mary Coles, at G.F. Cucina’s in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Yes, G.F. stands for gluten free, and the mostly Italian fare is adapted from Yaquinto’s grandmother’s recipes. Opened in mid-May, the restaurant’s focus has already caught media attention.

It was Coles’ own celiac disease that prompted the idea, and with a steady stream of customers, the partners are eyeing expansion. Aside from space constraints, the greatest operational challenge has been making absolutely sure that all ingredients coming in are indeed gluten free. “You have to double and triple check by calling the manufacturers and asking them to send written confirmation,” Coles contends. “You’re always worried about cross-contamination in manufacturing.”

Yaquinto is thrilled with his latest find: gluten-free flour that he’s been able to transform into pizza. “Compared to the local pizzas, ours costs a bit more, but it’s homemade and I use good quality ingredients,” he says with pride.

Gluten-free menu sampler

LEGAL SEA FOODS, Boston, Massachusetts
Portuguese Fisherman’s Stew Cornmeal crusted scrod, mussels, clams and chouriço sausage in a saffron tomato broth; $25.95
Calamari Plain with tartar sauce or Rhode Island Style with hot peppers and garlic; pan seared or sautéed in oil—coated with cornmeal only; no clam fry mix; $10.95

BONEFISH GRILL, Tampa, Florida
Chilean Sea Bass with Warm Mango Salsa or Lemon Butter; $22.50
Lily’s Chicken Fire-roasted chicken topped with creamy goat cheese, sautéed spinach, artichoke hearts and a lemon basil sauce; $12.90

Conchas del Señor de Sipan Pan-seared diver scallops on wilted spinach and potato-parsnip puree, with golden beet and crabmeat “cannelloni” and red beet and passionfruit reductions; $25
Pollito Al Pisco con Toques Chorrillanos Pisco-brined Draper Valley chicken, roasted with Peruvian peppers, tomato and chickpeas, accompanied by sweet corn puree; $19


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