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Food Stars Go Gluten Free

18 Aug

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With Restaurant Week upon us in Washington DC I can’t help but think about how far the restaurant industry has come in the past few years when it comes to serving gluten-free customers!  Between the increase in demand for gluten-free products from the celiacs, the gluten intolerant and the fad dieters to the efforts of nonprofits like National Foundation For Celiac Awareness, Celiac Disease Foundation and the Gluten Intolerance Group, people living gluten-free can enjoy the delicious foodie culture that has spread across the country!

Which star chefs and popular restaurants have joined the gluten-free bandwagon? A lot!

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Two old school Food Stars, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, offer a full gluten-free menu at all of the locations of Border Grill.  Milliken and Feniger starred in 396 episodes of Too Hot Tameles on the Food Network. Mary Sue also competed and was the first runner up in Top Chef Masters Season 3. Check out my pictures from my most recent visit to Border Grill in Downtown Los Angeles.


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Fish tacos with jicama, grapefruit, jalapeño aioli and avocado 

If you are a fan of the Food Network then you are probably familiar with Stacey Poon-Kinney, one of the final five contestants on The Next Food Network Star. Her restaurant, The Trails Neighborhood Eatery was also featured on an episode of Restaurant Impossible back in 2011. Poon-Kinney offers an extensive gluten-free menu at her restaurant including gluten-free pancakes, which, in my experience, are rarely offered at restaurants!

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Another star making delictable gluten-free offerings: Iron Chef  and restaurant owner Jose Garces. My favorite of the Garces Group restaurants is Distrito, a modern Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia. In addition to offering glutne-free options, this incredibly popular eatery can satisfy any top-notch foodie’s palate! Distrito has been trained by NFCA’s GREAT Kitchens.

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Jose Garces also had his restaurants Amada, Chifa and Tinto trained by GREAT Kitchens.  His illustrious Garces Trading Co restaurant offers a formal gluten-free menu. Here are some of the pictures from my most recent visit to Distrito!

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Stephen Starr, another wildly successful restauranteur and winner of Restauranteur of the Year by Zagat and Bon Appetit, has several restaurants that have been trained by GREAT Kitchens and offer gluten-free menus! During my last visit to Philadelphia I stopped by El Rey and enjoyed  a beautiful modern twist on a chille relleno smothered in a walnut sauce and stuffed with dried fruit, walnuts and ground beef.

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About a year ago a friend asked me how I could possibly consider myself a foodie given that I can’t eat most of the food offered by the most acclaimed chefs. Fact of the matter is, the gluten-free lifestyle is becoming more and more common. Restaurants have a financial incentive to cater to the gluten-free community because this particular foodie-niche happens to be an incredibly loyal customer base. When a restaurant makes a commitment to offering safe gluten-free options to its customers the gluten-free community talks about it. Apps like Find Me Gluten Free guide people living gluten-free directly to the doors of restaurants with gluten-free menus. When it comes to gluten-free customers, a gluten-free menu or a GREAT Kitchens logo on your restaurant door attract customers that will keep coming back.

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The gluten-free customer base is loyal and hungry so when chefs like Mary Sue Milliken and Jose Garces offer something gluten-free they are pretty much guaranteed a huge influx of new customers.

Next on my list of places to try? One of the newer Stephen Starr restaurants, Le Diplomate in Washington DC! To my fellow Washingtonians, enjoy Restaurant Week! Remember to ask the necessary questions to avoid cross-contamination while dining out! Check out this link to The Gluten Free Professional to help you become a savvy celiac diner! Check out the section called “networking” for specific tips on dining out!

-CC

Gluten Free Philly

17 Jul

CC Gluten Freed is a blog about the social aspects of being gluten free but if you flip through my most recent posts you might think that it is a blog about gluten free traveling.  So what is with all the travel talk?  My life is in flux right now. Transitioning into a new career all the way across the country.  I started in California working towards my degree at UC Berkeley.  After graduation I went home to Los Angeles to see my family. Despite this homecoming, I was quickly swept away to Seattle for the GIG Conference (which was fabulous, by the way).  From Seattle, I flew to Washington DC, my new home.  From DC, I took a bus to Philadelphia for a 5-week training institute for new teachers.

The constant traveling has posed an interesting gluten free challenge that I was ready to tackle. Specifically, I would be staying at Temple University where all meals would be provided by the dining hall.

I had very little control over what I could get my hands on, both in terms of my literal food options as well as information about the food.

That being said, Temple has a pretty nice system going but I won’t get into that now. Expect a post in about 3 weeks about the unconventional methods that Temple University has been using to accommodate the demands made on my (and a handful of other people’s) behalves by the Teach For America staff.

For now, all I will say is that the food options have been safe but incredibly bland which led me to venture out into Philadelphia to find some food with flavor!

Philadelphia is quite the GF food scene! Thanks to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness restaurants all over Philadelphia have been trained in GF awareness and safe food preparation.  Let me break it down for you:

Le Castagne

Northern Italian Cuisine with GF gnocchi and penne.  This restaurant is awesome. I don’t say this lightly because I am Italian so my standards for Italian food are pretty sky-high.  Not only does this place have great food but it also has a great ambiance and fantastic customer service.  The environment is quiet, posh and sophisticated.  I ordered the Assaggi Vari which is a plate of  Italian meats, grissini (subbed out for extra veggies and salami), cornichons, salami, vegetables, and cheese.

For my entrée I ordered the Gnocchi al Tartufo Bianco which is a gluten free gnocchi (the best I’ve had since becoming GF) served in a white truffle cream sauce. The gnocchi was perfectly pillowy and the cream sauce was a mild cream flavor  but with a savory , truffle kick in every bite.

I, unfortunately, did not have room for dessert.

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Trendy interior design at Distrito. Swing-set dinner tables!

Food Network star, Jose Garces, is the creator of this restaurant, boasting modern Mexican cuisine.  Despite the modest prices (entrees averaging around $12), I decided to splurge and order the “Chef’s Tastings” called Frida Kahlo for $55. First things first, this is WAY MORE than $55 worth of food both in terms of quantity and quality.  I was worried the restaurant would not let me order the tasting plate since it is a preset menu and I would need GF accommodations but they had no problem adjusting the order for me.  What I did not know was that I was in for an eight course meal.

I started with chips and guacamole served with fresh crab meat. Next, came the salad.  This was no ordinary salad.  Instead of dressing, this salad was topped with, and foodies please forgive me, ice cream! Well, not exactly ice cream.  It was a lemon sorbet or maybe, more accurately, a scoop of lemon shaved ice.  The burst of cold that accompanied each forkful made each bite of salad taste and feel incredibly crisp.

Next up, ceviche! I have never had ceviche made with such quality fish before. The tuna they used seemed like it melted in my mouth.  In addition to the great taste, the presentation was beautiful.  The ceviche tasted creamy and mild with a perfectly smooth texture.

Next up, a classic taco with a twist.  This taco was served with julienne radish which gave this taco a unique, crunchy texture.

Next up, my favorite, a duck confit huarache.  A huarache is an oblong shaped corn flatbread, grilled and covered with melted cheese. My huarache was topped with duck confit, manchego cream, micro-arugula and tequila cherry escabeche (texture of a thick jam or relish).  I should have only eaten half of this dish but its complex flavor  palate was irresistible.

Lamb Dish with pureed grits with truffle oil

Flatbread with duck confit and tequila cherry relish

Spicy Lobster

As if I hadn’t been served enough, the next dish to come out from the kitchen was half of a lobster.  You know when you go to a restaurant and after you order your heart leaps every time a waiter goes by with food because you hope it is yours? Well, I was so full by course 4 that I had the opposite experience. Every time a waiter walked by I feared it was for me and, more times than not, it was!

The last savory dish they brought to my table was a grilled leg of lamb over a puree of grits with truffle oil, fresh mushrooms and micro-arugula. Micro-arugula tastes very peppery with a little spicy kick.

Finally, dessert. Thank goodness it was tiny.  Though traditionally an Italian dessert, I was served a pineapple-mango Panna Cotta. It was the perfect size and weight, light and cleansing.

Wedge and Fig

Though frequently visited for their pretzel bread sandwiches, I found that Wedge and Fig is a great place for a gluten free diner. The staff was very knowledgeable.  My waitress was gluten free too so she knew the ins and outs of the menu!  I ordered the Manchego, drunken fig, prosciutto salad. The figs were soaked in an orange port which gave the otherwise very sweet fruit a savory punch.  

This wouldn’t be a CC Gluten Freed post without a little nugget of gluten free social advice. I went to Wedge and Fig with a big group of brand new friends that I met in Philadelphia. To make ordering go smoothly, I went and talked to the waitress by the hostess stand before we ordered.  This made ordering very seamless.  No one even noticed that my order was different because I had already consulted with the waitress and chef about what was best to order.  If you are ever out with a big group or a new group of friends, try excusing yourself and talking to the manager or waitress before you order so you don’t have to draw any unwanted attention at the table!

Celiac Awareness Night at Citizen’s Bank Park!

If you are in Philly on July 20th, come out for the Celiac Awareness Night at the Phillie’s game!  I am heading out to the game to see the Phillies face off against the SF Giants. I’ll be sitting at a table answering questions about Celiac Disease and the gluten free diet with the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.  I’ll be the one with the gluten-free hot dog in hand!

Last on my list, Paseano’s for a Philly cheesesteak sandwich (on bread!)

Who knew Philadelphia was such a great gluten free foodie destination!

Happy Travels,

CC

The Domino’s Effect

10 May

A Little Bit of History

Domino’s Pizza was founded in 1960 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Today, it is the second-largest pizza chain in the United States (second to Pizza Hut) and has more than 9,000 established franchised stores in the world. An incorporation with a successful foothold in 60 countries has a lot of power over the pizza industry’s reputation and the expectations of consumers with respect to the quality of service that a reputable pizza store should meet.

Domino’s has a history of being the first of its industry to adapt certain unique marketing techniques. For example, in 1973 Domino’s started advertising their 30-minute guarantee to customers. If Domino’s couldn’t deliver the pizza within 30 minutes of ordering, your pizza was free. In the 1980s the offer went from a free pizza to $3 off due to liability issues. Consumers began to speak out about the dangers of the 30-minute guarantee, expressing that it caused the delivery people to engage in unsafe driving. Eventually the 30-minute guarantee advertising campaign was dropped due to political and legal pressures.

What does this history have to do with the new gluten-free pizza crust?  Domino’s has a history of being pizza pioneers when it comes to advertising.  Ironically, the marketing campaigns employed by Domino’s seem to have a domino effect: once Domino’s does it, all of the other chains begin to follow suit.  If history is to repeat itself, I wouldn’t be surprised if more pizza chains not only start offering gluten-free crusts but also follow Domino’s lead with regard to how they offer this new product.

Domino’s Gluten Free Pizza

As most people in the GF and celiac community know, Domino’s started offering a gluten-free pizza crust on May 7, 2012.  Ironically announced during Celiac Awareness Month, the company explicitly stated that this gluten-free pizza is not designed for people with celiac disease.  The pizza crust, in a vacuum, is gluten-free.  What is the catch? Domino’s hasn’t taken any of the necessary precautions to prevent cross-contamination.  In fact, on their website they state “While the Gluten-Free Crust is certified to be free of gluten, the pizza made with the Gluten-Free Crust use the same ingredients and utensils as all of our other pizzas.”

Here is a video that Domino’s made to help get the word out about their new product.

Their advertisement for gluten-free crust starts off by saying “Because we are honest people, here is a disclaimer.”  For the record, a more accurate beginning to their disclaimer would state “Because we are lazy people, here is a disclaimer.” It would simply take a bit more education, training and effort to provide a fairly safe gluten-free option.  At the end of the video ad you hear the narrator saying “Ok, enough already with the disclaimers we are really excited to tell you about our new gluten-free crust…”  Not only is the crust not actually gluten-free but Domino’s goes so far as to dismiss their disclaimer as if it is an irrelevant formality

Issue #1: Gluten Free Labeling Laws

The FDA is close to formally establishing the legal requirements necessary to label a product as gluten free.  Despite being on the books as an issue needing regulation for several years, the FDA has failed to respond to public pressure until now. The FDA only regulates food products but I wonder why the government recognizes that products should be regulated for the gluten-free status but not restaurants that offer similar products.

Government entities like the USDA and FDA protect the US population by regulating highly distributed, manufactured and agricultural food products.  This is important to prevent public health catastrophes related to contaminated food products.

In general, it would not make sense to allocate government resources for regulating restaurants on a federal level because, in the past, if a restaurant had contaminated products or unsafe practices it wouldn’t affect enough people for it to be considered a federal issue. Unfortunately, in the world of chains and franchises, the idea that restaurants only impact their immediate surroundings is no longer true.

In this context we are talking about a pizza company that is located in every single state in this country with over 5,000 individual restaurant locations.  The kitchen ingredients used by Domino’s can affect a large part of the US population and, more relevantly, their institutionalized kitchen protocol can affect people on a population level as well.

If Domino’s wants to offer a gluten free crust they should be subject to some form of regulation since their product is so wide-reaching.  If Domino’s had a kitchen protocol that had all their chains set the ovens to a temperature that consistently undercooked meat, resulting in food poisoning, we would have a national health crisis on our hands.  I don’t know why we are turning a blind eye when it comes to gluten free protocol in the kitchen.

Furthermore, calling their pizza “gluten free” should be considered false advertisement, if not fraud. Their appeal to the gluten free market is abhorrent.  The gluten-free market base is depression-proof and has been consistently and substantially growing for the past 10 years.  You should not be able to con your way into this market. If you take a chicken breast and dredge it lightly in flour before frying it, is this entree gluten free? NO. Is the chicken breast itself gluten free? YES. Similarly, if you have a gluten free pizza crust it is no longer gluten free if you cross-contaminate by preparing it in an environment covered in gluten-based flour (similar to a light dredging, if you will).

Issue #2 Corporate Precent

One of the main reasons that I find Domino’s actions completely unacceptable is because of, what I am calling, corporate precedent.  California Pizza Kitchen started offering a gluten free pizza crust before doing their homework.  They developed a crust but did not research cross-contamination protocol.  As a result, customers complained.  Did CPK slap a disclaimer on their menu and call it a day? No.  CPK pulled the pizza from their menu and started working with the Gluten Intolerance Group to develop a strategy to make their kitchen safe for gluten-free pizza cooking.  Domino’s justifies their lack of concern for cross-contamination by saying that the crust is for gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive consumers. Interestingly, although Domino’s argued that they are catering towards the gluten sensitive population, the Gluten Intolerance Group is the organization that stepped up to help CPK prevent cross contamination.  I really enjoyed this post by Linda who points out that, of all the gluten sensitive people she knows, none of them have “mild” senstiives” and they do not appreciate a contaminated pizza!

                                  

Domino’s has stated that they simply don’t have the kitchen capacity to make a truly gluten free pizza.  It seems reasonable that it might be hard to make a profit if they had to change their kitchen set up for this product.  Then I remember PF Changs, a nationally represented corporate restaurant chain that has successfully created a gluten free menu and has changed their kitchen set up to accommodate safe food preparation.

Before Domino’s the precedents set by various corporations trying to go gluten free have been in favor of trying to prevent cross-contamination. I fear for the gluten free future of the restaurant industry now that such a large and financially successful  company has started saying that it is ok to take the easy way out.

The Bigger Picture

Supply and demand: a fundamental concept in economics.  If consumers demand a certain product, the market will supply it. What happens when the supply and demand get muddled and confused?  Poor products. In response to perceived consumer demands restaurants and food companies are responding by creating “gluten-free” products.  The problem is that the market is not understanding the true nature of the current demand.

Supply is not the issue right now.  There are so many gluten free products on the market.  If current product supply were the issue I would pick up some frozen pizza crusts at Whole Foods, go to Domino’s and ask them to heat it up for me.  What is in need, the demand, is education and awareness.  I don’t need Domino’s to create and produce a tasty recipe for a pizza crust. Udi’s, among other companies, has awesome pizza crust already. What we need is a safe place to dine out 

Empowerment

I want to remind my readers that CPK stopped offering their gluten free pizza until they could establish a safe kitchen environment in response to a letter by a customer.  If you want Domino’s to take accountability then send them a letter (or write them an email) explaining why taking the gluten-free pizza one step further could make a huge difference in your life and in the lives of many other people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Here is their mailing address:

Domino’s Pizza LLC
30 Frank Lloyd Wright Drive
Ann Arbor, MI 48106
(734) 930-3030

 

Check out my posts on the importance of writing letters and letter writing tips for advice.

Ultimately, if we want to change the market then we need to change the nature and clarity of our “demand.” The first step to this change? Advocate for yourself.
A note about NFCA

Check out their letter from Alice Bast discussing their involvement with Domino’s Pizza.  NFCA has taken a lot of heat for seemingly endorsing Domino’s.  Domino’s reached out to NFCA to consult about their new gluten free product.  NFCA informed Domino’s that the pizza is not safe for Celiacs and reviewed their ingredient lists and kitchen practices to draw this conclusion.  Although the Amber designation is fairly controversial, it is better than Domino’s advertising their pizza as gluten free without a disclaimer.  Check out this post by Linda from theglutenfreehomemaker.com  about why the amber designation may be a huge step back for the Celiac Community. Without NFCA Domino’s might have simply not let consumers know about the serious cross contamination risks.

-CC

Gluten Free Pilgrim

13 Apr

No, I am not talking about Thanksgiving, turkeys or little white bonnets.  I am talking about someone who journeys to far away places.  One of the challenges of being on the gluten free diet is finding places to eat out with friends and family.  I can always find at least 2 or 3 great gluten free places wherever I am  but the thing is…I don’t want to be limited to 2 or 3 restaurants and neither do the other people coming to dinner.

When I say only 2 or 3 places, I mean places that are actively gluten free friendly.  There are other places around where I can ask questions, explain about cross contamination to the waiter and hope for the best but I prefer restaurants like PF Changs, CPK, Rosti Tuscan Kitchen or The Old Spaghetti Factory where I know the waitstaff and chefs have been educated about gluten and trained in safe kitchen practices.

If you want to dine at more than a couple of restaurants, you are going to have to venture out of your zip code.  I once found this incredibly frustrating.  I don’t want to be the reason that my whole family has to spend over an hour in the car just to get to a dinner place that will accommodate me.  Well, I don’t have a magic solution for the long commute, but I do have some advice: change your mentality.

The other day I really wanted to try this place in Los Angeles called Chili Addiction.  This place serves GF hamburgers, hot dogs (buns and all!) as well as delicious chili.  Only one problem — the long commute.  Instead of dwelling on the drive, I told myself to think of this as a gluten free pilgrimage.  People always say “it’s about the journey, not the destination.”  Despite being overused and somewhat corny, I decided to actively adopt this mindset when trying out a new GF restaurant.

The commute from the San Fernando Valley to West Hollywood requires driving through the canyon.  I made sure to enjoy the views – and my Mom’s company – on the way.  When you exit the gorgeous canyon, you are immediately surrounded by a jumpin’ city.  There is so much to see!

When we arrived at the restaurant we were starving!  I ordered a classic hamburger and chili cheese fries.  My burger had a bun!  What a revolutionary concept!  The restaurant was fast, affordable and delicious.  The bun was so light and fluffy I triple checked with the staff that it was gluten free.  I simply couldn’t believe how great it tasted.

 


I  highly recommend Chili Addiction to anyone who is gluten free.  They are super aware of the importance of protecting their products form cross contamination and they make all of their condiments in house.

Although I really enjoyed my dinner at Chili Addiction, this post really isn’t about the food, it is about how to make dining out less stressful and more enjoyable while on the gluten free diet.  There will be times when, in order to get foods that most people don’t think twice about in terms of accessibility, you will need to drive many, many miles.  As a gluten free person this is your reality. But, to be honest, it isn’t so bad! By being a gluten free pilgrim, you get to try new restaurants all over the city and go to new places, not simply new restaurants.

Happy dining!




-CC

A Local GF Evolution

21 Mar

When I first moved the Berkeley I struggled to find places that offered gluten free options.  Despite being a foodie town, Berkeley has struggled to get on the gluten free bandwagon.  The enthusiasm was, and is, there but the necessary education and safe kitchen practices were simply missing…until now.

Four years later, I am pleased to report that Berkeley is impressively gluten free friendly, improving at an almost exponential rate.  I feel a sense personal responsibility for Berkeley’s improvement, though not sole responsibility. Berkeley’s success is a result of the collective efforts of individual students, community members and nonprofit organizations that work to promote Celiac awareness. In June, I am moving to Washington DC.  I hope to witness and contribute to this, in a sense, evolutionary phenomenom once again.

My father came to visit me last week and I made it a point to take him to as many  GFF (gluten free friendly) restaurants as possible during his stay. It was during this visit when I realized how much Berkeley has changed in the past four years.

La Mediterranee

I always order the same thing at La Med: pomegranate chicken with hummus and chopped veggies. Although my entree option is delicious, I always feel a twinge of jealously towards the people ordering the Tabbouleh, a Greek dish traditionally made with Bulgur Wheat.  Despite having dined at this restaurant over a dozen times, it wasn’t until this most recent trip that La Med told me that they just began offering a GF Tabbouleh, with quinoa serving as a substitute.  I made sure to ask my waitress to let the manager and chef know how much the GF option was appreciated!

Cream

If you visit Berkeley, students will almost invariably point you towards Cream for dessert, an ice-cream sandwich shop that always has a line out the door.  Despite only opening a year or so ago, Cream realized that there is a demand for GF options and began serving GF ice cream sandwiches.  I went to see how they handled cross-contamination and, to my surprise, they did quite well!  Cream keeps the GF cookies on a shelf above the gluten-containing cookies and toasts them on a designated and elevated rack in the oven. The elevation is particularly important because it protects the gluten free cookies from cross contamination via gravity, the last thing you want are little crumbs of gluten falling onto the designated GF oven rack!

Kirala

Arguably the best sushi restaurant in Berkeley, Kirala offers GF soy sauce to customers who ask for it!  The waitstaff is very educated about what the gluten free diet is and what kind of people will want GF soy sauce.  The first time I dined at Kirala, my waiter noticed my packet of Tamari soy sauce and immediately brought me a crystal bottle filled with GF soy sauce.

Filippo’s

It is rare that I find an Italian restaurant that has a GF option.  Filippo’s on College Ave. in Berkeley offers a GF gnocchi.  Unfortunately they used to cook this GF entree in contaminated pasta water!  I found this out the hard way but used my negative experience to improve my community’s GF options.  I wrote a letter to the manager explaining what was wrong with their kitchen practice and he followed up with me in person to show me the improvements the restaurant had made for GF customers. Click here to view sample letters to restaurants about cross contamination concerns. When I talked to Filipo’s about cross-contaomination they had no problem making a change and seemed genuinely glad for the feedback.

These are just a couple of examples of how restaurants can make small changes to their establishments to accommodate GF customers.  Have GF soy sauce in the back, designate oven racks for GF foods, these are cost-free, low maintenance changes that restaurants can make but, despite being a small change, can make a big difference for many customers.

If you have a local restaurant that you used to love before being diagnosed try talking to them about becoming gluten free friendly!

If the restaurant seems very interested in catering to the gluten free population tell them about GREAT Kitchens, an official gluten free training program for restaurant kitchens.  There is no harm in asking! At worst, you educate a restaurant and get gluten/allergens on their minds and at best you get your favorite restaurant back onto your list of dinner options!

-CC

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