I'm a big fan of the show 'Come Dine With Me', where amateur cooks host dinners for each other over the course of a week for a cash prize. One episode caught my attention recently as one participant 'claimed' to be gluten intolerant and I use the word 'claimed' as by the end of the first night they were quite happy to tuck into a gluten filled dessert prepared by the host. On their own night they had gluten on the menu which they ate and by the end of the week all bets were off.
As I started to eat out again post Covid-19 lockdown I was reminded how challenging it can be to get fed outside your own home when you're restricted to a gluten free diet and how much confusion still exists. Just based on the example above I get why the gluten free diet is not taken seriously and how challenging it can be for chefs and restaurant staff....they seriously have my sympathy ! I also recognise business is brutal right now for so many with restaurants, cafes and the hospitality sector being hit exceptionally hard. Many have had to adapt to take out only service so managing allergens in that context must be difficult. So what could be a simple solution ?
In the days when we could travel I took a trip to Italy and whilst I was nervous going to a country known for pasta, bread and pizza I was pleasantly surprised. Nowhere is perfect and not every country, restaurant, eating establishment gets it right but their approach makes sense. Gluten free pizzas are only sold in places where the pizza can be cooked separately so a separate oven has to be in place for that purpose. Most restaurants have a specific section on the menu for gluten free/coeliac options and if you want to order other items outside that section and have them adapted, the answer is NO.
Here in Ireland we could make like simpler for everyone by adopting this approach. Saying 90% , 80% or even 50% of the menu can be adapted increases the risk of mistakes happening, cross contamination taking place = people getting sick. Having a small section of the menu dedicated would also make it much easier for the staff to understand and communicate back to the kitchen. Would I love everything on the menu to be adapted ?! yes... but I'd much rather have a relaxed experience with no consequences after the fact. I also want to be able to order a take out in more places than I can do today, that means I can do my bit to support the economy and keep my/our favourite places open.
Another area that would help is to introduce some consistency around how allergens on listed on menus..........in some places gluten is a 1, it might also be 7, a G or a funny grain symbol ?!. Some restaurants use this C or CS symbol meaning it's 'Coeliac Safe' however if you ask about cooking methods then that's generally not the case.
Last but not least...being gluten intolerant or a coeliac is not the same as being vegan. It's amazing how many people don't know where food comes from, like eggs are not dairy and there's no gluten in potatoes and that comes down to training and education.
Life is shitty enough right now, the food industry is being slammed and has many challenges ahead so why not make it easy for everyone right ?! If you're doing take out and you're worried about accommodating a coeliac or someone with gluten intolerance then look at what's possible...what 2 or 3 things can easily be prepared and served safely. You need to still be okay with a few questions here and there, it's not personal we've just been hurt too many times ;) If you're not sure then ask for help through the Coeliac Society of Ireland or myself....I've a background in Catering and menu planning so I'd be happy to lend a hand.
To the coeliacs and gluten intolerant peeps (no part timers may apply ;)) reading this, I'd love to hear your stories and experiences, send them by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay safe everyone. We will get through this !