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Celiac Disease: What's Your Responsibility?

Diners with special dietary limitations need to cut their chefs a break, too.

Today I was reading writer-chef Michael Rhulman's Blog—excellent reading; I highly recommend it—and was struck by an entry on celiac disease.

(To clarify: the writer of this particular post was communications consultant Carol Blymire, readers of whose own blog, Alinea At Home, have called her out for her tone in writing about the disease. Blymire is a sufferer of celiac.)

I'd like to start out by saying I'm completely offended by the use of the term "dietary restriction" when referring to gluten intolerance or celiac. This is a non-contagious disease, not a dietary restriction.

Celiac disease is the complete physical inabilty to process gluten in even the smallest amount. If I use a knife to cut a piece of bread and then use the same knife to cut a carrot that I serve to a person with celiac disease, I can make them violently sick.

For the most part, dietary restrictions—no dairy, no flesh, no onions, no garlic, and the like—are choices or inconveniences. If I forget that there is small amount of garlic in the mashed potatoes, my guests probably won't go home sick within 30 minutes of eating, violently ill for three-to-seven days. If I messed up like that, the customer would be unhappy with the restaurant and probably not return—justifiably so. 

With that said, I'm also offended that someone with celiac disease could treat my business negatively because I can not accommodate them. If I'm honest with that person, they should be happy with my honesty, not mad.

I charge, on average, $28/person. This doesn't equal the amount of money to have a separate, celiac-safe kitchen to serve those patrons. It's not a matter of not wanting to or being to lazy to; I just can't.

I have complete sympathy for people that have celiac disease, but deserve the same when I'm honest with them about the limitations of my restaurant. 

This week's recommedations:

La Gaudalupana, Haddon Township — Very good authentic Mexican for a quick bite

Scotto's, Crispin Square, Marlton — There's lots of Scotto's, and some are very bad, but the one in Crispin Square is excellent.

— For a quiet breakfast for less then $10, you can't beat it. They only have seating for 15 inside and 10 outside, so I hope you're lucky.

Fred Kellermann is the owner and chef de cuisine at Elements Cafe in Haddon Heights. He is also the president of SJ Hot Chefs, and urges you to support your local restaurant with your dining-out dollars.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Rachel ham July 18, 2012 at 02:28 AM
Chef, I am one of those patrons in the gluten-free community. I appreciate your honesty, however, please know that I also deserve the opportunity to share a meal with people I care about and find it pushy to have to determine when and where we always eat. As a member of this culture, I speak for many when I say it's not easy to direct staff on how things need to be done and then put complete trust in a process I cannot observe (usually). I also speak for many when I ask that you not put yourself out to install a completely sterile environment; just a clean knife, a new pan/bowl, avoid the seasoning (unless it's just salt and pepper and such), and educate your staff. I know my choices are limited. It's scary to put your health in someone else's control, but like I said, do you really expect me to sacrifice being with my family and friends in a highly visceral tradition?
Chef Fred July 18, 2012 at 03:50 AM
ok, you do deserve the right to dine out. So what we need to clarify is this: the gluten-free community as you put it is for the most part a choice. It's a dietary issue, celiac is a disease that needs special life long guide lines. I am expressing that I know the difference and should be respected for my awareness and honesty, not vilified for it. Whether you gluten-free because of a dietary choice, need or necessity, I ask the you have the courtesy to notify me sooner then when you are sitting at the table if you expect due diligence on your request. Also "seasoning" as nothing to do with gluten free or more importantly celiac which leeds me to believe that you do gluten-free by choice and not necessity which makes it your problem and not mine. People with Celiac disease understand all the guidelines and never would "confuse" the situation by making a comment like "seasoning". Also people with this disease understand that a "sacrifice" like eating out is that important.
Mary Ann Groves July 18, 2012 at 02:39 PM
I am Gluten intollerant also and I always tell the servers this when I dine out. Most times when I eat out with friends I tell the server that I have food allergies. If I know the restaurant isn't equipped to handle Gluten free offerings then my order usually consists of a salad. Requesting that there be no croutons, ask that the salad be washed very carefully and mixed in a separate bowl with clean utensils. Dressings are usually a Vinagrette on the side. No Blue Cheese or creamy dressings ever! If it is served with grilled meats I ask that the part of the grill my meat will be cooked on be pre-cleaned to avoid cross contamination and absolutely no sauce or grill prep be put on the meat. It is to be cooked "naked"! I really do not think that I ask very much of the cook staff so that I can have a safe and an enjoyable meal with my firends.All of the restaurants that I patronize are more than happy to oblige me and the only time I became terribly ill was when I was served food that was not prepared safely as I had requested. I never went back to that restaurant.. I became ill soon after eating the contaminated food. Celiac is not anything to take lightly and it would be good of you to try to be a bit more understanding of our plight. A lot of restaurans here in Knoxville are advertising Gluten Free service. Your restaurant might ever benefit with even more patrons coming to your restaurant if you did too!! Think about it!!!!
Rachel ham July 19, 2012 at 02:33 AM
Make no mistake, I am gluten-free by choice. I choose to be free of gastrointestinal issues, migraines, elevated threat of auto-immune disease, and sometimes debilitating neuropathy symptoms. I'm not GF to be "cool" or to lose weight. BTW, chef, there are plenty of "seasonings" that the manufacturers there of (big food's trade secrets are located in their 'natural flavoring' AND soy sauce is a seasoning and most companies product is made from wheat) will not disclose for the general public whether or not they include wheat or gluten-based ingredients (e.g. malt anyone?). Just because I'm not a chef doesn't mean I don't have extensive culinary, nutrition and food science experience. As for your request, how much time do you ask that I give you to prepare for my arrival? How often do YOU get to make that decision on a regular basis? I DON'T, as a practice, spend much time in restaurants as compared to the general public, because getting sick is not something I like to happen on any regular basis. Food issues are food issues. Are you not in the business of food? You need to, therefore, make room for the issues as well as the regular preparations, unless, you are a chain restaurant and cannot vary from the standard, but then you wouldn't be a "chef" just a cook. Frankly, I was trying to have a civilized and educated discussion, but you lowered it to a dismissive tit-for-tat. It is your type of chef that I fear most in the kitchen of a restaurant I'm dining.
Chef Fred July 19, 2012 at 04:04 AM
first of this not a tit for tat or sarcastic. This article I find to be serious and I take the issue to be serious. But, the point of the article is that too many people do things because it's the in thing to do, the fad diet or just right concern. Celiac disease is a serious disease that requires a specific life style, I have a working understanding of the situation and my limitations. And I hope that someone with this disease would give me the same respect as they expect. The article was written do a recent event when a customer came into a full restaurant at the height of rush hour and expected the world stop, rotate and focus on them. If the customer, who had made a reservation two weeks in advance, had taken the two minutes it would have taken to call or e-mail he their concerns and needs I would have been able to make the correct accommodations that I was capable of.
Chef Fred July 19, 2012 at 04:05 AM
But with that said your use of "seasonings" and concerns of "manufacturers trade secrets" comments leeds me to two thoughts. The first I expressed in the idea that too many people do this by choice--their choice and concerns. Secondly, if you and your friends that have these concerns are frequenting the type of restaurants that use manufactured seasonings and canned products in their cuisine, you should not expect the staff to know whats going in the food. My staff on the other hand can tell you, without asking me before hand, that we make everything on the premises except for bread. We use NO canned, processed or pre manufactured ingredients. I make my own "seasonings" by obtaining fresh herbs and spices and toast and bend them myself. And as stated on my menu with a list of the produce bought each week from a certified organic farm I always use fresh ingredients that are bought at local, sustainable and organic when ever possible.
Chef Fred July 19, 2012 at 04:05 AM
You should not fear my type of chef, you should seek them out. Chefs that are honest in what they can and can't do, chef's that care about getting it right and chef's that care enough to learn about the things they experience in their restaurants. Not ones that do whatever it takes to make a buck-like lying to customers or using "seasonings". But have fun at those restaurants.
Sarah July 20, 2012 at 06:34 PM
Dear Chef, I appreciate your honesty. I always ask first thing when I come into a restaurant if they can prepare a gluten free meal and nothing upsets me more than if they brush the comment aside take me to a table and then say, well I really can't make you anything. It is a waste of my time, my companions time, and the restaurants time.That being said, I have to agree with Mary that a restaurant- particularly one like yours where nothing pre-manufactured is used, with a little education should easily be able to accommodate me. While I usually try to give advanced notice to restaurants and make reservations where I specify that I need a gluten free meal I do not always have this luxury. The easiest way to explain how to prepare my food is to ask you to treat it like everything you touch is raw chicken. You would never use the same cutting board for raw chicken and then cut vegetables on it. In my case- the raw chicken is gluten. Your comment about seasonings is not completely accurate. Even restaurants that make all their own seasonings can have gluten in them and sometimes people do not think of the every single seasoning that goes on something. Therefore to make it easier for the kitchen and to protect themselves many people ask that no seasonings be used. Last, this is a dietary restriction. Just like peanut allergies (which can be deathly) are a dietary restriction. People with dairy allergies can get even sicker than I do from gluten. Will you turn them away too?

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