27 February 2008

Dining out gluten-free

The best way to ensure a successful gluten-free meal out is to communicate your situation with your waiter and the best way I have found to do that is to have a card that explains what you cannot eat like the one pictured above. Some people explain on their cards what gluten intolerance is and what they can and cannot eat. Since I have multiple foods I need to avoid in order to keep from having a constant migraine I don't have room for all that on my card. A graphic designer by profession, I designed my card to be small enough to be carried in my purse, but large enough to have all my allergies and sensitivities legible for the waiter.

So, you may wonder, how does it work when I dine out? I show the card to my waiter as soon as he/she approaches my table, so that they know up front that I need special attention. I try to have a short explanation of my situation ready and then also have an idea of what I might be able to eat on their menu. This way, they can check with the chef (I encourage them to take my card with them) and see if what I have tentatively chosen will be free of gluten and all my other allergies. I also try to be as pleasant and accommodating as possible. Many times I have lived without the delicious sauce that normally accompanies the entree, or the salad dressing. If the restaurant tries to accommodate me, I am gracious and a generous tipper.

Other things that help the experience is bringing along my own salad dressing or deciding ahead of time that I will be fine with a lemon wedge and olive oil. I try to arrive at the restaurant when they are least busy and I sometimes make suggestions that will make the meal more palatable to me without causing them too much trouble. If I have to live without the sauce and their special seasoning (which might include gluten or dextrose), I make sure to tell them that they can use olive oil, salt and pepper. You might think the latter is unnecessary, but I most often have chefs go to extremes to make sure I am safe and will not put anything on my meat or fish. I had the experience in Paris last summer where I was warned off having beef entirely because the chef couldn't be certain what the cow might have eaten!

I have generally found waiters and chefs to be quite willing to help. My best experiences have been at places like Il Fornaio in San Jose, CA, where the sous chef came out to meet me because she was so impressed with my card. She said that most people just tell them verbally what they cannot have, even if it is a list of 15 things and then are very demanding if the staff forgets something. I also had great success in France and Belgium last summer where I took a French version of my card. I did decide to laminate the card after my first one got so grease-soaked that it became difficult to read. Also, I do tend to stick to higher end restaurants where they are more able to cook something from scratch for me. My worst experience was at a high-end place outside of Detroit where they pre-marinated all their meats and fish...except the scallops. Because I couldn't be sure what was in the marinade, I had only once choice for dinner that night...grilled scallops and a salad with a lemon wedge and a glass of water. One more word to the wise: places with gluten-free menus are not as easy as you might expect, especially if you have additional allergies like me. I had an egg allergy, which I think I have since outgrown, and I discovered to my horror that P.F. Chang’s marinates nearly all their meat and fish in egg white. It is not listed on their menu and I only found out because the first time I went there with my card they took it back to the chef and checked everything out.

So if you haven't been using a card, make one up and start using it. You want to err on the side of caution and always check to make sure they aren't sneaking in gluten in your mashed potatoes or something. Bon App├ętit!

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