Food never ceases to amaze me. In some cases, it exists purely as sustenance. Other times it serves as the centerpiece for lavish displays of wealth and power. Whether prepared for the rich or poor, cuisines all over the world have bridged the gap between being simply food and an almost spiritual experience that ends up defining a culture to the rest of the world. I definitely grew up living a luckily charmed existence in that regard. Food has almost always been directly attached to my fondest memories of my childhood and even my young adult life. Many birthdays, for example, would probably have lost a bit of their luster without the inevitable pizza and ice cream at the party. This leads me to ponder what my life would be like if eating my favorite foods became impossible due to a physical condition of which I have no control. Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that constitutes the most common gluten sensitivity, puts many people in that very position on a day to day basis.
Cultivated grains, most notably wheat and barley, contain protein composites called gluten that cause serious problems for people with Celiac disease. Gluten consists of subsidiary proteins referred to as gliadin and glutenin that join together with starch to form the endosperm, or body of the grains. Gliadin specifically, causes an involuntary reaction that prohibits a person with Celiac disease from consuming any food containing it. Once inside the small intestine, gliadin reacts with enzymes already present. The resulting modified composite is then rejected by the person’s immune system, causing a severe inflammation of the walls of the small intestine. This process causes not only severe pain and discomfort, but yields him or her unable to properly absorb many of the nutrients from food vital to daily life. A person diagnosed with Celiac disease who consumes foods containing gluten will often experience severe pain and debilitating fatigue that can even force bed rest in some cases.
Avoiding gluten in everyday life can prove to be quite difficult since it is found in foods ranging from breads and pasta, to fried foods, even to pasta sauce and beer. The presence of barley in the brewing process is responsible for the gluten content in beer. In almost all other cases, however, gluten in foods can be traced directly back to flour. Most commonly produced from the grinding of wheat grains, flour is found in breads of every imaginable type. This means that pizza and sandwiches become off limits. Nearly all pastas are made from flour, so no spaghetti. Grandmother’s famous pies and cobblers have to go since they have crusts undoubtedly containing flour. Taco Bell….forget about it, they use flour tortillas. One of our most-ordered blue plates at the restaurant, the fried chicken with crawfish sauce, becomes prohibitive on two levels. The chicken is battered with flour before it is fried. The sauce is thickened with roux, which contains butter and…..you guessed it……flour. Caution should even be used at the grocery store when purchasing items seemingly unrelated to flour to ensure they have not been produced in close proximity to any gluten-containing products. Most companies certify and label completely safe products as “gluten-free.”
From a restaurant perspective, gluten allergies present a multifaceted challenge. Once presented with a gluten-free situation, the kitchen must ensure that nothing they prepare contains any substance that will produce any kind of reaction for the customer. This not only applies to the ingredients themselves, but also to the tools, utensils and surfaces used to prepare them. All knives, tongs, spoons and cutting boards must be sanitized prior to preparation to remove any trace gluten contamination. Before the kitchen can even begin, however, the most important step in the process of protecting a gluten allergy sufferer occurs in the front of house between the person and his or her server. Servers provide the only real link between the customer and the people preparing their food. Proper communication and education levels are necessary to prevent accidents from occurring. A server must not only be able to guide a customer with a gluten allergy to alternative choices based on the information they are given, but also to foresee other issues with foods the customer may not even be aware of.
Accidental ingestion of gluten-containing foods can not only be painful for allergy sufferers, but for the business as well. Increasingly, it is resulting in lawsuits against the restaurants involved. The latest statistics indicate that as many as one in one hundred and fifty people suffer from some sort of gluten sensitivity. This fact, combined with the prevalence of other food allergies out there, makes restaurants increasingly vulnerable. One honest mistake can threaten the livelihoods of both the restaurateur and the employees involved. Regardless of any other ramifications, however, the customer’s experience trumps all other considerations in importance. A bad taste in his or her mouth generally means no return visit, which in time will result in no restaurant at all.
As a chef, I feel that I carry the responsibility of being a good steward for food. It has always….I feel, clearly……been an incredibly positive part of my life. The more I learn and get to enjoy about the nuances of cuisine from around the world, the more I feel the responsibility to share them and educate people. Though gluten sensitivities serve as only one in a multitude of opportunities to help, each one can make a difference in someone’s life. Just as a doctor takes a sacred oath to use his knowledge of medicine safely to make people’s lives better, so too should a chef pledge to bring the love of food to people in a way worthy of their trust in its positivity.