The hardest thing about living with Celiac disease, besides the weight loss, non-stop and lifelong flu symptoms, not being able to eat Krispy Kreme doughnuts, weird neurological disorders, tooth enamel breakdown, pizza moratoriums, general weakness, pain, abstinence from beer, perpetual tiredness, elevated risk of cancer, looking longingly at other peoples birthday cakes, ban on fried cheese, and a couple hundred other assorted things, is the inability to just go out to a restaurant and get something to eat.
If you’re a Celiac, going out to Chilis is kind of like making the decision to have kids. First you have to try many different restaurants to learn which ones have any potential of feeding you without causing your untimely death. Then, after dozens (or hundreds if you like to play on the wild side) of restaurant dating encounters, you have to start thinking about which one you are going to consider “marrying.”
Once that decision is made, a new courtship starts all over again. You have to get to know your server in a really intimate way. Kind of like getting to know your in-laws. It’s going to be awkward, and worst of all, its going to be a public encounter. Somehow or another, you have to blurt out that you have a medical condition. Usually, at the moment you work up the courage to do this, background noise in the place suddenly dies down so that the whole dining room can clearly hear your detailed medical history.
In a perfect world, you’re done after the initial embarrassment. In the Celiac world, your dutiful server goes back into the kitchen, talks to the chef, then returns to ask you some more questions – in front of everyone. I guess this is good if you like being the center of attention, but I would rather get my notice for some more impressive reason, like inventing a new punctuation mark.
At this point, you’re at the mercy of the chef. And unfortunately that’s not a comforting place to be. Not to knock professional chefs and the importance they place on learning their craft, but its just unrealistic to expect anyone to know the thousands of details that can make you sick. Training on gluten free diets is certainly a good thing, but it hardly compares to the fact that it took me two years to really learn how to eat gluten free. And that’s when the consequences of making mistakes were life and death, or at least two or three days of intense illness, misery, and general grumpiness. That’s the school of hard knocks.
So work with your chef, understand that many do have some basic knowledge, but don’t let that prevent you from asking confirming questions. A good chef will take pride in learning how to work with you and helping you to find a safe, and delicious meal to enjoy.
I’ve found that the best way to work with your chef is to be the kitchen. Look at the menu and take a minute to imagine what goes on in this particular restaurant place. Then consider how the dish you intend to order will be made in that environment.
Consider things like the following:
- Is it a brick oven type of place that makes pizzas or calzone’s? If so, there’s likely to be flour on countertop surfaces.
- Are the meals you’re interested in prepared in a baking dish of some sort? If so, there’s likely to be pan spray coating. Much of the restaurant grade pan coating is a mix of flour and oil.
- Is the food you are considering cooked on a griddle? What else does the restaurant offer that might be cooked on the same griddle? Pancakes, toast, or other breaded items?
- Are there a lot of fried food items on the menu? If so, assume any gluten free fried items you order are going to be cooked in a contaminated fryer.
- Is the restaurant a moderately priced place or maybe a chain? Think about what items may arrive pre-packed, and possibly, pre-marinated before the restaurant staff does anything. You would be amazed at how much food is pre-processed before it arrives at the restaurants back door. Burgers can have fillers, steaks and chicken can be pre-marinated whether fresh or frozen, and “homemade” items may be only blended on site and use pre-packaged ingredient kits.
- What else might come on the plate? I’ve had in depth discussions about the source of steak or chicken and possible marinades only to have my dish arrive covered with a sauce or gravy of unknown origin. I once had eggs, cooked in a separate pan for me, arrive with slices of toast laid on top!
While I can’t list every possible consideration here, I can share the idea of how to think about the environment in which your food will be prepared. Picture the kitchen, consider the preparation of your menu choice, then ask relevant questions.