I know many chefs and restaurant managers think they are doing their diners a great service by developing gluten-free recipes and highlighting those dishes on their menus. But when you really look at the preparation, you'd be surprised how often good intentions lead to the opposite outcome.
A lot more goes into confidently and safely serving special-needs diners. The growing demand, especially for gluten-free dishes, has led suppliers to start offering a wide range of specialty items. But it is still the responsibility of the kitchen staff to be aware of all the ingredients in every dish they prepare, including "hidden" gluten added to prepared food. Who knew wheat protein would be lurking in ice cream or potato chips? The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network has found it there, as well as among the ingredients in a wide range of common menu items.
So, you can start with using really gluten-free ingredients, but you'll also have to think all your prep steps all the way through to identify possible sources of cross contamination.
Start with the most basic kitchen tools: your knife and your cutting board. You should dedicate specific utensils entirely to preparation of gluten- or other allergen-free meals. No matter how diligent you are in sanitizing between uses – and, hey, we all wind up in the weeds sometimes, and it's easy to miss a step during the dinner rush – even a minute amount of a triggering food can affect someone who is sensitive.
Then look at where you cook the food. A diner who orders the vegetable tempura should not get a side of shrimp because her order was cooked in the same oil as the offending shellfish. The same care should be taken with grills, flattops and woks, with clean pans reserved for allergen-free grilling and frying.
When it comes to frying, allergen-free meals can be contaminated while waiting for pickup by grease particles flying through the air onto otherwise perfectly prepared dish. All special meals should be covered from the moment they hit the plate to when they are set before the diner.
And if the diner objects when the plate is uncovered and the wait staff brings it back, don't just send the same plate out with the offending items removed. Once a triggering food is present, it's back to square one – unless you really intend for your patrons to have dessert in the ER.
Betsy Craig brings 20 years of food service industry experience to MenuTrinfo, LLC a menu nutritional labeling Company. Her commitment to the betterment of the food industry and her desire to affect the dining public are the driving forces behind her new company Kitchens with Confidence, LLC.