Gluten Free, Feeling Good: How Chefs Welcome Changing Guest Preference

Join us as we look at some of the biggest dining trends of 2020. Today, it’s all about gluten-free cooking and dining – read on, then download our Year in Review infographic here.

People working in the food industry have heard it all. From food allergies to personal preferences, the list of ingredients diners can and cannot enjoy is long and evolved. Chefs field more gluten-free requests every year, but the reasons behind the uptick may be surprising.  

Defined by the Mayo Clinic as a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), gluten can wreak havoc on the digestive systems of those suffering from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. Other guests simply have a touch of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which causes unpleasant symptoms without damaging the small intestine. Allergies to wheat and gluten ataxia can also have an impact on diners. 

Not everyone who prefers a gluten-free menu is diagnosed with celiac disease. In fact, many diners have started ordering gluten-free foods for one simple reason: they just feel better. Gluten intolerance may have led the way for undiagnosed diners to discover the benefits of a gluten-free diet, and the demand has created an opening for savvy chefs to welcome them. 

Start with Flavor, Not Flour

Justin Ferguson helms BRQ Restaurant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Eyeing a plate of Jack cheese-stuffed boudin balls or jumbo lump crab and brie empanadas with pepper jelly, it’s hard to imagine anything gluten-free could match up. But Ferguson, a veteran Army scout and barbecue master, loves to prove that theory wrong. With Louisiana’s strong seafood heritage and the soulful side of barbecue, Ferguson’s guests have enough gluten-free choices to eat at BRQ every day of the week and not order the same thing twice.  

“Seafood and barbecue are naturally gluten-free, and oftentimes people request dishes without gluten just for health reasons – not because they actually get sick from it,” says Ferguson. “It’s important to be current with the times and mindful that it’s not about what we want, but what the guest wants.”

That way of thinking is what can help chefs exceed expectations for diners. Ferguson incorporates a combination of Cajun and Creole techniques and makes his own seasoning with different blends of spices, like garlic, cayenne and fresh herbs. He uses those flavors and techniques to mimic the texture of glutinous food, with all of the zing and none of the side effects. 

“What sets us apart is, we don’t tell anyone ‘no,’ and that includes our catering, which can mean someone calling up and ordering 180 meals for the following day,” says Ferguson, who serves hungry LSU fans and faculty. “We are happy to customize everything.” 

Ferguson says Louisiana’s long growing season makes it easier to accommodate requests. He offers this advice for fellow chefs who may be stumped as to which gluten-free options to launch:  

“Look around you for inspiration and open your mind – do some research and explore local cultures for ingredients that are naturally gluten-free,” says Ferguson. 

“You’re just having fun, and keep trying, because every dish might not work. But every day you challenge yourself to go without gluten products will make you a better chef.”

Unless he is baking a cake or making bread, Ferguson rarely uses white flour. He makes dishes crunchy and crispy in other ways, always with a focus on seasoning. Ferguson’s favorite items to prepare for his gluten-free guests include all of his barbecue plates, such as brisket and ribs. Ferguson makes his grits from scratch from fresh corn, along with house-cured tasso, andouille sausage, and tortillas, so guests can indulge without consequence.

“For me it starts with salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon, and for a sweet component if I’m looking for that umami flavor or a little textures, I might add some pistachios and oregano to put some crunch on the plate without having to do anything more to the fish,” says Ferguson. “When no one can tell a dish is gluten-free, that’s when you know you’ve done it right.”

Part of being a destination restaurant for gluten-free diners is being able to adapt and use what’s available. Kyle St. John is the chef at Harvest at The Ranch at Laguna Beach in California, where gluten-free diets are common.

“In cooking a beautiful piece of fish, you can simply accompany it with seasonal vegetables, a sauce, or vinaigrette that compliments the fish,” says St. John. “Create an equally amazing gluten-free dish by building layers of flavor.”

St. John has to answer to discerning guests across the whole luxury resort, which can come with challenges. To meet diner demand, he adapts his menu to the seasons.  

“As a luxury resort, our guests have exceptionally high standards, and we strive to meet their expectations and cater to their dietary requests. But thankfully, this is fairly simple to accommodate because our menus are built from high-quality seasonal produce,” says St. John. “Many of our dishes happen to be gluten-free, vegan, or dairy free because of our sourcing methods – they weren’t necessarily intended to be gluten-free but are just that way because we let the quality of the ingredients shine without over-complicating recipes.” 

St. John’s Ora King salmon is a crispy-skinned salmon, which he serves with a white bean and fennel purée, tomato and basil chutney, watercress, and agrumato. His Jidori chicken is a Frenched breast with sherry vinegar glaze, black garlic soubise, and roasted broccolini.

Know When to Love It or Leave It Out

Melissa O’Donnell is executive chef at Seven Seeds at the Williamsburg Hotel. Known for her ability to make outstanding cuisine just as tasty as their less healthful counterparts, O’Donnell has been gluten free for more than 20 years and has learned to omit gluten from her entire menu. 

“I am currently cooking eastern Mediterranean food, which is naturally light on gluten,” says O’Donnell. “While most restaurant food includes a lot of hidden gluten in sauces and crusts, trying to find a substitute for gluten products can be difficult. For example, instead of thickening sauces with flour, I usually just reduce the sauce more so that it gets naturally thicker. In crab cakes, we bind them with egg and omit panko altogether.” 

Over the years, O’Donnell has honed a treasure trove of expert insight into when omitting gluten works – and, importantly, when it doesn’t. 

“For batters, rice flour works well (think tempura) and almond meal works well for crusts,” says O’Donnell. “Having said that, once you start omitting the hidden gluten that is everywhere on restaurant menus, you find that you can actually get very creative.” 

One of O’Donnell’s go-to suggestions is using almond meal for a textural fish crust – it’s healthier and more interesting than breadcrumbs. Whether you’re using gluten or not in a dish or menu, it’s important to be transparent with guests.

“There are so many great gluten-free options these days – we use a popular gluten free AP flour to make our gluten-free flatbreads, and I have found that my clients have responded really well to having no hidden gluten on the menu,” says O’Donnell. “We are always very clear that since we do bake our bread and high tea pastries in-house, we are not a certified gluten-free kitchen.” 

SABA Italian Bar & Kitchen and Café Con Leche are part of Chicago’s One of a Kind Hospitality. SABA chef Jesus Castillo advises that even when preparing Italian food, keeping it gluten-free requires keeping it simple. 

“The real challenge with gluten-free dishes is when you don’t have exactly what a customer is looking for, but we try to accommodate,” he says. “The gluten-free market is still growing, and new products are constantly coming out, so try different products until you find the ones you like that will give guests the best possible experience.”

As chef of Café Con Leche, Jose Solis has the benefit of traditional Latin ingredients’ natural flavors. 

“Thankfully Latin cuisine lends itself very easily to gluten-free options,” he says. “We don’t have to make major modifications to accommodate with sensitivities. Our biggest challenge is having a small kitchen and coming up with the best practices to reduce cross-contamination.”

Find What Works & Train Staff Accordingly

At restaurant Niba in Panama City, executive chef Daniel Sosa looks forward to any opening that helps him forge a better connection with his guests, including finding ways to delight the gluten-free palate. 

“Gluten-free is an opportunity for us to be creative and to rediscover our local ingredients, and it’s important to challenge ourselves, to do research, to reinvent the traditions,” says Sosa. “It’s not just about using gluten or not, but also what society is looking for, and how we commit ourselves to the hospitality industry and deliver our service promise.” 

Wheat is not the only starch available, reminds Sosa, calling attention to corn, rice, nuts, tapioca, and potato.

“You can make amazing corn bread without wheat, or tapioca bread with white cheese, arepas, empanadas – it’s just changing the way we see food and how to play with it, such as creating a fruit tart with almond flour, rather than white flour,” says Sosa.  

Sosa has even more reason to craft inventive gluten-free menus. Many of his diners are health conscious due to a cutting-edge medical clinic nearby. “We host a lot of guests with dietary restrictions like no gluten, no lactose, no casein, so we have to accommodate them,” he says. 

One of the biggest hurdles in maintaining a successful gluten-free menu is staff training. 

“You have to teach your staff the importance of keeping track of the recipes and not mixing the products the way they’re not meant to be mixed, and also proper storage and the baking process, that both need to be separate and in a clean environment,” says Sosa. “You could already have options on your menu without gluten, but guests may not know it if there is a lack of training to the service/kitchen staff.”

Sosa invites his colleagues to regularly review menus with a different perspective, checking to see if there are enough gluten-free dishes and trying adjustments without sacrificing quality or dining experience.

Photos courtesy of BRQ Restaurant, Niba, Seven Seeds, and Harvest at the Ranch at Laguna Beach.