I knew when the Mardi Gras parade came down the main aisle of the exhibit hall with the band playing Dixieland and masked characters throwing beads that this was not going to be your typical food show. With lots of revelry and champagne, the 60th “Toast to Talent” Louisiana Restaurant Show was a full three days of fun, southern hospitality and amazing aromas and tastes. Fortunately, my husband Dave and son Cole agreed to come along. Since we are all in the foodservice business, we could learn a few things at the show and explore the city together at night.
When Sandy Riddle, Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) Exhibitors, called to invite me to speak at the LRA show this year I was so excited, but a bit sad too. I hadn’t been to New Orleans (NOLA) since my 20’s, before my celiac disease diagnosis (or as I like to call it “pre-CD”). I remembered all the amazing food like gumbo, etouffee, jambalaya and beignets, which of course all contain gluten, and all but the beignets contain roux. (Roux is a mixture of flour and butter cooked together until bubbly and brown. The desired color depends on what you are preparing and sometimes it can take a good long time of stirring and waiting to get the perfect color and taste.) But I was hopeful that I would find some new flavors and gluten-free foods while exploring the city.
I’ve met some really nice people at various shows across the US and always enjoy that first day when I’m able to meet fellow vendors setting up in the same aisle. It’s also a good time to check out which spots will have safe food choices when you need a nibble to keep up the energy and pass the time. Luckily, I happened to be smack dab next to one of the most popular exhibitors, Your Way Cuisines, a gluten-free roux company. Kristie Buford and her husband Chad are brand new to the gluten-free industry and saw a need and decided to fill it. They have created two roux bases made from corn and sorghum and they’re delicious. I have not had gumbo in 20 years and the gumbo they prepared with their product was full-flavored with a nice, smooth back heat.
Evenings consisted of strolls through the French Quarters from Bourbon Street to the Riverwalk. We tried to get the full NOLA experience, a concert at Preservation Hall, a ghost tour, shopping and people-watching on Bourbon Street.
Of course my guys had to find the bar, “Spirits” from the TV show Bar Rescue and purchase some kind of voodoo potion. We did find some tremendous restaurants that offered gluten-free options. Red fish was a popular entrée at many spots especially at Redfish Grill. The chicken with jambalaya risotto was succulent and spicy at Bourbon House and the service was impeccable. We really loved the music, atmosphere and Caribbean flavors at Rum House in the Garden District.
By day, I enjoyed meeting many of the chefs and restaurateurs from some of the famous and well-known establishments. We talked a great deal about the increasing demand and requests for gluten-free options, and how GREAT Kitchens, an online training course from NFCA, would be a valuable tool for staff to learn about safe preparation. When I was able to take a break from the exhibit, I found some tremendous booths showing off their gluten-free spice blends and recipes to create Cajun cuisine so I’m looking forward to putting my samples to good use. But by the end of the week, I was feeling a bit crabby; swampy heat can take its toll on a woman from Nebraska! NOLA certainly delivered new flavors, new recipes and new friends – even on a gluten-free diet.
I LOVE pizza – cold pizza for breakfast, hot, gooey, cheesy pizza with thick or thin crusts and toppings of all kinds: pesto, pepperoni, olives, onion, even anchovies. So when I was diagnosed with celiac disease back in 1992, when very few gluten-free products existed, I concluded my love affair with pizza was pretty much over. Making gluten-free pizza was a chore I could handle, but it just wasn’t the same. Eating pizza out of the box and sipping an ice cold beer while watching a movie, and hanging with the family or friends seemed impossible or too depressing. During a pity party, I even told my husband, Dave, my last request before I died was pizza delivered to my death bed with a cold brew as my last meal. (What’s one last jolt of poison when your about to take your last breath anyway?) I’m so glad gluten-free has come so far that I can pick a more extravagant last meal….maybe chocolate croissants. Never in my lifetime, did I expect to live to experience gluten-free pizza so accessible and tasty.
Recently, I was honored to speak at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas on behalf of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA). Gluten-free pizza is a HOT trend and operators across the country want to know what it takes to include gluten-free as an option for their customers, so I was thrilled to be asked to attend. Over 7,000 pizza operators attend this show annually to taste the latest, greatest ingredients, find new equipment, and attend educational sessions to learn how to make their business more successful. The energy at this show is over the top and the events are show stoppers. These operators are serious competitors, too. The contests happening right on the “All Pizza, All-of-the-Time Show Floor” included Bake Offs, Freestyle Acrobatic Dough Tossing, Pizza Challenges, and Demonstrations for pizzas, salads, and beer brewing. What an amazing experience.
My educational session, “How Pizzerias Can Serve a Gluten-Free Pie” included 3 panelists. As moderator and speaker, I provided education about serving diners with gluten-related disorders, the importance of training and safe preparation. My panelists, GREAT Kitchens grads (a training course from NFCA on safe gluten-free food preparation) Adam and Debbie Goldberg from Fresh Brothers, LA area, and Willy Olunds, from Willy O’s in Michigan, gave the attendees real life experience in serving gluten-free pizza. These experts gave different perspectives since Fresh Brothers has 8 locations and Willy O’s is an independent operation.
Willy invited me to tag along during his pizza competition in the non-traditional category. (No gluten-free category yet, but maybe next year.) According to Willy and his wife, Carla, this is highly irregular to allow non-participants in the competition area. I felt honored and so impressed with the intense passion each competitor brought to their pie including Willy. His unique corn-based crust and decadent ingredients made for a pretty impressive entry.
Other GREAT experiences included hanging out with the staff at Venice Bakery. (Their booth was amazing and so was the pizza!) I also sat in the front row and watched Iron Chef Redemption challenger Elizabeth Falkner demonstrate kale salad (crispy, fresh, and blanched kale) and actually met her after the demo. She’s really cool. I had some time to check out the exhibitors, so I said “hi” to old friends like Joel Schut from RW Bakers, Pamela and Alison from Pamela’s, and the DeIorio’s team. Best of all I made a new friend, Denise San Filippo (a fellow gluten-free gal) from Schar. Denise and I hit the strip one night and had a fabulous gluten-free dinner at Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris Hotel. From our window, we could see the Eiffel Tower and watch the Bellagio fountain show. (Sometimes this job is grueling!) Our waitress was well-educated about allergens and gluten which gave us confidence in our restaurant choice especially when she answered all of our probing questions correctly. She even brought us toasted gluten-free bread and warm olives for our starter. Denise had the scallops and I tried the Lemon Chicken with shallow Pom Frites. (Shallow means fried separately in a pan not a deep fryer.) It was delicious, especially the fried potatoes.
With every expo and conference I attend, I have the opportunity to meet new people and can’t help but feel ecstatic over the progress we’re making. 20 years ago, I thought I would never eat pizza again. Now, there are people seeking information on how to make both delicious and safe gluten-free pizza. And, to be able to be a part of that is a GREAT feeling.
I’ve become quite an expert at traveling. As Director of Gluten-Free Industry Initiatives for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), I’ve visited over 25 cities and worked in a dozen or more states within three years (my latest NFCA trip was to Atlanta, Georgia two weeks ago for the KeHE Summer Selling Show). I can maneuver through airport security with ease and efficiency, flipping off shoes and jackets and pulling out bags of liquids and my laptop in seconds. And since I have celiac disease, traveling means “always being prepared and aware” so I’ve created a list of “must-haves” snacks, which airports have safe choices and how to find gluten-free friendly and not so friendly restaurants anywhere in the country. (I use the Find Me Gluten-Free app to sort out potential eateries. This is a dining locator not an endorsement of gluten-free options. You still need to investigate by reading the reviews, making a call and asking questions.) I’ve also had to be proactive and advocate for myself and others with gluten-related disorders when it comes to attending business dinners, conferences and events by identifying my dietary needs on conference registration forms, plus notifying event coordinators, hotel hospitality and general managers.
This is all part of trip preparation. It takes a bit more time but I always feel it’s important to be an advocate for not only myself but for all people with gluten-related disorders. And while I’m traveling around the country, I feel it is my job and honor to be the voice for people with celiac disease everywhere by spreading education, awareness and understanding. (You may not want to sit next to me on a plane…you’ll get an earful.) I have learned that if we don’t politely ask, people may not think our dietary needs are necessary. If we don’t carefully express our needs, many may not think there are any. If we don’t calmly mention the mistake, serves and restaurants will never know there is a problem. If we don’t ask if they have completed NFCA’s GREAT Kitchens gluten-free training program, restaurant operators, chefs and servers may not think they need it. But, if we remain patient and plant the seed, the growth will come.
Here is my list of must-have gluten-free snacks to take with me on the go:
- KIND bars
- Gluten-free crackers (If you keep these in a tin, they’re perfect for packing in a suitcase)
- Individual servings of hummus and nut butter
- Jerky sticks
- Cheese sticks
- Mix nuts, dried fruit, gluten-free pretzels or chocolate chips
- Go Picnic boxes (Not everything by Go Picnic is gluten-free, so be sure to check before purchasing)
I’m always looking for new travel-friendly gluten-free foods. Comment below with your go-to travel snack to give me some fresh ideas!
Last February, I received a random phone call on my NFCA line. It was a mother, Jenny Tierney, who seemed pretty devastated. Her teenage twin daughters had just been diagnosed with celiac disease. (All of the staff at NFCA answer all kinds of calls from newly diagnosed patients and others in the food industry or healthcare field. It’s a great opportunity to walk them through the resources available at CeliacCentral.org.)
After a review of NFCA’s resources, Jenny felt a bit better and she agreed that she could handle adapting to the gluten-free diet at home and working with the school, but her biggest fear was sending the girls off to camp. The girls had gone every year since they were very young to this amazing camp for most of the summer. The solution was easy. I shared information about GREAT Schools, Colleges, and Camps and suggested she have the camp contact me.
A month later, I received an email from a college girlfriend Sara, who lives near Kansas City. Sara told me about her neighbor, Kathy Dix. Kathy and Sara had been chatting, and the topic of gluten-free foods came up. Sara is always telling people about her gluten-free college pal and my job with NFCA. She thinks it’s amazing how 20 years ago when I was diagnosed with celiac disease, it was considered a rare disease and food availability was scarce. Over the years, Sara has referred me to anyone interested in anything about gluten-free. She also cuts out articles related to celiac disease and gluten-free from newspapers and magazines and sends them with a note saying, “Reminded me of you,” or “Hey isn’t this cool?” or “Wow, this gluten-free stuff is everywhere.” Gotta love her for it.
Well, it just so happens that Kathy needed gluten-free training for her camp. She’s the director of a girl’s camp in upper Minnesota called Camp Ogichi Daa Kwe. A conference call was set up to talk to the staff to understand their needs and how NFCA’s GREAT Camps program could help. On the call, I perceived the compassion and love the staff seemed to have for their mission at the camp, and how vested they were in giving all their campers a complete experience. They were ready to sign up and complete the course.
Toward the end of the conversation, they revealed that their interest in learning about gluten-free protocol for the camp staff had to do with twins that returned every year. These twins had been diagnosed with celiac disease recently, and Camp Ogichi Daa Kwe wanted to live up to its “Strong Spirited” name and ease the girls’ mother’s concerns about sending them to camp while they were still learning the gluten-free diet. Kathy’s goal was to ensure that these young women would continue their “growth in self esteem, deep seeded friendships, and memories to last a lifetime,” and the first step in achieving this goal was becoming GREAT trained, allowing the girls to continue their summer tradition of attending Camp Ogichi Daa Kwe.
Small world, isn’t it?
Last Monday, I decided to step away from my desk for a much needed day off. A mental vacation, a road trip to do a bit of shopping, and lunch with my best gal pal would be the perfect way to spend the day off! After stocking up on herbs and spices at Penzeys and checking out the furniture store sales, I met Kyle at her favorite restaurant.
History Note: Kyle and I have been best friends since freshman year in college. People mistake us for sisters because we kind of look alike and think alike. We stood next to each other when we married our mates, and we birthed our babies exactly one week apart. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease, Kyle immediately learned about my diet, figured out how to feed me and threw a dinner party. Over the years, we’ve taken a few ‘girl trips’ where the days consisted of coffee on the patio, shopping, researching fabulous gluten-free dining spots, and ordering everything gluten-free so we could share plates. She is truly a GFBF (gluten-free best friend).
Kyle has been trying to coax me into dining at her favorite restaurant for years. It’s not that I hadn’t eaten there; in fact, I had dined there many times 20 years ago…BC (before celiac). I had not stepped foot inside since because they didn’t offer gluten-free options until recently, and I had been leery of dining there before important business trips or meetings for fear of possible cross-contamination. I just couldn’t take a chance.
So I decide, what the heck, it was close by and they have dynamite salads. How can they screw up a salad, right? Plus, it’s a Monday and surely they won’t be that busy. Plus, Kyle knows the owner/chef and staff well, and I was curious about their gluten-free menu.
I arrive to a packed room. Kyle waves to me from the bar where we plan to sit. After hugs and catching up, we ask for menus. Kyle asks for the gluten-free menu before I do…she’s so excited. We wait.
Eventually, the bartender comes back and spouts off the daily specials. We ask for the gluten-free menu again. He turns away, digs under a pile of menus, and puts it in front of me. Laminated and single-sided, it lists about ten choices. Salads and entrees were listed with instructions about what to leave off the dish. No prices, no restaurant logo, no description of the dish, no GREAT Kitchens seal either, but I knew that wasn’t going to be there – they haven’t gone through our gluten-free training.
I had a bad feeling. It was a busy lunch, I could see the kitchen staff hustling, and I had a gluten-free menu that didn’t really give me much guidance or confidence in the outcome.
Kyle looks at my menu and offers hers with colorful descriptions and prices to help me choose a few options to investigate. She waves over the owner, asks me to dig out a business card, and makes an introduction. (Kyle is extremely proud of me. She’s the one who gave me confidence and support to start a gluten-free consulting business 5 years ago, which lead to my dream job with NFCA.) With a smile, she hands him the card and says, “This is my dear friend who works for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. She is the director of a program called GREAT Kitchens.” The owner took a look at my card and replied, “So, am I under investigation?”
Was he kidding? He didn’t look like he was kidding. Did he need to be investigated? We laugh it off, and I ask for some help choosing lunch. The tortilla strips on the salad are fried in the same oil as breaded foods, but the menu doesn’t mention it. The grill does not have bread products cooked on it – good news. The salad dressing ingredients…I can tell by his face he isn’t really interested in sharing the recipe. I order the grilled salmon salad with vinegar and oil on the side. I notice the owner pop his head into the kitchen to possibly alert the staff.
Our salads arrive in front of us. They are fine. We eat. We pay the bill. We leave. Hugs and back on the road.
Driving home, I just felt terrible. I had an hour to stew over what had just happened. I wanted to cry because I just felt awful. My food was fine. No cross-contamination, the salmon was perfectly cooked, the greens were fresh. But I still felt horrible, empty inside. I had just been to a well-known restaurant that many people would give a four star rating for exceptional service, food quality and ambience. Not so much for me…maybe a half a star for their gluten-free guests.
The next morning Kyle called and said, “Have you ever been treated so poorly in all your life? I can’t believe how rudely we were treated. And that menu, how could you call it a gluten-free menu with nothing to help you make good choices? I’ve been getting madder by the minute thinking about it.”
Unfortunately, this wasn’t my first time dealing with restaurants that offer gluten-free options/menus to keep up with the trends but don’t really understand the customer. This past year, restaurants offering gluten-free options rose 61% according to foodservice consulting firm Technomic. Gluten-free guests have made progress in getting the attention of the restaurant industry by requesting options. But we have a long way to go to make sure they understand that special diet customers don’t really want to be special. They want to know that their food is safe and that their needs are understood. They just want to enjoy their lunch with a friend.
Learn more about NFCA’s gluten-free restaurant training program: GREAT Kitchens
Twice a year, I have the fortunate honor to be invited to a ‘Gluten-Free Baking Lab’ held at the Lincoln Southeast Community College Food Service/Hospitality program in Lincoln, NE. The students bake items from CIA instructor Chef Richard Coppedge’s cookbook, Gluten-Free Baking, and learn about the needs of those on a gluten-free diet. The process starts by thoroughly cleaning the kitchen, equipment, and utensils; blending the flours (Chef Coppedge provides five different blends); pairing up; and selecting recipes from the cookbook. The baking begins. Then I arrive for the tasting and a Q & A with the students.
You might think it is pretty bold of me to assume that what’s being served on the plates is really safe and totally gluten-free. Well, you’d be right – if I didn’t know the lead instructor, Certified Executive Chef Brandon Harpster, is GREAT trained. In fact, six of the instructors on the foodservice staff at LSCC completed GREAT Kitchens training back in 2008. So, I feel pretty confident in the guidance and instruction received by these young chefs.
As I arrive for the tasting, the proud students parade into the classroom with their masterpieces. I snap their pictures, and they gently place them on the table. I get a bit choked up every time I attend these labs. When I was diagnosed almost 20 years ago, I could never have imagined culinary students being exposed to gluten-free baking and embracing the challenge and opportunity. I really believe that 5-10 years from now, all culinary students will have a standard class on allergen-free baking and cooking. It will be commonplace. This generation has grown up with allergies or celiac disease; they have friends or family members who have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or allergies. Yes, there really is hope and promise in the foodservice industry. We are seeing big strides every day. It was thrilling to hear the students talk about working in restaurants that have gluten-free options, such as a successful local pizza chain and others in well-respected establishments with skilled chefs who “get gluten-free.”
The sampling included Strawberry Bread, Chocolate (Red) Velvet Cake minus the red food coloring, Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Brownies, Cinnabon-ish Cinnamon Rolls, Angel Food Cake, Peanut Butter Cookies, and Zucchini Pumpkin Bread. While they munched, I shared a brief description of my NFCA position, celiac disease history, and current marketplace trends. I really wanted to make sure we had time for questions because I was curious about aspiring culinary students want to know. They had some GREAT questions. Here are a few with my responses.
Student Question: Besides the obvious sources of gluten, what else do chefs need to be concerned about when preparing gluten-free meals?
Beckee’s Answer: Gluten can be hidden in unlikely places. I once learned the hard way that flour can be added to refried beans to thicken them. Gluten can be hidden in sauces, marinades, flavorings and many processed foods. Reading labels is very important, but so is knowing that gluten can be found in soup bases, soy sauce, stabilizers and thickeners.
If you work in a scratch kitchen and know your ingredients and sources, that’s only part of the answer to knowing safe gluten-free preparation. The most important skill to learn is how to prepare gluten-free foods safely because cross contamination is a huge concern to your customers. Picking up a bread knife and cutting a baked potato can turn a perfectly gluten-free option into something that can harm someone on a medically restricted gluten-free diet. Your customers must feel confident in your expertise to serve safe options. Educating yourselves by taking GREAT Kitchens training will provide that trust and give you another tool in your culinary skills when you start hunting for jobs.
Student Question: What is the potential for increased sales for restaurants that “go gluten-free”?
Beckee’s Answer: One in 133 people has celiac disease, and 1 in 18 has gluten intolerance. They are the members of the party that will be making the reservations. Most diners don’t dine alone; they bring friends and family with them. If they order dishes to share, they’ll make them gluten-free. They’re loyal to those restaurants that can safely serve gluten-free and will look for the GREAT seal of approval like the GREAT Kitchens decal, logo, or a reference on their menu telling guests that training is in place. People needing gluten-free options will only increase over the next 5 years due to more awareness and diagnoses. Advertising gluten-free options can be a differentiator in the restaurant business.
Student Question: If you have a reaction or get sick, do you call the restaurant and let them know?
Beckee’s Answer: Excellent question. Honestly, in the past, I wasn’t consistent about doing so. I’d just take it off my list of dining options and tell my gluten-free pals to beware. However, when I started working with chefs and training restaurants, I asked if they wanted to know. Unanimously, the answer was “Yes.” How can you fix the problem if you’re not aware of it? Now, I always contact the establishment, and I encourage others to do so. I can remember talking with a general manager for a restaurant who had a gluten-free menu but no staff training. He told me they “just didn’t get many people asking for gluten-free.” Hmmm, wonder why?
The last thought that I left the class with was this: When you go out to eat or dine, what are you thinking about after you’ve order your meal? Are you thinking about your gorgeous date? The hilarious joke someone told at the table? Maybe you’re anticipating the fabulous food that will be served soon. Sometimes, people with celiac disease are solely focused on what’s happening in the kitchen. Will they make a fresh salad instead of just picking off the croutons? Will the cooks clean the grill before charring the steak? Does the restaurant really have a dedicated fryer? Through GREAT gluten-free education, all the guests at the table can enjoy the ambience, company, and great food you set before them.
Learn more about gluten-free training through GREAT Kitchens at www.CeliacLearning.com/kitchens.