Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Eating out Gluten Free - Emma McDaid interview with The Gluten Free Foodie

A lovely journalism student Emma McDaid contacted me recently for an interview. She is writing a piece for her portfolio about coeliac disease and gluten free diets. 

Here it is: 
What inspired you to start your own blog on gluten-free dining?
I was very frustrated as there was no information out there. I was tired of going to really disappointing places but more importantly I wanted to share the really fabulous gluten free friendly places I had found.  
In your blog, you search for good gluten-free food when dining out. Have you found that the amount of restaurants offering gluten-free meals have risen in recent years or not?
Certain trends have changed quite a lot and have helped those with gluten free diets. For example, lunches have changed from stodgy carb based italian foods such as pastas and paninis, or sandwiches in general to healthier fresh food served by places like Leon, Pret, Itsu, Cruush and Pod. So lunch has gotten a lot easier. 

The general trend for healthier food and for locally sourced food that is cooked fresh has made a big difference. Before restaurants often used packet ingredients such as sauces that already contained gluten and couldn't be changed. Take gravy for example - ten years ago I couldn't find a single pub that had gluten free gravy with the roast - they were all using packet mixes. Today I know lots of gastropubs that pride themselves on having homemade gravy without any flour. 

Awareness has gotten better, and chains are finally jumping on the gluten free bandwagon - such as Pizza Hut, Prezzo, Bella Italia and Dominos doing a gluten free pizza. 
What’s the most common problem you encounter when eating out with coeliac disease?
Staff ignorance and cross contamination I would say. And both of those are about trust. 

You almost have to be like a poker player reading staff's faces to see if there is real understanding and knowledge there or if they are just bluffing you. So many times a very blase response of "so the pasta will be fine but you can't have rice though, right?" It's a lot of misinformation, often fed back to you as fact. I once had an argument with a very self assured waiter that semolina is gluten free, until I got on the internet on my phone to double check. 

With cross contamination, short of going into the kitchen yourself (which I have sometimes been known to do - for the blog of course!), it's once again about communicating your needs to the staff and choosing an establishment that will take those needs seriously.  
Have you found that fine-dining restaurants tend to be more likely to offer gluten-free food than more casual restaurants or vice versa?
Certainly. They have a much larger factual knowledge of food and have been through rigorous training to get to that level - that's both the staff in and out of the kitchen. They know what gluten is and if they want to strive to gain an accolade such as a Michelin star they are required to cater for food allergies.  (If the michelin team need anyone to join them to test gluten free meals, I am available!)

Because fine dining food is guaranteed to be made fresh on the premises they can always cater and adapt dishes for you. My favourite thing to hear from a chef is that they can make anything on the menu for me gluten free if I'm willing some minor substitutions. 

I wish I could say it's the same with more casual restaurants but it's not often the case. There's a difference between those working as wait staff during their summer break or for a few years out of university and those who are doing it for a life-long career. 
What’s your favourite gluten-free alternative food?
In restaurants I'd say it's the simple substitution of gluten free flour instead of plain - it opens up so many dishes on the menu. 

I love buckwheat - it's great for pancakes and pasta. 

I'm also partial to the occasional Dietary Specials frozen pizza, but that's a naughty treat. 

Do you think there has been an increase in awareness of coeliac disease recently, and an increase in the availability of gluten-free food products? If not, what measures do you think should be taken to increase awareness?
There definitely has. It's partly the supermarkets catching on and seeing the demand for the products in plain facts and figures - something that restaurants can't quantify as easily. 

I've seen brands such as Genius try and raise awareness through their ad campaigns. 

Certainly high profile sporting figures such as Novak Djokovic talking about his gluten free diet has brought it into the mainstream consciousness lately. 

In terms of increasing awareness I think the best solution to several large problems including the under-diagnosing of the disease is to do what the Italians do. They test every child for coeliac automatically at the age of five. This serves two purposes - firstly finding the one in a hundred children who have the disease, while also educating the parents in the society as to its existence. If you say "me sono celiaco" (I am a coeliac) in Italy it will get you a response of recognition 90% of the time. 
When eating out on holiday, do language barriers cause problems when ordering food? How do you get around it to ensure you don't eat any gluten?
I always have a translation on my phone in the notes section. That way I can hand it to the waiter whether I'm somewhere that uses our alphabet, like Spain, or not, such as Indonesia. 

I get the text from the hugely helpful Celiac Travel http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/ 
What is the main advice you would give to others when eating out with coeliac disease?
Always trust yourself and your instincts above a staff member's. If that sauce looks thickened, ask a question. Don't be afraid to ask, ask and ask again. You are the paying customer and you have a serious medical condition. It's not worth getting sick for the sake of trying to be an easy customer. Always be polite and just explain the severity of the situation and how sick you will become. And lots of thank you's go down well too. So does the slight technical white lie of a word "Allergy". I use it. I suggest other coeliacs do too!

Don't be afraid to call ahead either- especially if you are going to a place picked by someone else that might not be as accommodating - such as an office Christmas dinner. Ask what you can have and indeed, what you can bring. I've taken gluten free pasta with me to a restaurant before.  
If you could offer one piece of advice on how to stay healthy and well-nourished on a gluten-free diet, what would it be?
Don't eat too many of the gluten free substitutes for glutenous things.  They are often high in fat and sugar. You need to find naturally gluten free alternatives that have high fibre content and that will replace the nutrition you are missing from not having wheat products in your diet. 

 Dreaming of gluten free beer
Flaxseed, buckwheat, amaranth, teff flour, quinoa - all these are interesting and healthy substitutes that you can include in your diet, either in your breakfast with a cereal like Mesa Sunrise, or at lunch with flaxseeds on your salad.  

Learning to cook a few simple recipes at home with plenty of vegetables and these interesting ingredients will keep you healthy and happy and often people discover a love for cooking that they didn't have before. I adore the Hare's Moor D.I.Y curry kits for example - I now make a homemade curry from scratch at least once a week!

I would say embrace being gluten free, it shouldn't feel like a life of substitutes  And as I always say, the best things in life are gluten free. Don't take away wine, chocolate or cheese and all will be right with the world. 

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