More and more local restaurants are addressing gluten sensitivities with varied (and tasty) menus.
For one out of a hundred people, something as small as a crumb can trigger intestinal damage and that number may be on the rise. Recent research, according to a study by the Mayo Clinic, points to an increase in the number of patients diagnosed with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley) causes a reaction that injures the lining of the small intestine. This can lead to a host of problems, including vitamin deficiencies, lactose intolerance, infertility and intestinal cancers. There is no existing cure for the disease, and the only proven treatment is a lifelong avoidance of gluten in every form.
It’s hard enough to follow such a strict diet at home but can feel almost impossible to dine out. A restaurant can be a dangerous place for a person with Celiac disease, from the omnipresent fear of cross-contamination to the specter of ill-informed staff. Luckily, some Raleigh eateries are in the gluten-free vanguard, offering safe and scrumptious gluten-free meals served by people who understand the importance of dedicated fryers and separate spaces for those with food allergies.
“For us, education has been the key,” says David Lucarelli, Director of Operations at The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar. “It’s really important to make our staff aware of the consequences of making a mistake by ‘wheating’ someone. The risk and complications that gluten intolerant people face make it necessary to treat this allergy with urgency and seriousness, so our policy requires that a manager deliver any item that may have an allergen. Gluten is our most prevalent allergen, and we are keenly aware of it.”
The restaurant’s gluten-sensitive items are marked on the menu, including filler-free burgers served with a Celiac-friendly bun, certain sushi rolls and a flourless chocolate torte with almond crust and caramel creme anglaise. When served, a flag denotes the gluten-free items confirming the order.
“We have a large menu with exotic ingredients, so menu training in general is very important in both the front of the house and the kitchen,” says Amanda Haisley, chef at downtown global street food restaurant bu*ku. “It helps that a good majority of our ingredients are gluten-free so we don’t have to be as concerned, but when we are dealing with them we change cutting boards, knives, etc., and naturally gloves and hand-washing are crucial.”
Bu*ku offers a gluten-free menu with a range of flavors, including Harissa-spiced hummus with local vegetables, duck larb, empanadas with chipotle-braised chicken, pad thai and Aloo Chana Chaat with spicy potato cake. It has designated one of its two fryers as gluten-free to avoid cross-contamination.
“Our head chef Matt knows how important it is that a gluten-free pizza is prepared separately,” says Pizza La Stella managing partner Rudy Theale. “The precaution that we take is that we cook each gluten-free pizza on its own independent metal tray in the pizza oven so it doesn’t touch the base of the oven.”
The new downtown pizzeria can make any of its specialty Neapolitan pizzas, like the Italian Stallion or the Bolognese, with gluten-free dough, and cooks the pizzas on the opposite end of the oven as the pizzas made with wheat flour; they also offer all-meat meatballs and gluten-free wood-fired wings. However, Theale cautions that the restaurant’s very nature creates an atmosphere in which an accidental glutening could occur.
“We take every human precaution we can,” he says. “But let’s face it…at the end of the day, you’re still working in a kitchen that has an abundance of flour because of the business we’re in. If someone will get deathly ill, it’s not worth the gamble, but we’ve had many Celiacs, some friends of the family, that come back again and again to eat here.”
The Cowfish’s Lucarelli agrees.
“It is impossible to be gluten-free in an environment where wheat flour is being used,” he says. “We make every effort to not cross contaminate, but we do work in an environment that has gluten particles in the air. For this reason, we call our products ‘Gluten Sensitive.’”
One Raleigh restaurant has eliminated the risk of cross-contamination by operating completely gluten-free. Fresh Levant, a Mediterranean bistro in Lafayette Village, offers a Celiac-safe (and soy-free) menu with fresh organic and non-GMO ingredients, stuffed with items usually verboten for Celiac sufferers: pita, flatbreads, pasta and pastries.
“My motivation was a lack of restaurants serving this niche,” says owner Anita Khalek. “My family and I have food allergies and we could not eat out without getting sick from cross-contamination.”
The restaurant sprang from a blog Khalek created to share her recipes. She says it took many years to perfect her dishes, but now her baked goods rival any traditional cakes and pastries.
“No gluten enters our kitchen, we prepare everything on premise from scratch to ensure no fillers or artificial ingredients, (so) our guests can feel very comfortable enjoying any of our menu items without worries,” she says. “We believe in clean healthy ingredients; we never use any fillers or gums, artificial colors or flavors, no high fructose corn syrup, no MSG.”