Celiac.com 05/05/2008 - We have all had our terrible times at a restaurant. It doesn't matter if it is your local diner or a 5 Star restaurant--it is hard to have somebody make our food if the smallest crumb can make you sick, then ruin your day or week. With a little preparation on your part, you can go on a cruise or dine on food made for a king or queen.

Preparing for Your Travel
The most important part of any travel is to prepare for it. If you are like our family you search for a fare that the family can afford.  You also have to go the extra step for your food. “PLEASE REMEMBER I GET VERY SICK FROM THE SMALLEST CRUMB SO I GOT TO BE SO CAREFUL OR I AM SICK FOR 5 DAYS.”  Not every one is like me but I am one of the worst cases so I have to be extra careful. Judge for yourself and decide what you can handle and how extreme you need to be.

When you are looking for a place to sleep if you are booking your motels ahead of time it is nice to try to get a microwave and refrigerator in your room. Most chains have a few rooms with microwaves in them so ask for it. During our trip to Las Vegas I cooked a whole chicken in the microwave and then cooled it and put it in our little fridge.  When I got hungry and my wife got pizza or a burger and I just didn’t trust the place I would wait and go to my room to eat. You don’t have to go that far, but if you like a canned or other product you can pick it up from a local grocery store and then warm it up.

Don’t forget to ask, especially if you are staying at a resort or a hotel with restaurant, whether they have a gluten-free menu.  Not every restaurant knows about the "Gluten Monster." Eventually we will get out the word and the world will cook for us.

One time when we were traveling we found a little deli that was just across from the hotel and they prepared gluten free-food if you ordered a day ahead.   My wife ordered some gluten-free bread sticks for our dinner. We picked them up and brought them to dinner.  The restaurant didn’t have a problem with this and they said that for the next meal they would have someone pick up our food from there if we wished.

Perform Internet searches for the area where you will be staying and look for any advertised gluten-free restaurants or health food stores. Also check to see if there is a local celiac group.  The local celiac support group will know of restaurants and stores in that and can make other important suggestions.  You can find some of this info right here at celiac.com.  The celiac groups can be reached by email and they will know of all the important information that you can use during a trip to their area. This also goes for any trips outside the USA.

You should be prepared for your trip. You know where you’re staying and you already have got some contacts with fellow celiacs in the area and where you can eat. Let’s start by getting your paper work ready.
  1.  You need your gluten-free list of ingredients.  The safe or forbidden list if you are not sure what you can and can’t eat.
  2. You need a gluten-free restaurant card.  This is what you use when you go to a restaurant to let the cook or chef know that you are a celiac and your food needs special handling. You should make plenty of copies of them to last for your trip, and it needs to be in the language that is common for the place you are going.  If you are going into Mexico it needs to be in English and Spanish.
  3. If you are bringing spices to put on your food, I some times like to bring a small amount of a Cajon spice that I make up.  I ask for my food not to be spiced in the kitchen because in the resorts that I have worked at we would make our own salt and pepper mixtures to season the food and everybody used it--meaning everyone’s hands, including crumbs could be in it.  Bring your own gluten-fre soy sauce and other sauces like hot sauce.
  4. Make sure you have all your gluten-free information. The restaurants, delis and any thing you need plus the directions and phone numbers.  Don’t get there and find out that you have just ended up on the wrong side of the tracks.
  5. Keep all of this in a folder nice and tidy so you know where it is.
If you have to drive I found it very easy to stop at a fast food place.  The kids like it and if you haven’t noticed most of them keep it very clean and that is very important to us. Ask for your food to be made fresh. Even at fast food restaurants mistakes can happen and if you ask for a salad right from the counter it could have bread on it.  They will prepare your food fresh if you ask and be nice and tell them you have a special diet and you will get very sick from a crumb.

Ask for the manager at this fast food place to help you.  The manager is going to be someone who has worked at the restaurant longer than a week and will care more.  Again tell them you have a special diet request and you could get very ill if you vary a crumb.  It’s a crap shoot that the manager might prepare your food or will tell some one to make it for you.

When you go to the fast food place you don’t have to eat salads only.  I go and ask for “Double burger with cheese and lettuce, tomatoes, onions.”  No sauces, catsup, mustard, mayo or pickles.  Ask for the packets that are for to go and you can read what the ingredients are in them.  I ask them to prepare it for me and I watch to make sure they use a clean fork that I hand them or if they put fresh gloves on. With these fast food restaurants you can see all the way to the back and I love that. Order some French fries if you know they are gluten-free and you’re on your way. Make sure if you do order French fries that they only cook French fries in that fryer and they cook nothing else in them. If you eat at any restaurant you must ask them if they are made in a dedicated fryer.

Some fast food places have chicken breast and other food so again, you don’t just have to eat salads. If you don’t stop at a fast food place and it is not on your list of gluten-free places you should get out one of your “Chef Daniel Letters” to give to the chefs in the back.  Be prepared to wait longer.  When you arrive ask the waiter or matre’d if they have a gluten-free menu.

If they have gluten-free menu that is great but the gluten-free menus I have seen don’t give the restaurant its due.  They just put a few items on the menu like salad and a steak and expect that to feed everyone…WRONG.  Chef Daniel wants to eat what I want not what they tell me what I can eat.  I mean if my wife can have chicken, pork, shrimp, lobster, lamb and that entire menu why can I only get three things? I AM A BIG BOY…one of my pet peeves is this limited choices offered by most gluten-free menus.

It is so much easier to talk with the manager when you come in and explain that you have a special diet request and you will get very ill than it is to explain it to the wait staff who have 12 tables and could care less about you because the manager is yelling at them to get to the next table or that an order is up.

If you don’t order from the gluten free menu and you see something else on it you might like you have to ask questions:
  1. Is the product marinated before it is cooked? If it is you can’t have it. Like a chicken teriyaki.
  2. Can it be thawed if it is in the freezer? They have all of the chicken or pork in a marinade but they have some in the freezer and could they microwave it to thaw it so you can have it.
  3. What type of broiler do they use if you’re asking for your food to broil and can it be cleaned before you have your food broiled?  Food stays on the broiler for a while so it must be steel brushed, or the chicken teriyaki he just cooked could be on your broiled steak.  The over the head broilers can have the grills lifted up to the flame and it will cook everything away.
  4. If the waiter or manager can’t answer your questions you should look to see if you can ask for the cook. Before you ask for the cook you should look around the dining hall and if it is extremely busy remember you are not the only one there and asking for a cook might really upset them. If it is slow the chef or cook won’t mind coming out.  If it looks too busy you should only ask the manager or keep it very simple.
When you decide what you are eating I like to put down on the paper exactly how to cook my food (Chef Daniel P. form). Do I want it pan fried or broiled? If I have it broiled I ask them to steel brush the grill.  Your Chef Daniel slip should ask them to use a fresh tong, knives, cutting board and even a fresh cloth if they wipe your plate.    I give them as much direction I can think of so they know I am very serious about my special diet and that if prepared wrong in any way I will get very ill.

Real World Here
 I have gone to a restaurant and did everything I said--triple checked and the salad came out with croutons on it. I am polite to the wait staff and tell them again that I can’t have any bread on my salad. Then I gave it back to the wait staff and sat and waited for a new salad and I received the salad I JUST GAVE THEM TO TAKE BACK and they simply took the croutons off the salad and brought it right back to me!

Don’t be afraid to say “Hey you just brought me the same salad back and I can see the crumbs from the croutons.” Oh yeah that is a true story. Check your food carefully when it comes out to you.  If you see the tiniest piece of something that doesn’t look right say NO WAY.  You order a steak and you see a bit of carrot on it THAT PROBALLY MEANS HE USED TONGS THAT HE USED TO PICK UP CARROTS WITH. The carrots are not on your plate.  My wife has to deal with me when we go out to eat but I have no choice because the smallest crumb takes me out for four days. I’d rather go hungry then get sick. When that salad came out I gave them one chance and if they don’t do it right I don’t take the chance with the local “hot head” cook to get one over on me.  I POLITLY SAY “NO THANK YOU,  I DON’T WANT TO EAT HERE ANYMORE” . It’s my money, my health and sadly, during the subsequent four days that I am sick they don’t care about me, so I’d rather get some cheese or chips or something simple. In these cases I leave the restaurant and they take my food off of the bill because I don’t eat a thing.

So always have an alternative plan if you can’t eat.  My wife and kids can eat but if I don’t feel the right vibe in the restaurant I must move on, and you should to.  It’s not hard for any restaurant to make a burger and fries for the family so let them eat and you move on to plan B.  Again each person’s tolerance is different so you have to make up your mind but it is your trip and your health.

When you are on the road you have to choose your restaurant and always have a plan B.  I choose the fast food because I can watch them make my food. You might like to be pampered so pick a nice restaurant and try to make sure it is not during peak hours--this will help a lot.

I hope this is Helpful

Chef Daniel P.

I will continue with staying at hotels and motels in my next article.

As always, Celiac.com welcomes your comments (see below).