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  • Daniel Moran
    Daniel Moran

    Traveling and Eating Gluten-Free at Restaurants

    Celiac.com 05/16/2008 - Knowing the Kitchen on Your Travels
    As you travel there is no way around it—you need to eat at a restaurant.  If you are like me, you probably don’t look forward towards eating out.  I have been trained by some of the finest chefs in the world and there wasn’t enough training to prepare me for eating out gluten-free.  Don’t get me wrong, if I was not celiac I could take the menus apart and know everything necessary to impress my wife and order the right food and wine.  Yes I even was involved in wine tasting in Palm Beach Florida.

    That was then and this is now.  Walking into the restaurant, sadly, the first thing I do is ask for the manager and whether or not they have a gluten free menu.  I have been told over and over about restaurants that have a gluten-free menu, and yes, this is great, but in these cases I have found that most of the time:

    • The staff in the back is not trained in proper food handling techniques, and cross contamination often occurs.
    • The wait staff (who know I just ordered gluten-free) still put bread rolls on my plate for me to eat, or even croutons on my salad (again, lack of proper training).
    • The gluten-free menu is limited to 3 or 4 items when the full menu has over 40 items to choose from.  Why can’t I have an appetizer, soup, salad, entrée and a dessert?  It is already there in the menu so why do I have to be limited?
    Like I said, it is nice that they offer a gluten-free menu, but when I go out to eat—especially on vacation—I want to be treated special just like my wife and kids.  So when I look at the menu I look for the food I like and then I use my Chef Daniel's restaurant paper to write down exactly what I want and how I want it prepared.

    I have had comments that some of you think the chef is going to get mad and that you are insulting them by writing down what you want to eat…my reply—this is hogwash!

    For those of you who still believe that they will be upset let’s look at what happens from the chef’s viewpoint during the day at a restaurant.  He waits for the wait staff to bring in the order. It is usually on a ticket stating whether the food should be rare, medium or even broiled or sautéed.  On the same ticket the wait staff tells them what vegetables or whether they will have French fries or baked potato.  Hopefully you see where I am going with this.

    As you must have learned by now, if you have traveled to a restaurant, even one with a gluten-free menu, sometimes the staff doesn’t even know what gluten-free means, and if this is the case how could the chef possibly know?  Who is training them? They come to work and are told they have to make a steak gluten-free.  So they make a steak and put the garnish on it and when the customer gets it they say “wow, this is great, I am about to eat a steak from the gluten-free menu.” HOLD ON!  “Oh no, the garnish on the plate is a fancy fruit relish that is made with malt vinegar.”  CROSS CONTAIMNATION. What I have been saying from the start.  Yes this really happen to me—the liquid from the relish ran down the plate and on my steak—this was a few years ago before I started to use my restaurant/chef skills to order my food.  

     I have talked with some of my chef friends and not one of them said they would get offended, and it would be just like if someone came in to the restaurant and asked me to make a kosher meal.  I am expected to do it right because if I didn’t they would be offended and then they would never return to the restaurant.  If I pleased them, however, they would tell their friends about their positive experience. This would mean more money for the restaurant, and that makes my boss happy. Some of you will still doubt me but that is okay because when I walk into a restaurant I expect to be pampered just like everyone else does.  Be sure to always have a plan B, and be prepared to leave or not eat your meal if there are problems with it.  There are way too many restaurants in a town for me to get sick over a crumb.  Once you start talking with the manager or the waiter you will quickly learn if what they are telling you is real or just hogwash.

    Another Real Experience
    I was given a gluten-free menu at a restaurant and I asked the waiter if he knew what gluten-free meant.  He said “yes,” so I asked him whether croutons come on the salad that I had ordered. He said “sure, croutons come on all the salads and they are already made, but I can take them off”.  I am not making this up folks, this was at a well known Italian restaurant that is a chain all over the USA. I switched to plan B and didn’t eat there. My wife who loves this place did eat and I went to a party store got some snacks. It might be harsh to some but if the waiter is not properly trained how do I know whether the cook or anyone else there is properly trained?  Just because a restaurant has a gluten-free menu means nothing (unless I can verify that the staff was properly trained by speaking to them).

    Fast Food Restaurants
    If you have followed my articles you will know that I like some of the fast food restaurants.  Many of these large chains adhere to strict cooking methods.  This is good for us because they stay the same and there is less of a chance for cross contamination.  In many cases these restaurants use dedicated fryers for certain foods, for example French fries. So you can usually have French fries and not worry about the batter from the chicken nuggets.

    Cross contamination to me is the way the “Gluten Monster” attacks us—when we least expect it.  No matter how much you say or ask, if they put your food on the table that just had gluten on it you’re going to get sick. I always ask for the manager to help me. Here is an example of how I order:

    • Could you please give me the double cheese burger with only lettuce, tomato and onion?  I have a special diet request and it is very important that you do not touch any bread or crumbs from any other product.
    • Could you please put fresh gloves on or could you use a plastic fork to get my burgers out?  It is important that the cook back there doesn’t’ get my meal because he has handled other bread with those gloves.
    • I would like catsup, mustard and mayo packages (to read the ingredients myself).
    • I would like French fries if they are cooked in a dedicated fryer.
    • I would like a plain salad and could you please open a fresh bag of the salad mix for me because, again, I am afraid that maybe a crumb got into the salad.  If you can’t open a fresh bag of salad I would go without the salad.
    • I would like to look at a couple of your salad dressings to see what salad dressing I can eat if that is ok with you.
    • Beverage usually isn’t a problem.
    • Gluten in ice cream is a possibility.
    • Always watch the staff the whole time they are making your food to see if any mistakes are made.
    • Never be afraid to say you don’t want something if you fear it.
    There are also other options, for example you might be able to do the chicken or other products if you know that they are gluten-free.  Not all French fries are gluten-free.  Some that have a spice on them might have wheat on them. Be sure to know your fast food place by searching online for information on what you can and can’t eat, and never be afraid to ask.

    Mexican Cuisine
    Going to Mexican restaurants is one of my favorite options.  Much of the food is made with corn.  After you sit down, review the menu and decide what you want.  The chips are usually corn, but be sure to ask, and if so you can have them with some shredded cheese as an appetizer. Most of the salsas are made with only fresh vegetables.  The main items that you ask for is to make sure they use only fresh foods for you.  This is why you should ask for the manager when you walk in. The manager should be able to help you order.

     If you like hot sauce I would bring it myself.  Those specialty items are small and handy to have if you like them.  You never know what type they will have and it is nice to eat it with your Mexican meal.  If you ask for refried beans and they are gluten-free, I would ask for them to open a fresh can and have them microwave it.  Any of the food that is processed I would ask for fresh can and for them to microwave it.  If they don’t have a microwave they can heat it up in a steamer, broiler or a sauté pan.  You should always be able to eat well at a Mexican restaurant.

    How I Order Gluten-Free Mexican Food:

    • I would like some corn chips and cheese melted over the top of them.  You could use the above broiler or just use the microwave to do it.
    • I would like a small tomato, whole not sliced for my salad and for my chips.
    • I would like a mixed green salad from a fresh unopened bag with a small cucumber that I will cut myself.
    • I would like one half of a fresh avocado for my salad and chips.
    • I would like two tablespoons of olive oil and some red wine vinegar for my salad (maybe even a half of a lemon too).
    • Cook 1 cup of meat (no seasoning) add to 2 corn shells and top with fresh cheese from a bag or cut fresh.  Add fresh lettuce and tomato and microwave it until it is hot and melted, then add 4 ounces of corn on top.
    I add some hot sauce when the food comes to the table.

    How I Order Gluten-Free Italian Food:
    We can’t eat the pasta but some of the mixes that go on the pasta are great.  If it is strips of chicken or shrimp, there are many items that can be looked at.  With sun dried tomatoes or avocado, those could be added to your entrée or salad.  They will have mussels and good meats, you just need to read what they have and make a great meal. When you look at the menu you have to ask or determine, what is sitting on the table by the chef and can I use that for my meal. Every entrée has mizzen pla. (Products in place) meaning that the chef needs everything right next to him to make his meal.  If the entree you are looking at is seafood fettuccini with a cream sauce.  The chef will need fresh seafood, cooked noodles, sauce, vegetables and seasoning. If this was made up already for the night, the noodles and seafood would be garbage.  As a celiac you can take the seafood as long as it is not marinated in something.  That goes for most of the items if you read what is in the entrée.  Know what is fresh and what is frozen and you will be able to pick apart a menu.  Always ask and you will learn for the next time.

    Sample Orders:

    • Strips of chicken breast with no skin broiled (please metal brush the grill first before you lay my food down)  cook till done, then lay sundried tomatoes on the chicken strips and top with fresh sliced mozzarella cheese and broil in top-type broiler, or microwave until melted.  If there is no way to melt please slice thin and it will be good enough.
    •    Fresh spinach with 1-2 lemon and red wine vinegar, two tablespoons olive oil extra virgin, one small tomato and 4 ounces of mozzarella cheese (I will cut the tomato and mozzarella cheese  myself).
    •    Mixed melody of seafood sauté with olive oil then reduce with wine. Place on the side when ¾ of the way done.  Add ¼ cut mushrooms, shallots, fresh garlic, sun dried tomatoes and sauté until down add heavy whipping cream reduce then add the seafood (add nothing if you don’t have heavy whipping cream).  Add fresh herbs chopped up or tear apart (no dried herbs).

    In this article I offered examples for a few types of restaurants.  I could go on and on. You need to understand how restaurants work to be able to order your food to be made gluten-free.  Please don’t limit yourself to the gluten-free menu only (if they have one).  You should not be discriminated against because you have a health concern.  That is a big word, I know, but we should be able to eat just like the next person can.  Our money is just as GREEN as another person’s.  I would rather pay a little more if I add something to an item then to be told that they can’t do it.  That is why I say that together we can tame the Gluten Monster.  When you are traveling there are a lot of restaurants to choose from.  Be prepared to wait and not be rushed, try to pick a restaurant that is not busy so the chef is not rushed by 20 other orders.  If you follow my approach you will have success eating out gluten-free in restaurants, and your dining experience will be pleasant—like it is suppose to be!

    Gluten-Free Travel Hints:

    • You should always try to getthe manager to help you.  In any restaurant they have the most time tohelp you and they will help you because they typically care more thanthe regular workers (today’s restaurants have employees that come inone day and are gone the next.help.  It is sad but that is the way itis so at least try to get the manager.
    • Don’t be ashamed to askfor anything. If you want a hot dog or the chips they put on the sideof the plate ask for a bag with the product inside.  Take out your safeand forbidden lists if needed and look at them to see if you can eat aproduct. 
    • Always have your Chef Daniel's restaurant paper with you in your walletor purse.
    • Always have a copy of your safe and forbidden lists with youin case you need it to read ingredients.
    • Always have a gluten-free restaurant card in the language you need.
    • Crosscontamination is the greatest risk for a celiac when traveling.  Crosscontamination can happen and you would never know it, such as when thechef uses a knife to cut a piece of bread, and then they use the sameknife on your vegetables, or when the chef uses a pair of tongs to flipa breaded chicken and then uses them to flip your sauté chicken.Thereare too many other ways to mention, but the main thing is that glutencould be on the tool before it is used on your meal, and it doesn’tmatter how safe the chef thought he was because you got one crumb andyou are sick for days and that ruins your vacation.

    Chef Daniel P.


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    Your article was great. I have had celiac for over 30 years and going out can be a pain. I have had good and many many bad meals at restaurants who have said they didn't cook or put anything in my food. Well tell that to my stomach as I am heaving over a sink. It has gotten to be a chore to go out to dinner. I don't have the patience to ask all the questions you do. I eat before we go out with friends so I know I won't have any problems later. Thanks for your tips.

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    Chef Daniel P-

    lots of things for you to reconsider:

    never order a CHEESE burger. Many cheaper possessed cheeses have gluten. Because of secrecy, many chefs would NEVER allow you to watch something special being made. No one should accept a salad with croutons put on when made in advance-they get soggy, etc

    I have a few more if interested but all in all article was helpful

    ....Dan

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    I am giving a poor rating for one reason only - you must not eat the corn tortilla chips until you know how they are prepared! Ask and you will find out that if they are made fresh at the Mexican restaurant they most likely where deep fried with the flour tortillas that they also serve. Huge cross contamination problem!!!!

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    No offense, you but are what gives annoying people in restaurants a bad name!! "I'd like 1/2 an avocado, 1 whole tomato, 2 tbs. vinegar and please use new gloves to touch my food and please open a fresh bag of salad".....you are not the prince or princess of anywhere. This is how people get their food spit in..hopefully that is gluten free though! We all have our gluten allergies here, but I would never EVER dream of being this picky at a restaurant! If you're going to be this bad, consider not ever eating out.

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    Wow! I did not like this article because you are expecting the world to bend over backwards for your disease. I have celiac disease and would never want to be "one of those people". I can make wise decisions based on what I already know to be gluten-free. There is no need to make everyone in the restaurant aware or give specific instructions. YOU, yourself need to educated on what you can and cannot have. It's not your responsibility to educate others everywhere you go.

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    As a server for many years, I do not mind helping people especially since a close friend is deathly allergic to peanuts, nuts, anything with traces of nuts, etc. But if a customer ordered with that attitude I would definitely not give them my best service and most restaurants would laugh. Here is your 3 cm in diameter tomato and 5 inch small cucumber. If you're this picky, eat at home.

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    No offense, you but are what gives annoying people in restaurants a bad name!! "I'd like 1/2 an avocado, 1 whole tomato, 2 tbs. vinegar and please use new gloves to touch my food and please open a fresh bag of salad".....you are not the prince or princess of anywhere. This is how people get their food spit in..hopefully that is gluten free though! We all have our gluten allergies here, but I would never EVER dream of being this picky at a restaurant! If you're going to be this bad, consider not ever eating out.

    Love this response!

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    No offense, you but are what gives annoying people in restaurants a bad name!! "I'd like 1/2 an avocado, 1 whole tomato, 2 tbs. vinegar and please use new gloves to touch my food and please open a fresh bag of salad".....you are not the prince or princess of anywhere. This is how people get their food spit in..hopefully that is gluten free though! We all have our gluten allergies here, but I would never EVER dream of being this picky at a restaurant! If you're going to be this bad, consider not ever eating out.

    Very true! I was a waiter in college and if someone requested all this I would tell them to go "you know what" themselves.

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  • About Me

    I am a Ex chef of the rich and famous. A celiac for 7 years now. WHAT I AM DOING NOW: *Going to restaurants and business and teaching their staff, prepare and serve gluten free meals. courses at a local college. *Making all my own celiac food from scratch. *Helping others to work out there problems involving food. **GOAL:To teach my knowledge to every one who needs it so they can go on a trip or out to a restaurant and not fear the GLUTEN FOOD MONSTER! Visit my site: http://chefdanielp.com

  • Related Articles

    Daniel Moran
    Celiac.com 06/03/2008 - As you travel and experience the sites of the world you are going to have to stop at a restaurant or destination that has a small kitchen.  Let me tell you a little bit about myself so you can understand that I also started in a small kitchen.
    Chef Daniel P's Autobiography
    I started working at the age of 13 and began my work in a very small tourist town and was promoted up from busboy to dishwasher.  I was so fast at washing the dishes that I was promoted up within a month to cook.  I went from the buffet type restaurant to an ala cart restaurant and buffet line.  At the age of 17 I was completely in charge of the kitchen—this included all ordering, menu making, staff hiring and firing, and every task a person would do to run a successful kitchen.  I didn’t know how to cook though—at least not compared to what I learned later. Yes I could do the basic menus but I wanted more and I left to climb the ladder of a big kitchen—so I set my sites on gourmet food.  At that time I saw that Prince Charles from England was visiting Palm Beach Florida.  I saw that he visited two places while he was in Palm Beach—the Palm Beach Polo Ground and he also visited the Breakers Resort.  I applied at both places when I came to Florida and both wanted to hire me.
    Every one has to start somewhere and you as the traveler are the ones who are going to train the future cooks or chefs.  Yes you—the cook is going to learn from you as celiac patrons, so you need to do the right training.  Let’s use the example of eating on a train that cooks for their patrons as they travel across the country.  I like to think of a small boat or train as two of the most difficult places to prepare a gluten-free meal.  They both are going to be small, and both have the potential to get bumpy while the cook is preparing food.  This means there is a good chance an accident can happen and of course cross-contamination.
    These kitchens probably keep their fires contained in the stove or flat top burners.  By keeping the flame for cooking contained in a box, this means they have less chance of a fire starting and that is very important if you are on a river or going down the train tracks. The cooks are going to use sauté pans, hard top grills, ovens, steam boxes and possibly microwaves.   If you know that you are going ahead of time to these types of restaurants you should see if they can send you the menu ahead of time so that you can look it over.
    Hint: If you know your destination for any of your trip, see if you can get the menu before you arrive, as most places always have their menus prepared ahead of time. If you get the menu you can make up your Chef Daniel P Restaurant Form before you go.
    I would try to spell out your entire meal in great detail.  I also use this technique for all mom and pop restaurants.  You are not insulting a cook or chef by asking them to prepare your meal a certain way.  Every day the cook receives orders from the waitress on how to prepare a particular meal.  Just because you are giving the instructions yourself only means to the chef that you are very serious about how your food is prepared.
    What to Eat And How to Cook Your Meal
    In these type of restaurants that are small and have limited space you have to try to eliminate any mistakes that the cook might make. How…you ask?  Try some of these ideas:

    Notify them ahead a time if you can.  Let the train, boat or any restaurant know that you are coming.  Make sure you tell them the date, time and how many people will be receiving special meals. Don’t be upset if you get there and no one knows that you are coming, it is just part of the business. Have their phone number available so when you arrive in the city you can call a few hours before you arrive to eat.  Just remind them again that you are planning on eating at their restaurant and ask them when their slowest time is. If it is a train or boat ask if you can eat at the last seating time (unless they indicate that an earlier time is slower).  Feel them out to see when the best time is for you to order a specially prepared meal. During your phone call, ask who you should ask for when you do arrive for your meal. Make sure you arrive with your Chef Daniel P Restaurant Form and a pen or pencil. When you arrive ask for the manager or the person you talked to on the phone. Tell the manager in great detail about your special diet request.  Let them know you will be writing out your request that will specifically tell them how to prepare your meal. Ask if there is anything you should know about the kitchen or the chef—anything that could help you in preparing your meal and making it as safe as possible.
    You might have to ask the manager how they cook their food. Some are going to use a flat-top grill, broiler, steamer or even a microwave oven.  Once you find this out it is time to create your meal instructions and present them to the manager so he can deliver them to the cook.How the Cook Prepares Your Food:

    Sautéing: To me is one of the safest ways to have your food prepared.  No matter if the cooks are in a small or large kitchen.  This is how I might write it down for the cook to see:  “Sauté 1 whole chicken breast in olive oil, make sure the pan is very clean and does not have a crumb on it.”  When asking to sauté you can ask for them to make a quick sauce in the pan.  That is what I do, even if it is just to squeeze a lemon on your food, this can add some fresh flavor. Hard Top Grill:  I don’t recommend using this unless you are the very first ones to arrive.  During the day when they cook on the grill pieces of food stay on the grill for the whole day.  You can ask them to use the razor blade to scrape the grill.  Even using the razor blade it is not 100% and food from other meals may get on your food. Steamer: This is a good way to cook as long as your food is the only one in the steamer.  You can ask them to wrap the food and this will keep all crumbs off of your food.  Example:  “Please wrap a piece of salmon up with some saran wrap.  Place it on a holey pan so the steam can circle salmon." Microwave: This is great for potatoes or vegetables and a good way to keep food safe.  I always ask for my veggies to be micro-waved.  This is a great way to get a baked potato.  Even some fish and other entrees can be cooked in the microwave.  Example: “Could you please cook a potato and my vegetables in the microwave.  Put them in a dish then cover with saran wrap.” Fryer: You must stay away from a fryer in small kitchens (unlike fast food chains and some bigger restaurants).  They use the fryer for everything and that means that everything could be in it. When they cook your French fries, the crumbs from the chicken nuggets could get on your food. Boiling: This is another great way to cook food.  You must ask them to only cover the food product that they are cooking.  Some fishes, vegetables and other meats can be cooked this way. If they have a steamer I would ask for that first since they don’t have to wait for it to get hot. Example:  “I would like two eggs boiled or poached in just enough water to cover the entrée so it won’t take so long. You could have the cook put a small amount of water then cover the pan and steam it.” Broiler: Sometimes small kitchens that are moving are not going to have a broiler.  It is the fear of the open fire that could cause a fire in the kitchen.  If they do have one you could ask for this example:  “I would like a piece of salmon on a metal plate.  Cook it until it is done, then splash it with white wine before plating.”

     The main idea you take into small kitchens is this:  It is a lot like cooking at your home (unless you have a huge kitchen).  Those kitchens are made small but can put out large amount of meals if needed.  Those menus are made to accommodate the small amount of storage also.  You need to really know your menu and the ingredients they are using.  Unlike a large kitchen you might not have the extra supplies that a big kitchen has.  They just don’t have the room and you need to think of that.  So if it is a river boat or a train, when you look at the menu some of the items will be canned products, because canned products are so much easier to store than refrigerated items. As you look at the menu take the item you would like and ask them if they can cook it in a sauté pan or maybe in the oven.  This is a very safe way to have your food prepared.
    When I was employed at the resort and we would often have banquets for over 200 people. If the meal was New York strip steak we would put the steaks on the broiler and mark the diamond char marks in order to get the steaks cooked exactly at the same time. We would then pull the steaks off and put them on large sheet pans. Just before we needed the steak, we would put them in the ovens and cook them until they were the proper temperature. The customers never knew that the steaks were cooked in the oven and not the broiler. The char marks on the steak made everyone believe that it was broiled.
    The point is that you can have your food baked as long as you don’t get sick—for me that is the most important thing.  When I do eat out, I don’t care too much about the taste or temperature of the meal—my number one goal is that I get a gluten-free meal and that the restaurant doesn’t ruin my vacation.
    Also, you have to be very careful when you send your food back.   Just remember how busy the cooks are and whether or not they are going to remember your specially ordered meal when it comes back to them.  If they are busy in the back and the waitress says to the cook, “Cook it more,” what do you think happens—will they take as much time as they did the first time?  These are the types of questions that you have to ask yourself when you are sitting at your table and thinking about sending your meal back.
    I know that we all expect a perfect meal when we pay for it.  Sometimes it is just easier to ask them to only warm it up in the microwave. Something to think about is that the microwave is like a closed room where it is not likely that your food will get contaminated.  Most kitchens, especially smaller ones, have a microwave like the one that you use at home.  If you do need your meal cooked more, try to explain it to the manager and remind him that you will get very sick if it gets contaminated—ask the manager nicely if you can watch and see if the cook does it right.
    Another thing to remember when you are eating in these types of restaurants is that they are small and that means the kitchens are small too.  The cooks are going to be right next to each other—only arms and shoulders apart. Remember; if you don’t think they will be able to feed you properly always have a plan B, so you can still eat. Plan your meal to be as simple as possible for them to prepare and you will be able to conquer the Gluten Monster and have a wonderful train or boat experience!
    Chef Daniel P. 

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