Learning about foods containing gluten will serve chefs and servers well.
By Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE
As culinary instructors we have to teach, at all levels, more than just cooking principles. We have to teach current topics that rock the political, social, and personal world of food. A current hot topic is gluten.
What is Gluten?
Basically, “gluten” is a catch-all phrase for proteins found in several types of grains, most particularly wheat. Students are surprised to hear that a carbohydrate can contain proteins. They think proteins are only found in meats, poultry, fish, nuts and tofu.
You can use the opportunity of teaching about gluten to explain that protein in grains—particularly in flour—need to be handled carefully for the end product to come out the way you want. For example, when a student makes bread, she or he wants to knead (work) the dough to develop out the protein into long stands. This will allow for the correct bread texture in the final product. On the other hand, if the student works the dough too long in making a pie crust or biscuits, the end product will come out heavy and tough instead of light and flaky.
It is also a good opportunity to teach students that a protein (such as beef) also contains small amounts of carbohydrates. The reason a steak or hamburger turns brown is because of the Maillard Reaction of the carbohydrates in the meat.
Who is Concerned about Gluten?
There are three different types of people who are concerned about gluten.
First are people who have gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease. This is an autoimmune disorder. For these people, ingesting gluten leads to damage to the small intestine and prevents the absorption of nutrients in all of the foods they eat—not just the foods containing gluten. There are medical tests to determine if someone has Celiac Disease. People with Celiac Disease cannot eat any gluten-containing food.
Second are people who may be gluten sensitive. They find gluten causes some physical problems and going gluten free relieves or diminishes these problems.
Lastly, there are some people who prefer to go gluten free, sometimes because it is trendy almost like a diet, or sometimes because friends and family have gone gluten free. They do not have Celiac Disease and do not suffer ill effects when they eat gluten.
What Contains Gluten?
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, gluten is found in wheat, durum, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, rye, barley, brewer’s yeast, and malt.
Oats and oatmeal are problematical as well. Apparently, some specific oat and oatmeal brands are gluten free while others are not. From what I can tell, it appears to be an issue of how and where the oats are processed and not the actual grain itself.
(Note: The Celiac Disease Foundation website has a wealth of information on the disease if you would like to learn more.)
Ignorance on Both Sides
Unfortunately, there are a lot of issues of ignorance about gluten on both sides of the table.
One of the two Celiac people I know sent me a note when she heard I was writing this article. She told me about a friend with Celiac Disease and her horror stories. This friend had gone to many restaurants and told the waiters, managers, and chefs that she MUST be served gluten-free food. She has received salads with croutons. She has been served ice cream with a cookie stuck into it. The restaurant servers told her to just remove the cookie or take off the croutons! Apparently, the restaurant industry needs to do a better job training workers about this issue as well as learning about cross-contamination topics. (An analogy: if you are told someone has a shell fish allergy, you don’t give them shrimp on their salad and tell them to pick it off!)
There are a number of articles and videos online about how people who are gluten free are unclear about what contains gluten. My personal favorite is an interview of a person who stated that because she is a vegetarian she thinks everything she eats is gluten free. Again, gluten is primarily found in wheat, rye, and barley. A friend of mine who owns a Northern Italian restaurant was chastised by a patron who asked for her fish entrée to be gluten free. My friend put risotto on her plate instead of pasta. She hollered that rice has gluten in it (which it doesn’t) all the while she was sipping on a non-gluten free beer! (There are gluten-free beers, but those are rare. Anyone with gluten issues should be careful on this issue.)
Marketing people have now, in my opinion, exploited the gluten-free trend. They list foods that have never contained gluten as being gluten free. (An analogy: water is caffeine free – really!) At New Year’s Eve dinner in an upscale, well-established San Francisco Bay Area restaurant my wife and I were astounded to read the menu where a number of items such as pickles, butter, and rice were listed on the menu as gluten free. I have seen restaurants state that the 100 percent pure beef burger is gluten free if you omit the bun. I have a jar of mayonnaise in my refrigerator at home that says “gluten free”, “caffeine free”, and “lactose free.” Even yesterday there was a sale on canned mandarin oranges in the supermarket that were labeled “gluten free.”
Gluten Free Food Service Production
As mentioned above, if someone has been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, that is a serious matter and their health is paramount. Gluten sensitivity is also a serious matter.
For many of these people they cannot even eat food that was prepared in the same kitchen where non-gluten free items such as breads, pizzas or cookies are prepared. The problem is that the trace amounts of gluten containing flour is spread around the kitchen in the preparation process which contaminate the gluten-free products. Another issue is the cross- contamination of equipment, hands, etc. between gluten-free and non-gluten-free products. This is why on many restaurant menus you will see a note that although products are marked gluten free they were not prepared in a gluten-free kitchen.
The Role of Cooks
If we know that someone states they have a food allergy or sensitivity, we must be very careful to prepare food that will not make them sick. That’s the bottom line. Why Every Student Must Be Allergen Savvy is an article I wrote on that subject.
The question which I hear discussed in kitchens and in culinary classrooms is whether cooks, chefs and owners need to really be careful if someone is just gluten free. The talk is that for many this is just a food trend and these people really don’t have a gluten issue. This point of view scares me. It is not our job—we are not trained medically—to decide who has what health issues, concerns, diets, etc. It is our job to prepare food well. It is our job to prepare food for the guest, customer or family member to enjoy. The customer may or may not always be right, but our students and ourselves as cooks and teachers are never right in deciding who has a food allergy or sensitivity and who doesn’t.
Next month I will write about tricks for baking and cooking gluten free.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Antonin Carême Medal.