It’s happened to all of us – we’ve ordered a specially prepared, superdee-duper gluten free version of some random menu item at Restaurant XYZ. We were super careful to explain exactly, exactly, EXACTLY what we could not have and why. We even provided a neat little card in seven languages and waited three hours for the grill to be scrubbed. And then we got sick…
We wondered, “Why?!?” (or more accurately, “What the !@#$%^&!?”)
Perhaps the server picked croutons out of our ‘special’ gf salad. Perhaps they didn’t really check the ingredients on the label of seasoning. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Or perhaps it was me. Not me, me, like Naomi Poe ‘me’… Perhaps it was ‘me,’ as in you.
Never! I say. And prolly so do you. But maybe???? just maybe…. we’re the problem.
There are the top ten mistakes you should try to avoid making. They’re not as funny as Letterman… but they’re certainly more helpful:
TOP TEN WAYS NOT TO ORDER GF FOOD AT A RESTAURANT
10. Tell Your Server that You’re Allergic to Gluten
Naomi says: I couldn’t believe the Finale the other night – I mean, come on, Sam Tyler’s not really from 2008? Gene Hunt is really Mr. Whatis, and he’s Sam’s dada??? And Windy’s Hal 2.0??
For most of you the above paragraph made no sense at all. Unless you were a fan of ABC’s Life on Mars. In which case, I’m sure you not only follow, you have something to add. And even then, I’m pretty sure you’re thinking, “What the heck does that have to do with gluten free stuff???”
Here’s what it has to do: Gluten Free-ness is a subculture. Sure, it’s not fun to be a part of this culture. You’d have a heck of a better time as a Fangirl of Lost. There’s more cache to being one of the Sweet Sixteen.
Being part of the gluten-free crowd? It’s not fun. It’s boring, and adult, and a million other things. But it is a subculture, and just like any subculture, the people who get into it learn the lingo… and forget that other people have no idea what they’re talking about.
Think about it – did you know what gluten was, before you or a loved one were diagnosed?
Telling your server that you’re allergic to gluten is like telling them that you figured out the relationship between C-Peptide Levels and Insulin Independence Following Autologous Nonmyeloablative Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation in Newly Diagnosed Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus.
Yeah, exactly my point.
9. Tell Your Server You’re Allergic to Wheat
Okay, so no gluten, got it, you say. I’ll tell them I’m allergic to wheat.
You say ”wheat’ and your server hears, “What toast will you be having today… white or wheat?”
In fact most people hear wheat and automatically think Whole Wheat, thanks to the marketing gurus at XYZ Flour Corp. And somehow that translates into the idea that only whole wheat is wheat.
You have no idea how many times I’ve heard – “It’s okay – it’s made with white flour.” Then again, I’m guessing you do.
Yes, you and I know that “White” is not a grain, waving in the sunlit fields of Kansas. We know that it’s made out of wheat.We know that ‘white’ has as much or more gluten than ‘wheat’ – But this isn’t about what you and I know. It’s about communicating your needs quickly and clearly.
8. Explain that You’re “Gluten Intolerant” or “On a Gluten Free Diet”
Once again, this is about marketing. People hear ‘intolerant’ and they think of a million things (You’re a jerk. You’re a prude. You’re an activist) – but they don’t think of serious medical need. It’s not a part of the medical lingo of the general public. Remember Item #10??? You are part of the subculture that ‘gets’ gluten intolerance. They probably aren’t.
Or the word ‘diet’ – most people in North America are on some kind of ‘diet’ – the Low Carb Diet. The All Fruit Diet. The Chew Each Bite 40 Times and You can Eat Anything Diet. There are as many ways of eating out there as there are gene variations. And in almost every one people say, “I can’t have…(something)… I’m on the XYZ Diet.”
What this means to your server:
“I don’t choose to have (something), because I want to be young/thin/sexy/holy so I want you to interrupt your busy workday to jump through hoops, and I’ll probably be disatisfied anyway and leave you a piddly tip because I’m a difficult person and that’s what difficult people do…”
Is that fair to you? No.
Is it accurate? Let’s hope not!
But it’s what the majority of servers hear when you use that term.
7. Ask Your Server to Tell You Which Items are Gluten Free.
Take a moment and read Item #10 again. Sub. Culture. You’re assuming the server
a) knows what gluten is
b) knows what is in the food.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: Even though a good server knows what’s really ‘tops’ on today’s menu, even the best probably have no idea how it’s actually made.
And if you think that that often busy- underpaid-frazzled server is going to risk the wrath of the also-usually-overworked-underpaid-frazzled chef to question a million things he or she is making… you’re dreaming.
And that’s just in an independent restaurant. Good luck in a chain type joint, where company secrets are closely guarded, and all ingredients for that special seasoning are secretly mixed at Headquarters and shipped out across the world. Even a relaxed-well paid-energetic server might not be able to accurately tell you what you’re getting.
And (hate to tell you) a lot of servers would rather fudge a ‘little’ rather than risk a smaller order, or a customer that might just be inclined to tip less for ‘bad’ service. So the information you’re requesting… not always accurate.
6. Choose Something from the Menu that Contains Gluten and Then Ask for a “Special Gluten Free” Version of that Dish
We’re not talking “Hamburger, no bun.” or “Hold the seasoning.”
This kind of request is usually a “Can I have the pasta carbonarra with something beside pasta? Do you have any cabbage that you could julienne and then fry in a pan instead?” or “Could you Please go back and scrub down the grill with hot water and a denaturing solution of bleach and water, then cook my burger on that grill with a completely different set of utensils – hold the seasoning! – and make sure that it doesn’t sit next to the gluten items on the warming counter?”
This is generally acceptable at a place where you’re a regular. Or if you’ve called ahead and made arrangements. Or even during a slow hour, IF you have a willing server and IF it’s the kind of restaurant that prides itself on customer service first and foremost.
But honestly… don’t even think about trying it if you’re showing up unannounced during the dinner rush.
These kind of requests seem only reasonable when you look at it from a gluten-free perspective. But if you look at it from the perspective of the server, who has to keep twelve other people happy and supplied with hot food and cold drinks at the same time, or from the perspective of the chef, who’s cooking food for 50 other people at the same time and who is quite literally (most of the time) in a pressure cooker of a work-environment… it’s an extraordinary request. And just as likely to be ignored as not.
And if you’re asking the chef in a higher end place to alter his special culinary creation for you…. you’d better hope you can run faster than a stainless steel skillet can travel. Chefs are artists by trade. And like any artist, they can have ‘temperamental’ natures. Removing the freshly toasted breadcrumbs from the filet du jour et frites might ruin the dish, in the chef’s estimation. It’s the equivalent, to that artistic chef’s mind, of asking for ketchup to go with your steak, which you also want well-done.
5. Ask to See the Manager Once You Arrive
Managers are also usually overworked, understaffed, proportionality underpaid, and usually are being called to the table because Someone’s Unhappy and wants a free meal.
Servers hate getting the manager, because they know this, and they know the manager is going to be assuming all of the above. Plus they’re secretly muttering “Great, a difficult customer. No tip from this guy!” Which really doesn’t bode well for cooperation when it comes to finding things out or fixing them if they go wrong.
If you really want the manager on board – call ahead of time, during a slow hour, and make arrangements. It makes the wheels turn more smoothly.
4. Ask to See the Chef
Remember – Artistic Temperament. High Pressure Work Environment. Multiple Orders Going At Once. Probably the Soux Chef ‘Out Sick’ Yet Again.
Telling a chef how to run her kitchen or cook your food is never a good idea, especially the higher you go up the Snobby Restaurant Food Chain. Especially in the middle of a Dinner Rush.
My father was a chef. He saw angry chefs do things to difficult customers’ orders that I can’t even type on a family blog. Things you don’t want me to type, because you’d never eat out again. Ever. I only wish I were exaggerating.
Don’t ask for the chef. It’s just a bad idea.
3. Send Something That was Accidentally Made with Gluten Back to the Kitchen to be Fixed
This has nothing to do with avoiding ticking anybody off – or very little, anyway. This has to do with the basic laws of restaurant economics and Item #8.
First: Food Service is generally what’s called a low-margin industry. Which means they’re not making much profit on your order above overhead. Which means that if they can pick the croutons off the salad instead of waste that salad, that’s generally what happens. Huge restaurants can afford to truly make things right, but smaller restaurants thrive or fail based on these decisions; and if you’re none the wiser, all too often they make the economically expedient call.
Second: This kind of behavior is often interpreted as another difficult customer pulling a stunt. And often that type of difficult customer doesn’t tip well, even if things were made right. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.
Now, I’m not telling you to suck it up and eat the gluten contaminated thing. I’m telling you to hang onto the dish of whatever it is and ask for a new one. Be polite. Smile. But don’t let that plate out of sight.
You send back the salad because it has croutons… what are the chances that the croutons just get picked off? Way higher than you want to believe. Same with Burgers and Buns. Same with that cute little cookie that comes with the ice cream.
My husband put himself through college as a server. He has tales to rival my father’s.
And yes, this will definitely irritate somebody in the back. But if you’re really going to eat safely, you shouldn’t send the plate back.
2. Give Your Server the Lecture “Celiac Disease, its Causes and Conditions”
People ask three questions when evaluating information:
So What Does This Mean to Me?
Unless your server actually has celiac or knows someone who does, the ins and outs of the disease and all the types of things that might contain gluten really don’t interest him/her. And (in their mind) there’s not really a good reason for them to take an interest.
If you’re not ordering something with rye, your server doesn’t need to know that rye contains gluten. They really don’t care what Codex standard counts as legal for ppm of gluten. Your server doesn’t need to know that celiac has a genetic component. Your server doesn’t want to hear about gluten poo or your personal journey. Do not overload someone with your newfound knowledge – tell them what they need to know to get you what you need.
What they’re really waiting to hear is the basic minimum information they need to get through this job successfully. Give it to them.
The best way to explain this need is to tell someone you’re severely allergic to flour and can’t eat anything it is made from or has touched. Remember, we’re talking marketing, not medicine. This will communicate the serious need to avoid cross contamination simply and quickly.
1. Be a Bad Tipper
If your server has managed to do all that you require of him/her (especially if you ignore my advice) don’t punish him/her if the chef slips or if there was a mistake and you still somehow got glutened. This is the best way to ensure that this person never, ever goes out of their way to serve you or any other gluten free customer.
Now, before I go into what you should do, let me make a disclaimer…
Disclaimer: The advice I am offering is really about going into a restaurant that doesn’t offer a gluten free menu or claim to cater to gluten free people. The rules are slightly different at these places, because they entice us with the offer to understand where we’re coming from, with the assurance that they’ve done something about it, and with the unspoken commitment to have their staff adjust to and happily serve our special needs. I can think of a few good places.Pizza Fusion, for instance, is………thankyoupizzagods… a great place for celiacs! It helps to go to a restaurant where the CEO is a celiac. The attention to detail? Prolly better than average.
On the off chance that you’re stranded 50 miles from the closest Pizza Fusion, or craving something boring like tacos…. please follow my advice, and do the following:
1. Call ahead if possible
Try to make arrangements whenever possible and to ascertain whether this restaurant is a fit. If you know in advance that it’s not the type of restaurant that caters to celiacs, do this…
2. When you are seated, smile widely, be polite, and say something like this:
“Hello _________! I’m going to be placing an order tonight – I need you to know that I am severely allergic to anything that is made with flour, malt, or oats. I can’t even eat something that touched it. I don’t want to waste your time, so if you can give me a few minutes to look at the menu, I can help make this easier for you by narrowing down what I want to a few safer suggestions. (Order drinks)”
3. Take a few minutes and look at the menu. Avoid:
These items: Fried foods, foods with a ‘rub’, gravies, the obvious offenders of bread and pasta.
Safer Bets: Plain meats, veggies, potatoes (not fried), salads.
Ask a few, very well placed questions about the couple of menu items you picked, but don’t expect encyclopedic knowledge.
4. Let your server know some basic needs:
” I’ll have the hamburger. No bun, please.”
“I can’t have bread, so can I have the eggs without the toast?”
“I’ll react to the flour in croutons, so would you mind making me a salad without croutons? Like I said, I’m really very allergic.”
“I’ll have the grilled fish, plain, please.”
Be very clear about what you need, and remind the server of your allergy, but keep what you’re asking reasonable and easily done.
MAKE SURE to profusely thank your server for any and ALL requests you make:”Thank you, you don’t know how much this means to me, you are so awesome…”
These words reassure a server that you’re friendly, not difficult, and likely to tip graciously. Thanks is huge!!
5. Be polite in dealing with mistakes!
And keep that plate nearby while he fetches a replacement.
Keep thanking that server!
6. Tip Well!
Tips are huge. At a place where you intend to return regularly, tip at least 20% and ask the server when they usually work. Guaranteed, thenext time you walk in, not only will they have learned something about celiac and gluten, but he or she will be more likely to go above and beyond to meet your needs.