Restaurant Challenge: Catering to Special Diets
It’s not a secret that the American restaurant industry leaves us with very few healthy eating options. With our penchant for anything fried or sugary, anyone who is looking for a healthier meal is pretty limited. Those with specific allergies, diet restrictions or preferences are mostly out of luck.
So why are more and more people starting to restrict their diets and avoid certain foods? “Because they are starting to understand that in the massive complexity that is your diet, one underlying current is that unadulterated and unprocessed food is healthier than the equivalent ingredient made by man,” says Kevin Gillespie, award-winning Atlanta chef, author (and previous contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef) and alumni of The Art Institute of Atlanta. “Out of all the things our body has adapted to over the years, it hasn't adapted to processed food.”
In recent years, we have been getting more and more information about food: how it is made, where it is made, and how it affects our health. We’ve learned about the dangers of heavily processed foods, the benefits of eating locally grown foods, and we’ve learned of diseases that were previously undiagnosed. Think of the number of documentaries that have been made about food and eating in the past decade.
With the food industry gaining more and more attention, and with people becoming more informed about how the food they eat affects their bodies, restaurants and chefs are responding with more options for healthier eating. Whether it is gluten-free bakeries or “localtarian” cafes, we’re getting more choices for dining out.
Of course catering to a specific allergy or aversion comes with its challenges. “The biggest challenge for chefs today is being able to accommodate special diets correctly,” says Chef Robert Landolphi, a.k.a. “The Gluten-free Chef”. He specializes in gluten-free cuisine and is also the author of two gluten-free cookbooks. He notes that there are very specific rules for preparing allergen-free foods. “It is also important that not only the chefs, but all staff are trained and educated on the specifics of each special diet, to avoid misinformation or mistakes.”
This is especially important in restaurants that serve all kinds of food but also have an allergen-free section of the menu, as opposed to a restaurant whose entire menu is allergen-free. In a gluten-free bakery, there would not be any wheat flour on the premises. However, a traditional bakery that also offers a gluten-free selection has to be very careful about how the bread is prepared.
“The best way to accommodate, for example, peanut allergies is to have an area in the kitchen, specifically designated ‘peanut free’. Some kitchens are very small, and don’t have adequate space for allergy free zones, so then it becomes very important to take extra steps to avoid cross contamination,” says Landolphi.
Besides the challenge of making sure the meal is free of the allergen, meat, gluten, or whatever the diet restriction may be, there’s also the work of making it taste good.
“The challenge is unless your food naturally works you're going to have to manipulate a dish, often with very little notice. That can be hard to do and it might not be as good as the original,” says Gillespie. Many of us can’t imagine bread without wheat flour, a cake without sugar, or ice cream without dairy. In order for people to want to spend the time and money to go out to eat, the food has to be not just acceptable, but exceptional. This requires mastering new food preparations skills, researching ingredient alternatives, and experimenting with recipes.
Many restaurants are able to accommodate special requests, so why have entire restaurants dedicated to cater to certain diets become so popular in recent years?
“The reason diet specific restaurants have become so popular is that they increase consumer confidence,” says Landolphi. “Patrons with allergies are more comfortable in an establishment that knows their particular issue well and is taking the steps necessary to ensure that the products that they are producing are, in fact, safe for them to eat.”
According to Gillespie, another reason for the popularity of diet-specific restaurants is because of the amount of new information available. “Now people know what gluten-free means. Before no one knew. You may have been lactose intolerant or had a bread allergy but you didn't know what it was. Now you do because of the information you read,” he says.
The availability of diet-specific restaurants just may be part of the solution for getting Americans to eat better. “People today are realizing that ‘we are what we eat’,” says Landolphi. “I honestly think that people now realize that the foods we put into our bodies on a daily basis can either cause havoc or become the best medicine.”
Kevin Gillespie, award-winning Atlanta chef, author of Fire in My Belly, contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef, voted and alumni of The Art Institute of Atlanta. Received The Art Institute of Atlanta’s Distinguished Alumni Award for his outstanding accomplishments in the restaurant industry.
Rob Landolphi, The “Gluten-Free Chef”, Author of Quick-Fix Gluten Free and Gluten Free Every Day