Tag Archives: waiters

Gluten-free food: Two chefs get it. Let’s get through to the rest.

“What’s your favorite gluten-free restaurant?” A group of NYC bloggers answered this question during introductions at dinner on Tuesday night. When my turn came (too soon! Wasn’t ready!), I said, abashed, “I don’t eat out much anymore, so I don’t have one yet.”

According to the National Restaurant Association, 93% of people (and, I bet, even more in New York) enjoy eating out, but I’m generally no longer among them. The service is always too brusque, the food too suspect, the assurance too absent. Instead of relaxing, I worry through the entire experience, from ordering (oh God, I’m taking so long) to paying (does the waiter really deserve 20% after dropping crumbs into my meal? But what kind of person doesn’t tip?). Admittedly, my so-so experiences may be partly a function of my restaurant selection and neurotic personality. But it’s also true that a lot of places just don’t get it.

Recently, though, I visited two that did. Check out my reviews, then let’s discuss how to make experiences like these happen more often for us all.

Mehtaphor

When I attended the launch of the GREAT Kitchens Chef’s Table luncheon tour at MehtaphorChef Jehangir Mehta (who also owns Graffiti) served us elegant, inventive tasting courses inspired by Asian (especially Indian) and French cuisine. Standouts, for me, were the grilled tofu topped with a chickpea flour-breaded onion ring and cilantro chutney, and dessert—a rum raisin ice cream sundae topped with sweet pappadum-inspired crisps. The food made me think differently about some of my favorite (and least favorite—see: cilantro) foods, which is exactly what a restaurant should do.

More importantly, the chef and his waitstaff were pleasant, articulate, reliable, and accommodating. Mehta seemed passionate about the idea of serving everybody who entered, and he did it well. He said his dream was to one day own a restaurant serving just one person at a time, which I found pretty cool.

MORE chickpea flour!!!

MORE chickpea flour! It’s everywhere.

Tommy Lasagna

Chef Tommy Mosera is new to the gluten-free business, but it doesn’t show. At Tuesday’s blogger dinner at Tommy Lasagna, our server Zach and the chef himself were so personable, informed, and forthcoming that I almost want to say the service was the standout—except that that’d be unfair to the housemade focaccia and mozzarella, farmers market lasagna, flourless chocolate cake, and light-as-air cheesecake.

Chef Mosera explained he phased in gluten-free items a few at a time to get his staff used to taking precautions—and, my, the precautions! The pasta is made in-house, but in its own equipment, in the morning before any gluten molecules might be in the air to drift into our lasagna like so many acid snowflakes. Mosera also names the gluten-free menu items differently from gluten-containing items (not just “GF such and such”) to avoid confusion at the point of order—an inspired idea. His work seems to have paid off, since afterwards we all felt great (if a tad overstuffed). The restaurant is launching its full gluten-free menu this weekend.

Whatever the omnivores were having sounded good, too, but give me two slabs of fresh mozzarella and I am o-k-a-y.

Whatever the omnivores were having for their first course sounded good, too, but give me a few slabs of fresh mozzarella and I am o-k-a-y.

My compliments to the chefs!

Both chefs also contended admirably with other restrictions thrown their way, including my vegetarianism and a smattering of allergies. If you’re in the New York area and eat gluten-free (or don’t), Mehtaphor and Tommy Lasagna are both well worth a visit.

What inspired these chefs to give us an experience so out of the ordinary? Chef Mosera created his gluten-free menu after his business partner’s wife (the person who suggested he open a restaurant) became gluten sensitive. Chef Mehta feels that serving people food they can eat is why he opened a restaurant in the first place.

So now I wonder: How can we get other chefs to follow their example?

I tried to answer that question this week on My Life With Food Allergies. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to stop by and let me know if you agree.

And, in the spirit of trying new things, check out these blogs by the folks with whom I had the distinct pleasure of sharing these meals. Some of these bloggers, I already followed and was excited to meet in person; some I’d met before and was thrilled to see again; and some were new to me; but all of them are smart, fun folks whose blogs you ought to read (if you don’t already!).

Barbara of About.com IBS, Mike of Gluten-Free Mike, Anya of Another Gluten-Free Blog, Judith of Fooditka and We Heart Astoria, Carolyn of Gluten-Free Bird and the Brooklyn Gluten-Free Meetup Group, Candice of London to NYC, Katie of Gluten-Free Blondie and the hilarious When I Went Gluten-Free, Kristen of Pasta’s Kitchen, and Erin (who organized the Tommy Lasagna dinner) of Gluten-Free Fun, Gluten-Free Globe Trotterand the NYC Celiac Disease Meetup Group.

Have you discovered any new favorite blogs or restaurants recently?

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Up your waiting game! 5 ways to better serve gluten- and allergy-free restaurant-goers

Some restaurants don’t compromise. “No substitutions,” their menus declare, and their waiters seem to think patrons should put up or shut up. Unfortunately, for customers with celiac disease or food allergies, neither option works. Most of us would sooner get up and leave.

Any restaurant is free to choose to lose my business this way. I’m concerned, though, with those that do try to accommodate us. Third-party programs exist to train their staff in safe food service. But judging, for example, from the name of one of the big ones—NFCA’s GREAT Gluten-Free Kitchens—these programs focus primarily (though not only) on the food preparation.

Customers rarely get to meet the chef or peek into the kitchen (though a chef who personally introduces him/herself, and who offers a tour of the kitchen, would be a “great” chef indeed). Though the chef, soux chefs, and line cooks could be doing everything right, we customers have no idea. We interact with the “front of house” crew: the host, the server, the bussers. And it’s there that many restaurants go wrong.

waitress with tray of tacos

Is that a flour tortilla I spy?
Photo © Give2Tech | Flickr

A special menu, though a start, is not enough. We need some special service, too. Waiters and waitresses, try these five service “ups” to get your gluten- and allergy-free guest’s thumbs up.

1) LISTEN UP.

Do this FIRST. Allow me to give you my spiel, even if you just heard the exact same thing two minutes ago from another gluten-free customer who has read the same eating-out advice that I have. I need to feel like you’re not only hearing me, but listening to me, so try a nod or two and a serious expression (not a smirk—practice in the mirror). Don’t cut me off to say, “We know all about that here.” You may mean to project confidence and competence, but instead you sound dismissive or condescending. And perhaps you missed this day in kindergarten, but it’s rude to interrupt.

2) SPEAK UP.

Remember, this comes after you’ve listened. Tell me you understand—unless you don’t, in which case ask. Explain which items are gluten-free, and which can be made gluten-free with modifications. Tell me what your restaurant staff does to avoid cross-contamination with gluten. Tell me that you will inform the kitchen of my needs. Don’t tell me, “If it’s marked gluten-free, they know to avoid contact.” That’s BS. No way is the kitchen taking extra precautions every time someone orders hummus just because hummus has a “gluten-free” asterisk on the menu.

3) ’FESS UP.

This can happen in place of #2, if, post-spiel, you feel you can’t accommodate me. Trust me: I’d rather know. I’ll go somewhere else, or sit without eating. Either way, we’ll get along better. This can also happen at any point throughout the meal, if something goes wrong. If a piece of bread went onto my plate, tell me they’re making a new one so my food will be late. I won’t blame you; I’ll appreciate it.

Italian waiter carrying tray of subs

“Hang on…this might not be quite what you ordered.”
Photo © Stephen Wu | Flickr

4) KEEP IT UP.

The game isn’t over with the order. Ideally, the same server who took my order would bring the food, and note, “This is the gluten-free such-and-such.” (That’s the time to demonstrate your steel-trap memory, by the way, not while taking the order.) For a real gold star, bring out my food in a separate trip from dishes containing gluten, especially bread. I get it, you can carry seventeen trays at once with a wine bottle on your head. But show off your octopoid dexterity to someone else. Don’t carry my gluten-free babaganoush underneath a plate of crumb-shedding pita.

5) FOLLOW UP.

Give me a chance to provide feedback. Ask how everything is, and practice #1 while I’m answering. If something went wrong, try to fix it—as you’d do for any other customer.

All of these “ups” require one important “down”: slow down. Servers need to take the time to properly communicate with me and with the rest of the staff, who in turn need to take the time required to make and serve the food safely. To do it right, the pace has to be slower. (I’ve proven this to myself every time I’ve tried to cook in a shared kitchen.)

I get that this isn’t a popular request. Servers may imagine every moment they spend with one customer as a moment in which a different customer is tapping his fork, waiting to give his dessert order, and scaling down his intended tip. But I’m not asking for a lot of time. I’m asking for what would, over the course of a meal, amount to an additional minute per step (or less): time that wouldn’t unduly impact other customers’ experience, but would infinitely improve mine.

waiters race

Although waiters’ races do in fact exist, and look like fun, I’m more impressed with slow and steady.
Photo © Gwenaël Piaser | Flickr

I rarely eat out, but while visiting my brother in DC this weekend, I tried several restaurants listed in Find Me Gluten-Free. We went to Busboys & Poets, Rasoi Indian Kitchen, and Cava Mezze. All of them had gluten-free menus, but my satisfaction varied, largely based on service.

Until more servers brush up on these tips, I’ll be eating at home, where I can source and cook my food exactly the way I like it, not worry about communicating with strangers, and throw all the dishes in the dishwasher when I’m done.

Now that’s what I call service.

Tell me your favorite tips for waiters and waitresses, and your best and worst restaurant experiences. If you are a waiter or waitress, I’d love to hear how you interact with gluten- and allergy-free guests, and what you’ve learned from it.

For more on this, check out:

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