So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Waiter’s guide to gluten-free

Waiters are used to the “I’m allergic to garlic” thing. Waiters are used to “I’m on the Atkins Diet”. Waiters are used to “I’m pregnant so I need to avoid undercooked meat” (which is weird when coming from a guy…)

Increasingly, waiters are being confronted by “What do you have that’s gluten-free?” and “I’m gluten intolerant. Please make sure that I don’t order anything that contains wheat”.

What is this gluten thing and why does it need to be eliminated from some peoples’ diets? Here’s a short primer.

Gluten is a couple of proteins commonly found in “grassy” grains like wheat and barley. In some people, their immune systems have a problem processing this long-chained protein combo. When someone suffers from this affliction, it’s called celiac disease or tropical sprue or just plain sprue.It’s also described under the term “gluten intolerance”.

For most people, gluten is a very useful thing. It forms the structure of bread – it needs to be “developed” through kneading –  repeatedly stretched until it develops the crumb of the bread. It’s a very elastic material and this tendency needs to be exploited by kneading. Otherwise, it’s similar to a tightly wound spring – great for storing energy but not a very good structure for forming the framework needed to support the crumb of bread.

However, in people who have celiac disease, the body has trouble with this very lengthy molecule due to a problem interacting with it. Basically, the enzyme responsible for processing this food material freaks out and because of this inappropriate reaction to the protein, screws up the intestinal villi (those little hairs in the intestines that aids in absorption of nutrients). This in turn leads to inflammation and can cause malnourishment, bloating, abdominal distention, weight loss, and other nasty gastrointestinal difficulties. It can even, in extreme cases, affect other organs of the body, cause depression and mimic other diseases and syndromes.

It is not an allergy. There is such thing as wheat allergy, but that’s a different animal. It’s an auto-immune disease. Yes, so are allergies to a lesser degree, but this is a full-blown auto-immune disease. In layman’s terms, an allergy is the body’s reaction to a pathogen or irritant, whereas, an auto-immune disease implies the body actually attacking itself instead of the irritant (very dumbed down, I know).

Fortunately, most restaurants can accommodate diners afflicted with this ailment. Unfortunately, gluten can sneak in if you aren’t familiar with the potential sources of gluten.

Obviously, people with celiac disease must avoid most bread products (soy and rice flour breads are fine, but how many restaurants offer this option?). It’s also not difficult to realize that pastas are out as well, since they contain wheat ( although Asian noodles such as rice noodles are fine as well as true buckwheat noodles like soba, although, even then you can’t be sure that wheat flour isn’t part of the mix, so it’s generally advisable to give it a pass in a restaurant – it might very well be safe for cooking at home if you’re able to verify that it’s pure buckwheat, which doesn’t cause problems like “true” wheat does.)

What isn’t obvious is that most soy sauces are forbidden because they are often fermented with wheat – La Choy soy sauce is apparently safe, but it’s not a very good tasting soy sauce. Most people will substitute tamari, which is a similar product without the presence of wheat. Kikkoman also claims that their soy sauce is gluten-free, but the jury is out on this.

Many things that you wouldn’t expect might contain gluten.  Here’s a list of things that celiac-suffering people should avoid:

The list is rather staggering, isn’t it? If you work in a restaurant that uses a lot of “pre-manufactured” bases and sauces like bullion veal stock concentrates and the like, your ability to serve your guest is  more limited (many of those use ingredients like caramel color, emulsifiers and seasonings that are on the banned list). If you work at P. F. Chang’s, Bonefish Grill or Chili’s, you’re in luck because they have a dedicated gluten-free menu (see bottom of post for a link to restaurants that have a gluten-free menu available to their guests). Be aware that all gluten free menus aren’t on the same level – Chili’s won’t really guarantee absolute gluten free. If you work in a kitchen where the cuisine is focused primarily on combining natural ingredients, you’ve got better luck than the first example. The chef will be able to tell you what sneaky ingredients go into his or her dishes and chefs are increasingly becoming celiac aware. You should also be careful with your modifiers if there isn’t a gluten free screen to order from. If you have to ring in “no croutons” or “no bun”, for instance, you really should take extra care that this is what the guest actually gets, even if it means talking to a food runner. It’s much easier if there’s a GF designation on the actual order because this means that the kitchen should make the item according to gluten free standards, not have to rely on a printed modifier.

No, you don’t have to memorize the whole list. There’s only so much you can do. Sometimes, the guests themselves can give you important information and can help you help them avoid bad ingredients.

Things that are usually OK are burgers without buns or special seasoning, steaks, from scratch marinara sauces, grilled, pan-seared or broiled chicken, fish and other unaltered meats, olive oil and balsamic vinegar cruets for salads or any dressing known by the chef not to contain anything from the banned list – many made-from-scratch dressings made in good kitchens qualify but if your kitchen uses prepackaged dressings or seasoning packets in the preparation of those dressings, then you need to be wary.

Also be wary of dishes that might use soy sauces as seasonings (many Asian-type dressings and sauces use it). Orzo is out because, even though it looks like rice, it’s actually a wheat-based pasta (as a well-informed waiter, you should already know this!)

1% or less of Americans suffer from this disease. So you won’t see many guests who need your guidance. However, you can really impress the table that needs gluten-free food by knowing what it is and being able to guide them through your menu.

Here’s a current list of restaurants as of this date that offer a gluten-free menu to their guests: is a great source of information and every waiter to should at least pay it a visit.

gluten free menu


4 responses to “Waiter’s guide to gluten-free

  1. Pingback: Weight Loss » Blog Archive » Waiter’s guide to gluten-free

  2. Pingback: Waiter’s guide to gluten-free |

  3. Pingback: Waiter's guide to gluten-free « So You Want To Be A Waiter | Gluten Free Bread | Bread Wheat

  4. Pingback: Waiters guide | Superprotonics

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