Monday, April 6, 2015

Sans Gluten

So I've known Jan for a while now, and while I have always been aware of her dietary restrictions, it never really dawned on me just how bad they are until she came into Peck's for dinner a few weeks back.

 We deal with allergies, restrictions, and preferences on a daily basis but Jan's list is quite extensive. I spent a good part of my day working on several projects - from bread service to desserts - so that I could  have something to send her. Unfortunately most of these were failures and I was left in awe because... to be frank, I have a fair amount of knowledge and experience with baking and pastry and typically the things I make come out pretty well.  It became more and more apparent to me throughout the day how difficult something as simple as feeding yourself can be for some people. I remember listening to Nick and Matt (Chef & Sous) spitballing ideas back and forth about what food to cook for her and nearly everything ended with, 'Oh shit, she can't have _____ ingredient'. All in all, we came up with an inspired and fulfilling menu that she enjoyed and appreciated immensely (she was still talking about it yesterday when I saw her). When I visited her table towards the end of the meal, she was glowing, and so ecstatic.  It was overwhelmingly clear to me that eating out, and food in general , is something important and meaningful to her. And now with the progression of her intolerances, it has become increasingly difficult and strenuous to the point where it is just not worth the stress.

This whole experience kind of shifted my perspective a bit. I have always been sympathetic to people with food allergies and intolerances, but just like virtually every other chef and cook I have known - I have rolled my eyes and been frustrated by dietary requests on many occasions.

So often they seem to come off as people passing preferences off as more 'legitimate' restrictions. Guests who are on a date may say they have a garlic or onion allergy because they don't want it on their breath. Someone on a new diet may say they have a gluten allergy. And so on. Dominic talked a bit about the importance of the distinction in his, 'What Bugs The Kitchen' post - but to sum it up a true allergy requires that we sanitize our work space, our tools, use new, clean equipment, etc, etc.. and a preference simply means hold the garlic. Taking an allergy seriously requires a lot of extra attention and can very easily derail a smoothly running line.  Because people so often abuse this - flat out lying about having allergies - it has created this hostile attitude in kitchens towards these requests/restrictions and its not unusual to see cooks not taking them seriously. 

This sort of behavior is bullshit. On both sides. Guests should be forthcoming about preferences vs. allergies/intolerances, but its also not really up to us as chefs to decide what is legitimate and what isn't. Why someone does or doesn't want something is irrelevant - all that matters is that we do everything we can to oblige their request.

"... the customer could be my dad, it could be you. Who fucking cares? It could be anyone, and it’s not up to me or the waiter or the cook in the back to determine a legitimate reason for not drinking. So the restaurant establishment needs to show more empathy in general towards people’s individual needs." 
From Peter Meehan's interview of Fred Morin, 'The Art of (Gluten-Free) Living According to Joe Beef

In the past, I have always tried to have at least one gluten free option on my dessert menus - just to cover my bases. The idea was once I have an option on the menu for guests who can't have gluten on I wouldn't really have to 'deal with that again'. My only reason not to offer more gluten free options has always been that I don't want to compromise the quality of the desserts I am making in any way shape or form..and I have always left it at that. Recently it has come to me that in doing this, I am taking the easy route - because having this attitude says a lot more about me and my abilities than anything else. Only offering one gluten free option and thinking thats good enough is still singling out people with gluten intolerances. It says, 'Here is the one thing you can have, I don't care if you like it or not, because if you want a dessert you have to order this'. If I took that approach with my work in any other area or capacity - I would be out of a job very quickly. 

My menu format at Pecks is pretty straight forward. Everything is verbalized, allowing for a good amount of fluidity. I can change things out here and there, adjust things that work or don't work, etc. I am responsible for the following, among other things.

Bread service - this changes often and can be more-or-less anything I feel like making. Currently it is some sort of pizza/focaccia hybrid.
Core dessert menu - three options that stay the same for an undetermined amount of time. So far its been about 2 months between changes - with the option of changing more or less frequently. 
Vegan option - Pretty self explanatory. 
Features - Offered daily - always have one option, sometimes two. They typically hang out for one week, but if they're especially popular I will run them for two. 
Mignardises - One bite petit fours that are given with the check. If I have time, I make them. If I don't, I don't. Anything goes. Ive run various pate de fruit, different cookies, and confections. 

I am proud to say that currently all three of my offerings on my core dessert menu are gluten free. This is not by coincidence, but rather through educating myself and a bit of trial and error. I plan on maintaining this - so long as I am able to meet my standards for quality. While my bread service remains the same, I have added a gluten free option as well - currently gougères. Making an overhaul of my menu like this while doing something that I have pretty limited experience with is a process and adds a decent amount of work as well as difficulty to my job. I am in no way claiming that I am becoming a gluten free pastry kitchen - but I am going to do my best to offer as many high quality gluten free options as I am capable of without sacrificing any quality. All of this has n̶o̶t̶  worked its way into the work I do at Lucas Confectionery Wine Bar o̶r̶ ̶a̶n̶y̶  and hopefully all of our other projects
Gluten Free Gougeres
I also don't want to single out gluten. Its simply where I started. Many other restrictions can be accommodated on the fly - or better yet, with  24 + hours notice. My next goal is to have vegan option(s) always available. I have been tinkering with a vegan 'ice cream' recipe for a while now and I am making progress towards where I would like it to be - but currently that is the only vegan thing I always offer. Ideally, I will eventually have real, composed, dessert(s) to offer that can stand with anything else I do (with or without gluten). 

Long story short, tl;dr, whatever - Don't hide in your excuses. Don't look at restrictions as an annoyance, but rather as a challenge. Don't be complacent with what you do, or else you will never grow. 

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