Years ago, as my curiosity in all things food was still in its figurative “awkward teenager” years, I had a co-worker that, in passing conversation, told me that she was a Celiac. Those many years ago, I had no idea what that meant, so when she explained to me that she couldn’t eat anything with gluten in it, I dug a little deeper in my own time to understand a more what that meant. With very obviously limited research completed, I remember thinking to myself, “she literally can’t eat anything! Everything has gluten in it. How can you LIVE without bread?!”
Fast forward about eight years, and here I am in the present, serving an under-served, but constantly growing community of gluten sensitive eaters. My opinion of gluten free food evolved as I gained more knowledge about the subject, and the people that have a need to be gluten free. I make an effort to remind myself regularly of how uninformed I was then. At the time, there is no possible way I would have been able to foresee running a restaurant in my life, let alone one that caters to a diet sensitivity that, at the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around.
Being a Chef is a profession that operates in a grey area between two extremes: altruism and selfishness. All at once, the Chef has a constant need to please others, but never at the sacrifice of his/her personal vision of what they think a dish should look and taste like. The Chef wants people to truly enjoy a dish that he/she created, from concept to execution, and modifications are usually treated with disdain. From the Chef’s perspective, asking to add or remove something from a dish as it’s listed on a menu is akin to asking an artist to change one color on a painting.
Modifications are sometimes infuriating for a cook on the line, usually because of the amount of preparation that goes into not just cooking and plating a dish, but making sure it looks exactly as the Chef demands, all while ensuring the food comes out in a timely manner. The operation of a cook’s line is set up to be robotic, and the cook’s actions are meant to be muscle-memory, therefore additions or subtractions to the cook’s normal mode of operation throw them for a loop regardless of how small said addition or subtraction may be.
At its core, this mentality is a large reason behind the stigma that comes with gluten-free food in the restaurant business. At its core, it’s a modification of the Chef’s vision. Beyond simplifying it to its most basic interpretation, though, it isn’t a modification that says “no tomatoes” or “add avocado,” it’s something that requires every element of the dish to be re-thought. When “No Gluten” comes across on a ticket, the Chef must think “what do we use flour for… what elements of this dish have flour in them… at what point could any element in this dish have come into contact with a surface that is used for flour?”
Because so much constructive thought goes into making a dish gluten-free in a gluten-using restaurant, many times restaurants will just claim that nothing on their menu can be made gluten free. A large part of me actually respects a restaurant that just says it can’t cater to gluten free patrons, not because I stand by a Chef’s decision to make food how they see fit, but really because I’ve seen the after-effects of restaurants being careless and claiming that they can make a dish gluten free when they overlook details, including but not limited to cross contamination. If you’re not completely sure, don’t risk other peoples’ health.
As I get further into this career I’ve fallen into, and more specifically, this darkened, “Harry Potter, room-underneath-the-stairs,” gluten free corner of the food world, I’ve been able to gain perspective on the work that I do. In its most immediate effect, the food that’s served at The Curious Fork is sustenance, and we intentionally make it wholesome to the point where we do everything we can to make as many of the products we serve in our own kitchen. This mentality gives us not just control over the quality of the final dish, but over the ingredients that go into the dish. As basically as it possibly can be put, we know our products are gluten free, because we made them ourselves.
As commercial kitchens go, one polarizing topic for a cook can be the concept of an “open kitchen,” or a kitchen that can be seen by the diner. Not a lot of cooks jive well with an open kitchen, but for The Curious Fork, it’s an important part of our restaurant’s culture. It allows us to interact with our customers, and show them that there is a face behind the breakfast or lunch that they served. It also allows us to see the immediate reaction of the people that eat our food, whether that reaction is good or bad, and to use that reaction to get better at what we do. Constructive criticism is an idea that a lot of cooks struggle with, because we all take pride in our own palates, and the food we use our palates to make. This business is called hospitality, and further, a meal is called a service for a reason.
From a more broad view, what we are doing is meant to push boundaries… not necessarily the boundaries of flavor profiles (although as cooks it is part of our DNA to experiment with different foods), but more what is acceptable in the gluten free community. It’s important for us to constantly examine whether our food lives up to the standard we’ve set for ourselves, and we’ve very clearly set our expectations: We don’t sacrifice flavor, and we don’t sacrifice texture. If it’s not genuinely delicious, we won’t serve it. In that vain, settling for “close enough” is a contradiction.
The last bit of perspective this restaurant provides involves this mentality that gluten-free food has to be bad, and that cooking completely gluten free food is an obstacle so insurmountable that no restaurant could possibly consider dedicating itself to the health needs of what is an ostensibly a small minority of the population. I hope you can sense the sarcasm flowing through my italic words, because to say I think the idea that gluten free food has to, or will always be sub-standard is bull----. For the moment, I’ll completely ignore the science behind why the world continues to see its gluten sensitive/gluten intolerant population grow rather than shrink, that’s a whole other, far deeper conversation better suited for doctors. I’ll just say this, from the Chef’s perspective:
The restaurant world has spent the better part of three decades in snowballing praise of the forward-thinking, technology driven chefs and restaurants that have re-imagined and re-designed food, ingredients pairings, and what it means to be a cook. Their food is purpose-built to transcend purely traditional ethnic foods, and the long-standing status quo.
Gluten free food doesn’t have to suck. Someone just has to step out on a limb, and put in the work to make it better. Little by little.