Dining was started to help Celiacs and others manage the challenges
of gluten-free restaurant dining. The overwhelmingly positive
response to our first product, Triumph Dining Cards, inspired
the creation of The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide,
which just launched in early January. The Guide is a 300+
page book featuring over 3,900 restaurants recommended by
Celiacs, over 80 gluten-free lists from chain restaurants,
and a strategic game-plan for managing the restaurant dining
The following article is adapted from
Triumph Dinings restaurant game plan, as fully elaborated
in The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide:
There are two keys to gluten-free
- The first fundamental building block
of successful gluten-free dining is the ability to share
information in a clear, efficient manner.
- The second is the development of rewarding
short and long-term relationships with restaurant staff.
Almost everything you will
ever do in a restaurant to improve your gluten-free dining
experience will flow from these two skill sets. The remainder
of this article covers the first topic in detail.
Build the Right Knowledge
It seems obvious
enough that in order to share knowledge, you must first possess
it. And, when it comes to gluten-free dining, you are your
own first line of defense. You should make educated
decisions about what you are and are not willing to try, so
that you can avoid inadvertently stepping into dangerous territory,
or missing out on perfectly safe, enticing dining options.
you should be vigilant about collecting information on different
cuisines, restaurant dishes, ingredients, and common cooking
techniques. Its important to think about each cuisine
(e.g. Mexican, Chinese, American, etc.) separately because
each one has different ingredients and cooking methods and,
hence, different potential problems for Celiacs.
Read cookbooks, watch cooking
shows, research common restaurant dishes, talk with knowledgeable
people, and ask questions. This can require a big commitment
of time and a lot of initial work, but it becomes easier as
you start to pick things up, and its worth the investment.
Knowing the details about a particular cuisine makes every
other part of the dining experience significantly easier.
The challenge here,
of course, is effectively communicating this information in
real-time and in a restaurant setting. To accomplish this,
we need to focus on sharing the right information in a clear
and concise manner. This involves boiling down the information
youve been collecting into its most important components
and presenting them in a way that a chef can understand and
We all know that saying
"no wheat, rye, barley, and oats" isnt enough
to get a safe meal in a restaurant. It takes most Celiacs
months to understand the nuances of what that really means;
we cant expect a chef to make sense of it the first
time he hears it. So, we need to give him enough information
to really understand our needs. That means not leaving him
to just guess where wheat, rye, barley, and oats might lurk.
Give obvious examples like bread and pasta to start him on
the right track, and then reinforce the nuances of the diet
by explicitly mentioning hidden sources of gluten, like soy
However, be careful not
to overwhelm the kitchen with irrelevant information that
will impair their ability to grasp the big picture and accommodate
you. For example, items you might want to mention in an Indian
restaurant are different from those you might mention in an
Italian restaurant. Loading up an Indian kitchen with information
about pasta or croutons (neither of which are typically found
in Indian cuisine) or not cooking vegetables in pasta water,
can only lead to confusion and distract the kitchen from the
important task at hand making you gluten-free Indian
food. We need to strike a useful balance!
Strike a Useful Balance
The way to do this is to
first boil down your information for the kitchen so that it
includes only relevant, actionable instructions for the restaurant
you are currently visiting. Then, structure it in an order
thats easy to follow and understand. For example, I
prefer to start with a quick general statement (e.g. "I
cant eat wheat
") and follow it up with a
few obvious items that are prohibited (e.g. egg rolls and
buns in a Chinese restaurant) to give a little context and
help the kitchen staff comprehend the basic concepts of the
gluten-free diet. Then, I lead into the potentially big problem
areas that are less obvious (e.g. sticking with our Chinese
restaurant example, I would now mention soy sauce and cross-contamination).
Then, depending on the circumstances, I may provide some examples
of foods I can eat to give the chef some starting points
for preparing a safe dish.
Based on this approach,
you should expect to provide different instructions at different
restaurants, customized by the type and style of cuisine served.
Its a good idea to practice your instructions and develop
a personal style that feels comfortable for you.
a Dining Card
Its important not
to downplay that communicating effectively to a restaurant
staff can be an incredibly challenging task. There is usually
a lot of information that needs to be conveyed effectively
under enormous time pressure. For that and other reasons,
I use a good dining card to underscore my verbal instructions.
A good dining card provides
the kitchen with a written record of your conversation that
they can reference in preparing your meal, in case they forget
or confuse any of the information you provide them verbally.
It is also a good crutch for your verbal instructions
it serves as a visual cue to help you remember all the instructions
you want to share and gives you a safety net in case you forget
to mention something.
Finally, when youre
dealing with ethnic restaurants, a carefully translated dining
card can help you bridge the language barrier. For example,
in most Thai restaurants I can only get so far with a verbal
explanation of our diet in English. But, with well-written
Thai instructions, I can get most dishes on the menu prepared
However, its important
not to choose just any dining card. Make sure the translation
is one you can trust. And just as important, make sure you
know what the card says. Remember the Thai dining card I printed
from the internet that erroneously said I couldnt eat
soups and sauces?
Talk to the Right Person
Finally, underlying this
whole approach is one key assumption that Id now like
to call out. Your instructions, verbal or written, are only
as good as the eyes or ears taking them in. Most Celiacs know
that one of the easiest ways to get sick in any restaurant
is to tell the wrong person about your special needs. Have
you ever had a waiter who seemed too rushed to invest in understanding
your instructions or just didnt seem to "get it"?
Or, maybe you felt like he was playing a risky version of
the old "telephone" game, selectively giving the
kitchen only the bits and pieces that he felt were
If you encounter situations
like this, the most carefully prepared, expertly delivered
instructions may not help you! It is absolutely essential
to your success that you seek out and engage the right person
early in your restaurant visit. Make sure your instructions
are heard by someone within the restaurant who has the power,
ability, and motivation to get you a gluten-free meal. Depending
on the circumstances, this might be the manager, the maitre
d, or the owner.
For more information
on building rewarding short and long-term relationship with
restaurants to improve your gluten-free restaurant experiences,
to obtain a copy of The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide.
Triumph Dining also makes Triumph Dining Cards, the critically-acclaimed
dining cards available for a variety of world cuisines.