I’m not a foodie, but I do like good food and if the food is good, I’ll eat it. I like to enjoy myself too. If the food is mediocre, I’m not impressed as it means I’ve wasted some time, money, and calories that weren’t worth it.
Eating out should be enjoyable whether one’s alone, with a partner, or with friends. Unfortunately, when food issues are factored in, eating out can become quite stressful. There are people I’ve met who never go out to eat. ‘Really? Never?’ ‘Never!’ Then I realize how sad a situation it is. To be so terrified. To not being able to trust someone with your food. Then I’ve met some people who don’t eat anywhere that doesn’t have a gluten-free menu (oh ya, those allergy sheets don’t count). I just think ‘Man, you’re missing out!’. Then I got thinking ‘Am I the weird one? Am I crazy putting my health, and possibily life, at risk just to go to this restaurant or that bar?’. After some thought I realized that as unbalanced I may seem on some days, I’m pretty normal. Eating out is a social activity and I’m not going to let me food issues ruin it for me.
Other celiacs I meet seem a little annoyed when they ask about my favourite restaurants and I can’t name them. I realize they probably just want to know about a safe place to eat. But realistically, I live centrally and could eat at a new restaurant every week and not get to them all within the year. When I tell them I go wherever I like the look of shock and horror amuses me. The conversation usually continues like this:
Me: Sure, why not?
Them: Well, you don’t know what could happen. It isn’t safe. (Disdain in their voice)
Me: Well, I talk to my server, ask questions, and explain things. It’s actually quite simple. Where do you go?
Them: I only go to places that are safe like Town, Frasers, Play, blah, blah, blah
Me: Oh, do they have a gf menu? (Knowing the answer already)
Them: No, but they’ll make things for me.
Me: Hmmm (Smiling with amusement because they are doing something so much different than I am, right?
I want to go where I want and enjoy myself. But I’m also realistic and smart about it. One cannot expect a cook to wipe down his entire kitchen for me during a dinner rush or otherwise. It’s also not hard to make a sandwich without the bread. Sure it doesn’t look the same, but give me a knife and fork and I’ll survive.
Flexibility should also be key factors, not just for the kitchen staff, but for the diner too. Be flexible and willing. Last summer I was at a restaurant that served gf pizza. Unfortunately, the meat option I asked for wasn’t guaranteed to be gf. No Problem! I had grilled veggies on my pizza instead and loved every bite of it. Recently, for Christmas dinner we dined at a nice restaurant and my meal was easily altered by deleting some au jus and croutons (being gluten-free was also noted on our reservation). Our waitress knew that both dessert options contained flour and so asked what I wanted instead. At a loss about what to suggest I left it up to the kitchen (Yes, I know gasps of horror are being expressed), and at the end of our meal I was presented with a bowl of finely chopped fruit salad. You might not think it was anything special, but it was nice and sweet and perfect. The pineapple, mango, and strawberries were ideal and the blueberries were small and sweet. This wasn’t your usual wintertime woody fruit salad.
Maybe it’s the 15 years of working in restaurants that gives me confidence to go wherever I want. I know what goes on not only at the front of the house, but also at the back. I know what to expect in a working kitchen (And no it isn’t going to be spic and span because they are working. If you find this shocking, think about what your kitchen looks like when you’re making dinner.). On the flip side, it also isn’t going to be utter chaos because that’s when physical injuries occur. If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, it may seem chaotic, but trust me… I worked in a school that was so chaotic that a colleague’s hair began falling out. That never happened while I was working in a restaurant.
There is behaviour to expect of the restaurant staff, but believe it or not, there are ways a customer needs to conduct themselves too. Treat the staff with respect. These people are preparing and serving your food. You want to get your meal “safely”, right? Think it doesn’t happen? It does and I’ve done it. The jerk at table 5 who keeps snapping his fingers at the waitress – his burger will land on the floor before it lands on his plate. The guys at table 9 who are a nightmare and keep giving the waiter a hard time – ya, their medium wings will be suicide and their nachos will have jalapeno juice drizzled on the top. Again, be nice to the staff.
You want your meal to be gluten-free and have an enjoyable experience. Believe it or not, they want you to be happy too. But having food allergies or celiac disease doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk. Be nice and clearly explain what you need. Your server is a human being, not an idiot. If they don’t understand, it’s because they don’t know and it’s probably a foreign concept to them. It doesn’t mean you can belittle them. (They can describe the complexities of the 12 beers on tap and all the wines in the big folder your holding. Can you? Not likely; so you really don’t know everything.) If in doubt, ask nicely to speak with a manager, but from experience, it’s all about asking the right questions and being clear. The Honey and I have learnt this and we still have some things to learn. I don’t want to say “Hi, I’m celiac” because 1) I don’t want this ailment to define who I am, and 2) I just picture the server’s eyes gazing over in bewilderment. After checking out the menu I say “I have some questions for you and the kitchen because I have a gluten allergy”. I have 2-3 items/choices picked out then I fire off my questions. When they return I make my decision based on their answers. It’s not fool-proof, but it saves my sanity, and I’m sure theirs as well.
And I know someone will ask… Yes, I have been glutened. Ironically though, it was my fault. I didn’t ask any questions.