My sister/partner Silvia has a good friend who has a gluten-sensitivity. As we were developing our menu Silvia was always reminding me that it was important to make sure we have wheat-free options available. I had heard of wheat allergy, and celiac disease, and certainly had noticed that more and more people (myself included because of type 2 diabetes) were avoiding products which contain gluten, but I wanted to learn more.
Some months ago I went to visit Jennifer Iscol in her lovely home in Sebastopol.
Jennifer is the president of the Celiac Community Foundation of Northern California, an advocacy group which helps people understand and address celiac disease. Jennifer introduced me to a great restaurant guide to serving gluten-free meals that her group created to help restaurant owners be aware of the issues. She explained to me the difference between people who have celiac disease, wheat allergy, gluten sensitivity and those who choose to avoid gluten as a lifestyle choice. As we talked, and I learned, I began to understand that our menu was already really close to being safe for people facing these issues.
I had already decided to make our tabouleh with quinoa instead of couscous, thereby eliminating the gluten in that dish. As it turns out, the only food we serve with gluten is our handmade pita. Still, there was a problem. When we roll out our pita dough, we use flour to keep it from sticking, and sometimes that flour flies around the kitchen where it can contaminate the other products we serve.
Some people who suffer from celiac disease are so sensitive that even a few specks of gluten can cause symptoms which include vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, bone and joint pain or an itchy skin rash. So if Nature’s Serving was going to be a safe place for those folk to eat…we had to figure out a way to keep gluten from ending up where it was not expected.
The best way to do that would be to have a dedicated gluten-free kitchen with dedicated gluten-free appliances. We cannot afford that, so although we could make every effort to prevent cross-contact with gluten, we are not going to be able to have a 100% gluten-free kitchen, and there would still be a potential risk due to airborne flour. Still, we could do A LOT to prevent cross-contact, and make Nature’s Serving: World food, fast! an appropriate place for many people with gluten issues to eat.
Jennifer began to quiz me about how, and when, and where we make the pita. We make the pita dough in our commissary kitchen (too big and messy a job for the trailer!) Obviously it is important to keep the wheat flour in a sealed container that does not come in contact with other products in the pantry. That part is pretty easy. Then we figured out that if I mixed the pita dough first or last in the cooking day when no other food products were out, I could keep the flour from contaminating the other foods. Once the dough was prepared I would put it away in dedicated containers, clean the kitchen surfaces and mixer thoroughly, change my apron, and then it would be safe to work on other foods.
Once the dough is on the trailer it has its own refrigerator and holding cabinet, no cross-contact there! The only other thing that needed to change was the way we finish the dough just before baking. This is truly hand-made bread, each piece is rolled and baked to order. Now, instead of using wheat flour to keep the dough from sticking to the counter we would use brown rice flour. Because the rice flour has no gluten, if a tiny bit gets airborne and lands on another food product it would not be dangerous to people with gluten issues. Genius!
The beauty of it is that brown rice flour is much better for finishing the dough than wheat flour. Rice flour is slightly more coarse, which means that it does not fly around the room and leave a sheen of flour that turns to glue on everything. Now clean up is easier, our waste water system is happier, and our customers can feel safe eating our products. Thank you Jennifer.