Saturday, June 25, 2011

Canary Tip: Love, Not War

Thank you to all who responded to the poll regarding eating out.  It's good to know that people can feel safe eating out GF and/or DF, even if it's just at a handful of places.  But what happens when we venture outside our day-to-day lives and the familiar territory of our "home base"?  Away from the waitstaff that know us by name and away from the routine go-tos that we know are "safe" on our favorite menus?  For those that are relatively new to the "canary" lifestyle, it can be a very frightening reality.  It can still be frightening to me, especially when I travel.

But working as a server at a gluten-free friendly restaurant, I've learned a lot of tricks to making that gamble a lot less risky.  And that's really the crux of it all:  minimizing your risk.  Even if you implement just a few of these practices, you greatly increase your probability of having a positive restaurant experience (and that goes for both you and the staff at the restaurant).

Here they are, in no particular order...

Communicate Clearly.  The time to tell your server that you are intolerant or allergic to something is not after you have started eating your meal and feel you may be having a reaction.  From the outset, communicate to your server your dietary constraints and allergies.   The server may know something about a menu item's ingredients that may not be included in the item's description or readily apparent.    And remember that even if you're dining at a "gluten-free friendly" restaurant, if they still process wheat, cross contamination will be an issue.  And yes, this is true even if a menu item is clearly marked "GF."  Calmly ask your server to please specify to the kitchen that your food will need a little extra attention to ensure it is as gluten free as possible.  This leads us to my next tip.

Have Patience.  In any restaurant that is not a 100% gluten-free establishment, minimizing cross-contamination should require some accommodation on the part of the chefs.  It should call for them to change their gloves, either switch out or wash and then sanitize their kitchen tools and prep surface, and to use different cooking pans or pots.  And if you're ordering a menu item that calls for bread, remember that most gluten free breads store best when kept frozen, so there may be an extra step of thawing and warming the bread so it can be served.  All of these adjustments require extra time, and are necessary to maximize the integrity of your gluten-free food.  And even in the most efficient of kitchens, special requests will take chefs out of their flow and call on them to focus more exclusively on a single order as opposed to multi-tasking.  So patience is key, because in most cases, the kitchen and the servers are looking out for your wellbeing and may be going the extra mile or two to ensure your safety and satisfaction.  Why punish them for that?

When in Doubt, Don't. Those are words to live by. Your gut will most often respond to you in absolutes. "Yes" or "No." And any shade of "Maybe" is still a "No." We've all been there, when we've tried to communicate our needs to a server and we're met with that quizzical look. Yes, that one. Or when the server says, "probably" or "I'm pretty sure," or "I think it'll be fine." Again, calmly ask the server to double check with the manager or the chef. And even then, be prepared to find that "Maybe" is the answer.  Trust your intuition and do your best to avoid unnecessary risks. Sometimes the best thing you can learn at a restaurant is that it's not wise to eat there.

Timing Is Everything.  Look around you.  Is the restaurant full?  Are they on a wait?  Are you there during peak hours of business?  If the answers to at least two of those questions is "yes," then perhaps you may want to rethink braving the waters of dining out, particularly if it is a restaurant you are unfamiliar with.  When a restaurant is busy, the chances of mistakes happening greatly increase, even with the best servers and best kitchenstaff.  And, mind you, these may be very minor mistakes that may not be of much consequence to most people.  But when dealing with a food allergy, a minor mistake can have major consequences.  I know as a server, I feel much better taking care of food-sensitive guests when we're less busy and I can take the time to speak with the guest about their constraints and then communicate that to the kitchen.   I find it helps put both of us more at ease.   I try to do the same when the tables are turned and I become the guest.  If possible, I try to go on off hours, between 2pm and 4pm, for example, so I don't have to pressurize my eating experience with stress or fear.  If you're able to relax while dining out, your body will thank you.

No Substitutions.  Of course, I don't mean no substitutions whatsoever (just a little homage to Margaret Cho).  Just don't get crazy, is all.  If nothing on the menu seems safe or appealing, try to restrain yourself from committing a MYOM ("make your own meal") faux pax.  When you order off the menu, again, you are not only doing a service to the kitchenstaff and servers, but you are also helping yourself.  The less complicated and "special" your order is, the more likely the server will be able to communicate it to the kitchen effectively and the more likely that what you are expecting is what you will receive on your plate.

Wave a White Flag.  I won't name names, but one of my favorite gluten-free writers once advised that the best way to keep yourself safe while dining out was by emphasizing to the server that should gluten get into your food that you will get very sick in their restaurant.  Being a server and having encountered this approach many times, I can tell you that it doesn't help your cause at all.  Maybe I only speak for myself, but how does threatening your server by preemptively placing blame on them make them your ally?  Enlist the aid of your server, and through them, the aid of the chefs, by being agreeable, calm, and collected.  They will be more likely to help you if they're doing it out of kindess and consideration rather than fear or resentment.  Start on the right foot, and chances are, you'll end on the right foot with a satisfied and sound belly.

Set Yourself, and Others, Up for Success.  My friend was eating out with me the other night, and she asked me how severe my gluten intolerance was.  When I informed her that it was severe enough that I needed to cut gluten completely from my diet, she seemed a bit surprised.  Turns out, her previous experience with someone who was gluten intolerant impressed upon her that people who can't eat gluten are usually paranoid, demanding, and entitled.  As she didn't see me as that type of person, it didn't immediately connect that I was gluten intolerant as well.  Think about that next time you feel tempted to take the "proud of being so high-maintenance" road.  If you're able to show your server, the management, and the kitchen staff that people who are gluten-free don't always come with a sticker reading "handle with care," you're clearing a path for positive experience, not only for yourself, but for those who come after you.  For any minority, it's easy for generalizations to be made and for people to make assumptions based on previous experience.  Do your best to not be the canary who spoils it for everyone else.

And to round out my tips for eating out, here's one more - about tips.

Be Gracious.  If you've had a positive experience, thank your server.  And more than just, "Thank you," and "I enjoyed myself," be generous with the gratuity.  Know that in most restaurants, the tip is not just for your server alone, but a percentage is also allocated to the chefs and all those people behind the scenes who helped make your meal and your dining experience possible.  And just as a server puts food on your table, be conscious of the fact that your tip is what makes it possible for your server to do the same for him or herself.  As a canary, you are special and will require special treatment, not because you are entitled to it, but because it is necessary for you to live in peace with your body.  Let your server know how much you appreciated their efforts to help you maintain that peace.

And those are my suggestions for helping you navigate the world of eating out.  Knowledge is definitely power in this situation. 

Take powerful responsibility for your wellbeing

When possible, do your homework before going to a restaurant by calling ahead (on off hours), looking up reviews, or reading their menu online.  Once there, ask questions and communicate clearly and calmly so the server and the kitchen can better help you have a safe and enjoyable meal.  And at the close of your meal, be gracious, respecting the work that goes into creating a food-sensitive friendly meal. 

Lead with your light rather than your darkness, illuminating the lives of those around you.  The way in which you shine gives others permission and inspiration to do the same.

Happy Eating.  :)


  1. Lovely. :) I agree with you completely! I've read the "I will be very sick in your restaurant" tact and I can't for the life of me remember who wrote it! We had a great experience at The Cove (down by the SPP) this week. If you don't know about them, they have a dedicated gf menu featuring grass fed beef, bison, and lamb burgers and hand made gluten free/dairy free buns made by Little Aussie (local bakery). And sweet potato fries that are fried in dedicated oil! So delicious!

  2. I think this is the best post I've read on dining out gluten-free so far! Will definitely share this with my readers!

  3. Thank you, Rainya and Iris! I truly appreciate your feedback. :) And I've been eyeing The Cove but I haven't made it out there yet. It's been a shame that the entire time I've been here in SA, I've only gone out to eat once. I hope to rectify that situation over the last 3 weeks of our run.


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