The greatest gift a gluten free eater can give themselves is a deep understanding of different cuisines. If you know the answers to questions like — What kind of noodles are typically in this dish, rice or udon or soba? — you will know what to expect and then ask: Is this dish made with rice noodles? (Clarifying) And if not can it be? (Asking for modification)
This is the formula for gluten free eating success – clarifying and then asking for modifications.
You should know as much as you can before embarking on a journey to eat at a new restaurant. This is much easier that it was a decade ago when I started on my gluten free journey. Browse recipes online or a cookbook from the region to get a sense of things. Look at the restaurants menu online and figure out what you don’t know. Combining knowledge of what is usually in a dish with what is on the menu is the best path to starting a conversation with the waiter.
Do not ASSUME that that waiter knows anything about how the dish is cooked and what is in it. In NYC you will find professional waiters know a lot, but its the chef’s job to know the details.
From my experience of asking about gluten free at restaurants since before anyone really knew what gluten free was there are two sides to the delicate dance of a gluten free eater: your presentation about the intolerance and how this presentation effects the waiters’ belief that they can help you.
You, the gluten free eater are the lead in this dance. Being open and friendly when you present the gluten allergy to the waiter. You want this to be a conversation between you and the chef – but you need the waiter to translate. Encourage the waiter to ask you questions so they don’t get tripped up and nervous.
Notice if the waiter seems confused and use your brilliant emotional intelligence to gain his allegiance. My favorite: I know how complicated this is! before I knew about my allergy I had no idea what gluten even was.
Don’t be an ass. You are about to send him into a busy the kitchen, filled with fiery New Yorkers with little tolerance for idiots, that is preparing hundreds and hundreds of meals. Do you want him to go in educated or looking sheepish?
Advise the waiter of your selections (notice the plural). Before you showed up at this restaurant you should have looked at the menu online to get an understanding of “will it be impossible for me to eat here?” If you check here to see if I have reviewed it the answer is yes!
Don’t waste your time trying to eat at a restaurant that cannot serve you. Example of a stupid move: eating at a vegetarian specialty restaurant that uses a lot of replacement products filled with wheat and soy sauce. There are so many good restaurants here that deserve to be enjoyed! Don’t sign up for boring!!
Once you arrive at the restaurant and after you have reviewed the menu tell the waiter you were thinking of ordering X or Y but you have a gluten allergy. Is either of those OK or both of them?
This gives the waiter something SPECIFIC to ask the chef who is in the throws of dinner rush. It also shows you are flexible. This is subtle but the waiter will feel like he can get options from the chef and bring them back because you asked this way. It REALLY WORKS. I can’t tell you how many times the waiter has returned from the kitchen with a violently scribbled on menu with big “YESs” and “NOs” the chef created.
I try to be as explicit as I can be when ordering something that might have gluten like “normally this would not be breaded, can you make sure it’s not and verify that it can be made gluten free.” I know it should not be made a certain way based on my knowledge but I still want verification.
TRUST that the waiter knows what they are talking about. The last thing the waiter wants is to make you sick. She doesn’t want you to call tomorrow and say “your waiter fed me gluten and got me sick.” Having said this I do still ask questions when the waiter comes back with surprising information like: “the polenta has gluten in it.” Just to clarify that it does not have corn verses gluten.
THANK the Chef / Server / Hostess. Be grateful for the effort the restaurant is putting forth to accommodate you. Come back repeatedly. Share your heartfelt thanks in person and on twitter. It makes a huge difference for you and the rest of us!