Join us as we look at some of the biggest dining trends of 2020. Today, it’s all about gluten-free cooking and dining – read on, then download our Year in Review infographic here.
People working in the food industry have heard it all. From food allergies to personal preferences, the list of ingredients diners can and cannot enjoy is long and evolved. Chefs field more gluten-free requests every year, but the reasons behind the uptick may be surprising.
Defined by the Mayo Clinic as a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), gluten can wreak havoc on the digestive systems of those suffering from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. Other guests simply have a touch of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which causes unpleasant symptoms without damaging the small intestine. Allergies to wheat and gluten ataxia can also have an impact on diners.
Not everyone who prefers a gluten-free menu is diagnosed with celiac disease. In fact, many diners have started ordering gluten-free foods for one simple reason: they just feel better. Gluten intolerance may have led the way for undiagnosed diners to discover the benefits of a gluten-free diet, and the demand has created an opening for savvy chefs to welcome them.
Start with Flavor, Not Flour
Justin Ferguson helms BRQ Restaurant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Eyeing a plate of Jack cheese-stuffed boudin balls or jumbo lump crab and brie empanadas with pepper jelly, it’s hard to imagine anything gluten-free could match up. But Ferguson, a veteran Army scout and barbecue master, loves to prove that theory wrong. With Louisiana’s strong seafood heritage and the soulful side of barbecue, Ferguson’s guests have enough gluten-free choices to eat at BRQ every day of the week and not order the same thing twice.
“Seafood and barbecue are naturally gluten-free, and oftentimes people request dishes without gluten just for health reasons – not because they actually get sick from it,” says Ferguson. “It’s important to be current with the times and mindful that it’s not about what we want, but what the guest wants.”
That way of thinking is what can help chefs exceed expectations for diners. Ferguson incorporates a combination of Cajun and Creole techniques and makes his own seasoning with different blends of spices, like garlic, cayenne and fresh herbs. He uses those flavors and techniques to mimic the texture of glutinous food, with all of the zing and none of the side effects.
“What sets us apart is, we don’t tell anyone ‘no,’ and that includes our catering, which can mean someone calling up and ordering 180 meals for the following day,” says Ferguson, who serves hungry LSU fans and faculty. “We are happy to customize everything.”
Ferguson says Louisiana’s long growing season makes it easier to accommodate requests. He offers this advice for fellow chefs who may be stumped as to which gluten-free options to launch:
“Look around you for inspiration and open your mind – do some research and explore local cultures for ingredients that are naturally gluten-free,” says Ferguson.
“You’re just having fun, and keep trying, because every dish might not work. But every day you challenge yourself to go without gluten products will make you a better chef.”
Unless he is baking a cake or making bread, Ferguson rarely uses white flour. He makes dishes crunchy and crispy in other ways, always with a focus on seasoning. Ferguson’s favorite items to prepare for his gluten-free guests include all of his barbecue plates, such as brisket and ribs. Ferguson makes his grits from scratch from fresh corn, along with house-cured tasso, andouille sausage, and tortillas, so guests can indulge without consequence.
“For me it starts with salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon, and for a sweet component if I’m looking for that umami flavor or a little textures, I might add some pistachios and oregano to put some crunch on the plate without having to do anything more to the fish,” says Ferguson. “When no one can tell a dish is gluten-free, that’s when you know you’ve done it right.”
Part of being a destination restaurant for gluten-free diners is being able to adapt and use what’s available. Kyle St. John is the chef at Harvest at The Ranch at Laguna Beach in California, where gluten-free diets are common.
“In cooking a beautiful piece of fish, you can simply accompany it with seasonal vegetables, a sauce, or vinaigrette that compliments the fish,” says St. John. “Create an equally amazing gluten-free dish by building layers of flavor.”
St. John has to answer to discerning guests across the whole luxury resort, which can come with challenges. To meet diner demand, he adapts his menu to the seasons.
“As a luxury resort, our guests have exceptionally high standards, and we strive to meet their expectations and cater to their dietary requests. But thankfully, this is fairly simple to accommodate because our menus are built from high-quality seasonal produce,” says St. John. “Many of our dishes happen to be gluten-free, vegan, or dairy free because of our sourcing methods – they weren’t necessarily intended to be gluten-free but are just that way because we let the quality of the ingredients shine without over-complicating recipes.”
St. John’s Ora King salmon is a crispy-skinned salmon, which he serves with a white bean and fennel purée, tomato and basil chutney, watercress, and agrumato. His Jidori chicken is a Frenched breast with sherry vinegar glaze, black garlic soubise, and roasted broccolini. [Read more…]