There are very few things that will get me to schlep downtown in the middle of the day here in New York City but I have to say that the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) is one of them. I was recently invited to the kick-off of their GREAT Kitchens National Chef’s Table Tour at chef Jehangir Mehta’s Mehtaphor in TriBeCa with NFCA President Alice Bast.
At the luncheon Chef Mehta (who you may also recognize from The Next Iron Chef) – the NFCA’s ambassador for the national tour – gave a fantastic overview of why it is so important for restaurant staff (and all restaurant staff) to be trained in safely helping those who are gluten-free out of necessity to enjoy a worry-free experience. He gave a great example of a bar who used the same cutting board for everything not realizing that the cutting board was rendered not gluten-free because it was used for cutting multiple items. People forget that gluten can sneak in not only in our foods but in our beverages. It also is a great example of a restaurant thinking it is doing everything it can to accommodate gluten-free diners – and despite having the best motives – do not sometimes realize that they can unknowingly be hurting those they are trying to help.
That’s where GREAT Kitchens comes in. The program essentially trains restaurant staff on the essentials of what it really means to safely serve celiac or gluten-sensitive guests and covers everything from food prep to cross-contamination and pretty much everything in-between.
The GREAT Kitchens Chef’s Table Tour is crossing the country to help restaurants, caterers, and universities meet the needs of those that are gluten-free out of necessity. What is so, pardon the pun GREAT, about the web-based program is that is not just for back-of-house restaurant staff but also provides gluten-free knowledge to the front-of-house staff as well. Front-of-house is often the first line of defense and I speak from experience when I say that I am twice as likely to patronize a locale that offers gluten-free option if their front-of-house staff “get it”. It makes the difference between a good experience and, oh boy, wait for it, a GREAT one.
I can count many occasions where a restaurant provided gluten-free options but the lack of confidence or just general knowledge of the front-of-house caused me to not go back – and recently a favorite place I loved for years lost my custom because they had someone who literally had no clue handling front-of-house and for a delivery order left me worried that I might have a problem if he keyed in the wrong thing. This just reinforces the importance that all staff must be properly trained if you are taking people’s lives into you hands (and this is exactly what they are doing when a celiac walks into a restaurant that is not exclusively gluten-free).
Chef Mehta prepared a delicious multi-course gluten-free meal with each course beautifully presented. The complex flavor combinations used were absolute perfection and kept your taste buds at attention. Not to mention the staff described each dish and its ingredients as the plates were presented. I was also lucky enough to be seated with About.com Guide Dr. Barbara Bolen and GF blogger Molly from Based on a Sprue Story and the only thing better than the food was the varied conversation.
Lunch was comprised of:
Mustard Foie Gras Crostini with Raspberry (w/gluten-free bread)
I am a definitely a foie gras kind of guy and this was decadent. The shaved foie gras was buttery and melted in your mouth. The raspberry lined toast added a hint of tart sweetness that paired perfectly with the foie gras.
Oysters with Tapioca Cracker Topped with Chili Salsa
The servers were alerted that I have a shellfish allergy and had a chicken in a peanut sauce over a tapioca cracker was presented. Not only did the server know what my allergy was but knew where I was sitting. I had mentioned my allergies when responding to the invitation and was told they would be noted – and they were – flawlessly.
Grilled Tofu with Green Chutney, Topped with a Chickpea-Crusted Onion Ring
This was a real standout. I have to admit I am not a huge tofu fan but this was most definitely an interesting take. A silken tofu was topped with a fragrant green chutney filled with coriander and then “crowned” with a chickpea battered onion ring.
Sliced Duck Served Over Portobello Mushroom with Spicy Goat Cheese and Tomato with a Mustard and Onion Chutney
Another standout, the duck paired so well with the earthy flavor of the mushroom and was elevated by they spicy/tangy goat cheese and wonderful mustard sauce and onion chutney that surrounded the plate.
Mehtaphor Sundae, Vanilla Rum Ice Cream with Kahlua, Rum raisins, and Lentil Chip
I am all about desserts and this one did not disappoint. Decadent vanilla rum ice cream was paired with what I believe was a cookie somewhere as I dug through the ice cream and topped with two sweet lentil chips.
Photo Credits: NFCA
The next stops on the GREAT Kitchens Chef’s Table Tour are:
10/28-30: Portland, Oregon
10/31-11/1: Seattle, Washington
11/11-11/2: San Francisco, California
11/13-11/14: Los Angeles, California
You can follow the progress of the tour via the NFCA’s blog, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. You can also learn more about all of the GREAT-related programs that the NFCA offers across a wide-range of categories from dietitians to medical professionals (and everyone in-between) on their Web site.
A huge thank you to the NFCA and all the incredible work that they do each and every day to advocate and help raise awareness for celiac disease.