Once upon a time I worked as a chef in an ice cream shop. We made every ice cream to order, freezing it at -196c with the use of liquid nitrogen.
Shortly before I stopped working there, I had a particular encounter with a customer. It’s hard to forget, really.
“Is the nitrogen gluten free?” She asked me. Tanned, skinny, shades on even though it wasn’t even Spring yet and, as this was inside a shop, we were also indoors.
“It’s Liquid Nitrogen.” I said, not sure what the confusion was.
“Yeah, is it gluten free?”
“Are you asking me if the liquid nitrogen has wheat in it?” She looked at me. I looked at her. “No, it doesn’t have wheat. It’s liquid nitrogen.”
“So, it’s gluten free, right?”
Welcome to the modern world.
The discovery of coeliacs disease is old news; so why has that GF lifestyle only just become a fad? Walk into any supermarket, pick up any item from a block of butter to a bag of chocolate buttons and you’ll find the words splashed across it in bold: Gluten Free. Yes, items which have never, ever, contained gluten now actively advertise it. Somehow, in the last five years, it’s become fashionable, “healthy” and on trend to label yourself gluten free. And where there’s a trend, there’s money to be made.
One of London’s top restaurants, Indigo at One Aldwych, in Covent Garden made headlines earlier this year after releasing a menu that was entirely gluten and dairy free. Similarly, Soho based La Polenteria also has a devoted GF following as everything on their menu is polenta based and completely gluten free. Move more upmarket to Islington and you’ll find Niche, another restaurant which boasts an ethic that is firmly against gluten, offering a GF menu to suit everyone- coeliacs and non coeliacs alike.
But here’s the thing, it’s kind of hard to diagnose a gluten intolerance professionally, so why go to a doctor to get that label? One independent research study found that, of 400 subjects who labelled themselves as gluten intolerant, only 55 had any level of intolerance medically. And of that 55 only 2 were actually allergic to wheat. That means that a mere 14.5% had any medical reasoning to believe themselves intolerant and avoid eating gluten.
The remaining 85.5%? Their avoidance of gluten was simply choice. #glutenfree #eatclean
Why choose gluten free? Gwyneth Paltrow claims a GF diet cured her son’s eczema, others claim it’s good for weight loss, cures depression.. the list goes on. For most, cutting out gluten consequently removes processed foods and adds more fruit and veg, which, hey presto, is the basis of a healthy diet.
Once, when I was working in a five star hotel serving weekend afternoon tea, we had a walk in- that is, someone who hadn’t booked in advance letting us know their dietary requirements. They’d paid the full amount and they wanted the whole afternoon tea experience of scones, sandwiches and sweet treats. What they didn’t want was “Dairy, eggs, gluten or soft fruit.”
Now as a chef, hearing this, obviously you laugh. Then you panic because you’re busy and it’s a five star environment so you have to deliver. Also, what constitutes as a soft fruit?
My colleagues made her (I’m assuming it was a her) miniature salads with ribbons of purple carrots and mooli, and cuts of cured meat with dairy, egg, gluten and fruit free marinades. When it came to the sweet finale however, I had nothing to offer bar nuts, dried fruits and an unripe fruit salad. Which I then served. Because frankly it was that or a nice, cleansing, bowl of nothing.
It’s very possible that she expected me to magically whip up a batch of gluten, dairy and egg free scones just for her because this often seems to be the GF mindset.
Stuff which has never, ever, contained gluten is now actively advertised as gluten free!
At another workplace, I remember serving a customer on a busy summer evening when a man pushed his way to the front and heckled for my attention.
“Are your brownies gluten free?” He asked loudly. I rolled my eyes, probably. The customer I was talking to rolled her eyes, probably. This again.
“Oh.” That pregnant pause where I’m supposed to make it better but I don’t. “I can’t have gluten.”
It’s always the same. That one sentence left hanging in the air and, as a chef, I don’t know what you want from me. To apologise? To comfort? Do you want my sympathy? What do you want from me?
“Okay, well they’re not gluten free.” Please let this conversation be over.
But it’s never over.
“Oh. How about the croissant?”
And at that moment I see it, in his hand, open and half empty.
A bottle of beer.
A bottle of wheaty, gluten as anything, beer.
Honestly, I give up. When late night host, Jimmy Kimmel, asked LA individuals who were following a gluten free diet for health reasons “What is gluten?” nobody knew. Nobody knew what gluten even was.
I think I’ll wake up tomorrow and decide I can’t drink tap water anymore…….. for health reasons.