Today, I sent a meal back to the kitchen in a restaurant because I couldn’t eat it. The ‘gluten free’ lamb souvlaki I had ordered had indeed, no pita bread or other bread, but it lay on a bed of chips – which had been checked and were not gluten free. I had explained when ordering that I was a coeliac, not being gluten free for fun and really did need the souvlaki to be gluten free, as the waitress had told me it could be.
When it arrived, spread over the non gluten free chips, I despaired. In order to keep with the strict gluten free diet required for coeliacs to be healthy, I couldn’t eat it. It’s not a matter or separating the gluten bits from the non-gluten bits, it’s all contaminated. I sent it back. The waitress was upset; “But I told you the chips weren’t gluten free when you ordered” she said. I have never been one to be demanding and difficult in cafes or restaurants. I used to eat everything and still don’t like bothering people. Post coeliac diagnosis, I’m required to divulge a serious part of my medial history anytime I eat somewhere new, unless it’s very clear from the menu that items are gluten free. It gets tedious pretty quickly, especially when you’re tired & hungry and trying to just want something good to eat.
The waitress offered to give me the meal to take away. I don’t think she understood that I couldn’t eat it, that she may as well have sprinkled it with drano. I declined. “I’m just trying to be nice” she said, and I appreciate that, I really do, I’ve worked as a waitress & I know how frustrating difficult people can be (and I wouldn’t have had a clue what gluten was 20 years ago either). However, if restaurants are going to offer meals as gluten free, it would be so great if they were! A “gluten free” souvlaki on non-gluten free chips is no longer a gluten free meal. A gluten free cake, served with tongs slathered in gluten crumbs from the last 20 cakes they picked up is also no longer gluten free. No amount of diplomatic negotiations, or being “nice” is going to change that. Gluten is kryptonite to a coeliac.
It seems no amount of wincing and/or apologising will help.
I tried to educate a cafe owner once about cross-contamination. In the kindest, least patronising way, explaining that if the gluten free bread for my burger is buttered on a board with non gluten free crumbs, it is no longer gluten free. A week later he said that he’d just done a course and understood now – though confessed at the time he had thought I was being a crazy pedantic person. It’s such a tricky thing – telling people how to do their jobs without undermining them!
I accept that the souvlaki incident was a misunderstanding, that perhaps I could have been clearer about absolutely no chips – my partner was even asked to pay for the meal after I left, but I’ll leave that for now. The whole experience has made me despondent. It was a good, handy spot to have weekend brunch, and now it’s unlikely we’ll go back. With statistics indicating up to 1 in 80 people have coeliac disease, surely it’s time for gluten free awareness to become part of hospitality inductions & training?