A few weeks ago I was doing a cooking demonstration for the Norwich Coeliac Group. We decided to use this as opportunity to have a mini weekend away with the children. My husband did a ton of research and found lots of restaurants and eating places suitable for both us and our daughters aged 8 and 4. We had a fun meal at the Norwich Football stadium at Delia's Yellow Diner. The food was great and the staff could not have been friendlier or more helpful. Nothing was too much trouble and my daughter really enjoyed the food. We followed this up the next evening with a fantastic fish and chip supper in Swaffham at a place called Old Mother Hubbards. They advertised in the hotel guide and it was clear from the ad that they did gluten free fish and chips. We rang them in the afternoon and again, they were really helpful. My daughter had her first ever fish and chips. The service was fantastic and I had a great conversation with the owner who told me why he serves gluten free fish and chips everyday of the week. In between these two meals we discovered several other places in and around Norwich which catered for Coeliacs.
During the half term break we did a quick city break in Bristol. Our gluten free experience was very different. On researching suitable places to eat my husband found that the choices were few and far between. Our first stop was at the City Museum. They have a fantastic cafe with a great selection of home made sandwiches, interesting salads, home made cakes etc. Everything looked really fresh and very inviting. I asked about the chips (which looked fantastic) and although the man serving them said they were gluten free, I just got this feeling he really didn't know and could not be bothered to find out. I asked him to check with the chef and a few minutes later he came out and confirmed that they were gluten free. I still didn't quite believe them and asked again- he looked at me and said, why do you not believe me? I explained that my daughter had been made very ill a little while ago, when she was given the wrong pasta at a restaurant. He looked a little worried now- but said the chips were definately gluten free. My daughter had a few, but I felt quite nervous as did she- as I just wasn't 100% sure. We had a similar experience at dinner when the lady taking our order said that there was only a small amount of flour in one of the dishes we ordered. I explained that this would not be suitable and she seemed to understand, but I was left with that horrible niggling doubt. I wanted to leave the restaurant but did not want to be the one to ruin everyone's evening. It was okay in the end, but the stress of not really knowing whether the food is okay- really does kill it for me. Throughout our stay I found people generally very unhelpful when I asked about gluten free options. In one place, I could tell the waitress just could not be bothered to go and find out if the ice cream was okay. I volunteered to go and read the label for her, but she very curtly said, that was not possible. In another place, when I asked the waiter about putting some cheese on a hamburger for my daughter, which she was having without a bun- he said, cheese was not allowed as it interfered with the flavour of the burger! I wanted to hit him over the head!
So what's this all about? Why such a different attitude in two large cities where presumably they have statistically the same amount of coeliacs. I suppose that inevitably this all comes down to how people in the catering profession are trained. I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with a group of young people who worked at a Michelin starred establishment. We got to talking about gluten free and they told me that where they work, it is the waiter's responsibility to make sure they know about what items on the menu are okay or can be adapted for special diets. They told me about how much time they spend with each individual customer to make sure they get both a good meal but also one that is safe for them to eat. And then, here is the clincher, they said that after taking all this care and attention, they regularly get customers who when it comes to the dessert, and are presented with the gf options- elect the non gf items on the menu. And this drives them round the bend. So I guess it goes both ways- if we want catering establishments to take our dietary requirements seriously, we must make sure not to mess them about.