Gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, or allergic? Brunching can be difficult, but chefs are accommodating diners
Confession: I hate brunch. I write about people who make food, and I hate the whole brunch scene almost as much as most of those who work it. While friends revel in melty-cheese-and-egg-croissants and cinnamon-bun-doughnut baskets, I mourn my finances lost in a plate of eggs and arugula. Because fancy omelets and greens are the safest and most dramatic menu option people like me get. I have food issues. A history of Lyme disease and a Celiac diagnosis mean that gluten and a slew of other things have been fluctuating around and out of my diet for over twenty years.
I adjusted long before options abounded on store shelves, either just doing without or coming up with my own satisfying alternatives. I was once so lost in the starchy joy of pancake making that I bought the URL addictedtopancakes.com in case I could organize enough to monetize on my obsession (I couldn’t—I was too busy eating). So why would I dine out when I can get my brunch kick at home?
“Brunch is a big deal and big market. And there are not a lot of options for gluten-free eaters,” pastry chef Thiago Silva told me when I asked him why his Anytime Waffle Tower at Catch is gluten-free. “I got a recipe from a reliable source, tweaked it a bit, and it was great as far as flavor and texture go.”
That “reliable source” is yours truly. I’ve worked as a journalist with hundreds of chefs. Sometimes, after discovering why I don’t dine in their restaurants, they kindly come to me for recipes to adapt, or put eatable items on their menus. When chef Floyd Cardoz was planning his now-celebrated Paowalla, he giddily shared his dosa waffles would be friendly.
“I care because I cook for the pleasure of my guests,” he promises. “People are not born with allergies as a choice. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not ‘allergies.’ I know people with allergies. I know you. I want to be on the guest’s side. Why not give them options?” The waffle can be made also dairy-free by request, along with plenty other safe dishes.
Then there are chefs adjusting not out of sympathy, but empathy. “I was diagnosed last year with Crohn’s disease,” says Miro Uskokovic of Gramercy Tavern and Untitled. “Sweets are my biggest problem, which is quite ironic, me being a pastry chef. You get diagnosed with this disease, and the enemy is what you do!”
“We have incredible breakfast pastries and we’re going to open up a new restaurant where part is a bakery. So how do we build when the bakery is going to have all of those pastries that theoretically I can’t eat at all but I’m going to have to taste to make sure they’re going to be where I’m want them to be?” questions Gavin Kaysen, the chef/owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis who has Celiac disease.
These chefs have all been diagnosed within the last few years, and they’re in the early stages of understanding how their illnesses, diets, and overall health play into their professions. For Kierin, that means focusing on her healthy pregnancy, studying alternative ingredients, and “trying to figure out how to continue to do the pastry thing and morally square it with encouraging people to eat this thing which I now can see is not the healthiest,” she says. “But I essentially believe in everything in moderation kind of eating… so I don’t know.”
With the support of Executive Chef Michael Anthony, Miro underwent a transformation, sourcing raw or minimally processed, non-GMO, and organic ingredients. “The taste is better,” he claims, “but more important is the quality we’re serving our customers. It gives me peace of mind that I’m not giving people refined sugar, shitty dairy, and refined flours.” Gramercy Tavern isn’t open for brunch, but he heralds the menu at Untitled, which is “vegetable-focused” with healthier options of classics, like a cornmeal pancake served with an apple and almond “salsa” and maple yogurt, and a pumpkin soup with freekeh (not gluten free, fyi) and Swiss Chard. At Spoon and Stable, diners with allergies get separate menus that distinguish what’s safe for them. And servers are quick use “our chef has Celiac, so we get it”, for an extra show of solidarity.
As a diner and an industry insider, it’s still not easy. Only Catch’s website distinguishes options clearly. Had I not worked with these chefs—and the only reason this bunch is included is because of the personal introduction into these conversations—I’d not assume their restaurants are safe.
“There is this belief that gluten-free and dairy-free desserts usually doesn’t taste as good as the ‘real thing’, so we don’t want guests to assume this before they have the chance to taste it,” says Miro. Thiago agrees. Only when they made the allergy-friendly dishes on the menu more subtly marked did they sell: “We tripled the sales on that waffle tower,” he says, because “regular” diners were ordering, too.
The twist to my (sensitive) gut is that, from a business aspect, widening options for people like me doesn’t increase sales unless everyone eats the same dish. But at least it no longer costs much more to make those options, either. And they all keep throwing around the word “hospitality” like they actually mean it: they offer plates safe for more people because they want to feed us safely.
“Today, it’s fairly easy now that we have so many wonderful options available,” Miro says. “It challenges chefs… though not everyone is willing. I wasn’t fully willing myself until I got struck with what I got struck with. We learn the hard way.”
Every chef claims they won’t put an allergy-friendly item on the menu unless it’s just as good as the original. So most safe items for people who eat like me—and them, now—are still more creative plays on eggs and vegetables, or dishes designed to be served without this-or-that. “Brunch is definitely the evil of all evils when you have food issues,” says Gavin.
Should I expect a Celiac, Crohn’s, Diabetes, or Hypoglycemic-safe Eggs Benedict or stuffed French toast or anything that feels disgustingly indulgent any time soon? “It’s not just about gluttonous pleasure,” Kierin reminds me. “It’s about seeing the people I like, and sharing foods we enjoy. That’s the biggest part of it, and so it’s about learning to feel not disappointed in that I can’t experience the food component in the same way, but being able to enjoy the pleasure of their company.” For now, give me a call if you want to come over for brunch. I’m making stuffed pancakes.