Chefs transform menus to cater to gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian preferences.

With allergies and food intolerances on the rise, restaurants are responding with menus that serve special needs and personal preferences. Gluten-free dominates the movement and for good reason: The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) reports roughly 1 in 133 people in the U.S.—about 3 million total—have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is consumed.

In fact, May has been designated National Celiac Awareness Month and, even among the general population, the increased focus on healthy lifestyles is driving continued interest in gluten-free diets. According to U.S. News & World Report, 15 to 25 percent of consumers are looking for gluten-free products.

Gluten is a protein found in all types of wheat, including durum, semolina, spelt, kamut, and farro, as well as in other grains like rye and barley. While breads and pastas are the main culprit, gluten can also be found in soy sauce, bottled salad dressings, and other processed foods.

Although gluten sensitivity is less severe than celiac disease, it can cause serious allergic reactions like swelling, rashes, and other symptoms similar to those produced by peanut, shellfish, or dairy allergies.

In response to the escalating need for foods that serve this population, gluten-free items have appeared more frequently on restaurant menus around the country—up 275 percent from 2009 to 2012 according to Mintel’s Menu Insights report. And the National Restaurant Association’s annual “What’s Hot” survey ranked gluten-free No. 8 among the top food-industry developments for 2013.


Going Gluten-Free

Naturally, the most common menu item featured as gluten-free is salad; but surprisingly, the second most commonly listed gluten-free dish is pizza, according to Benjamin Stanley, co-founder of Food Genius Reports, an online restaurant menu-trend tracking service. Stanley notes that the pizza industry has stepped up to the plate when it comes to fulfilling this niche market. And when it comes to grains, rice easily steps in as a gluten-free option.

To accommodate the demand for gluten-free menus, NFCA recently updated its Gluten-Free Resource Education and Awareness Training (GREAT) Kitchens, a web-based program that trains foodservice professionals to meet gluten-free needs.

“It’s exciting to see a dramatic increase in gluten-free menu items, but any such initiative should include staff training on safety protocols,” says Alice Bast, founder and president of NFCA. “There are a lot of cross-contact risks that can expose a dish to gluten, and those can be easily overlooked when rushing to put out a gluten-free menu.”

One chef who has executed gluten-free with prodigious attention to detail is Elise Wiggins, executive chef of Panzano in Denver. Wiggins created a completely gluten-free menu at her restaurant and separated gluten-free production to a prep area offset from the main kitchen to prevent any possible cross-contamination. “We use separate mixes for our gluten-free focaccia, pizza, and pasta dough—and even use separate rolling pins, knives, pans, and pasta machines,” says Wiggins, who suffers from gluten sensitivity and has a brother with celiac disease.

To create the restaurant’s popular gluten-free focaccia dough, Wiggins uses a combination of brown rice flour, white rice, a small amount of potato starch, and a touch of expandex—an extraction of tapioca starch that, when combined with leavening agents like baking soda, creates that stretchy, “bubbly” sensation commonly associated with Italian bread.

In Chicago, Senza is an entirely gluten-free, fine-dining restaurant, where owners Susan McMillian and Amelia Fonti brought in executive chef Noah Sandoval, who clocked time at the Windy City’s acclaimed vegetarian restaurant Green Zebra. Sandoval developed two multi-course, prix fixe menus with wine pairings and an optional all-vegetarian selection. By omitting eggs and butter, he also offers an all-vegan menu.

“A lot of places are offering gluten-free pizzas and hamburger buns; but we wanted to give someone the same experience they would have at a Michelin-starred restaurant, where a lot of people who are celiac or sensitive to gluten can’t go,” Sandoval says.

Though crudo and pork belly appetizers easily make for gluten-free options, Sandoval’s gluten-free, silky tagliatelle pasta has drawn a regular following, changed up with seasonal produce like chanterelles, artichokes, and truffles. To make the signature pasta, Sandoval’s team developed a gluten-free flour mixture using rice flour, potato starch, and—to replace the “stretchiness” of gluten—a bit of guar and xanthan gums, agar agar (a derivative of seaweed), and modified tapioca starch, available through various suppliers or online.

“We started out using some of the flours you buy at the store, but they tend to get soggy and chewy, and those who are gluten-intolerant tend to hate the taste,” he says. “We tested the dough maybe 50 times before we got it right.”

Sandoval also uses the flour mixture for a gnocchi dish with a “molecular gastronomy” twist on an everything bagel—he sears the pasta, adding poppy and sesame seeds, fresh Jersey milk ricotta, dehydrated roasted garlic, and shitake mushrooms for a “smoky” finish.


Vegetarian & Vegan

While gluten-free diets are primarily health-driven, going vegetarian is not only viewed as healthy but also makes a politically correct statement. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, meat production accounts for 14 to 22 percent of the 36 billion tons of greenhouse gases the world produces each year. Commercial meat production in the U.S. has also been found to deplete water, land, and oil resources. The “Meatless Monday” campaign has become a nationwide initiative to encourage cutting down on the amount of meat processed and consumed—both as a matter of physical health and to reduce the strain on our planet.

Noticing more guests were requesting meatless meals, chef David DiGregorio of Osteria Via Stato in Chicago created a multiple-course, entirely vegetarian menu, making sure to omit even the restaurant’s popular panna cotta because it uses animal-based gelatin. From simple spaghetti in an arrabiatta sauce with browned garlic, crushed tomatoes, and chili flakes, to portobello Milanese with arugula and truffle vinaigrette, DiGregorio can transition to a vegan meal simply by omitting cheese—easily done since he prefers oils over butter in Mediterranean cooking. An advocate of celiac awareness, he also offers gluten-free pasta, prepared in a separate part of the kitchen.

At another popular Chicago eatery, the Grange Hall Burger Bar, owner Angela Lee sees many gluten-free and vegetarian diners who have eliminated meat because of health and/or animal welfare issues. In addition to serving a gluten-free bun, Lee offers a vegetarian burger made of sautéed vegetables, wild rice, and potato. “It seems more and more that gluten and dairy are big allergens, especially among kids,” Lee says, noting her three children eat gluten-free.

Similarly, Adam Kaye, vice president of culinary affairs for Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester, New York, puts vegetables front and center. Using seasonal produce from Stone Barns and other local farms, he serves giant parsnips in the form of a French rib of beef for two, roasting the root vegetable whole under a brick, and carving it tableside like a steak alongside creamed spinach and Bordelaise sauce.

And at Chicago’s Bountiful Eatery, owner Ed O’Brien has “taken the vegan and gluten-free diet to heart and everything in the restaurant is gluten-free.” From marinated tofu kabobs to portobello-kale wraps and pureed soups using potatoes instead of cream, many dishes attract diners looking for healthier options.

“We also make a black bean burger on gluten-free seeded bread with mung bean and garbanzo flours mixed with sorghum and flaxseed for taste and texture,” says O’Brien, who is gluten-intolerant. When using soy sauce and other vegan dressings, O’Brien is careful to select products without gluten, or make his own. This even applies to root beer since the brown rice syrup used in many products often has gluten.


Clean Eating

“It seems like gluten-free has replaced the Atkins and low-carb diets of the past,” says Jill Barron, chef/owner of Mana Food Bar, a vegetarian restaurant in Chicago. “A lot of people think if you eat more protein and vegetables than carbs, you’re eating more natural, less-processed food. Then there are some people with depression and mental health issues who avoid gluten for that reason.”

Vegan eating also has intersections with raw foodism, a diet free of cooked and processed foods. With smoothies, juices, and cleanses on the rise, more consumers are choosing to eat “clean.”

While Mana Food Bar does not focus on gluten-free or raw foodism specifically, Barron offers a line of popular smoothies made with almond milk and other non-dairy milks, with chocolate “green” powders and other healthful boosts. “I don’t have a raw kitchen or make my own almond milk, which is an issue for some people who are true raw eaters,” she says.

Nonetheless, her maki rolls, made with lightly blanched collard greens and vegetables, and her vegan curry dishes and ma pa tofu, made with vegetable stock, spices, and rich tomato or eggplant-based “gravies” instead of yogurt, are popular items.

“We are a meatless restaurant first,” Barron says. “But because vegetarian eating is so fractured, we always have gluten-free menus on hand and we have some vegan options.”