Smart Businesses Support Celiacs


Back in May, I was excited when Starbucks introduced its first-ever gluten-free baked treat, the Orange Valencia Cake. But last week, the company announced — via Twitter — that it was no longer going to carry it. Instead, gluten-intolerant people would have to make do with KIND bars, one of those fruit-and-nut snacks which, in my opinion, are neither healthy enough to justify as part of a meal nor decadent enough to qualify as a treat.

To me, it was a great disappointment. It wasn’t that I was in love with the cake. I’d been in several Starbucks locations where the cake had been taken out of its packaging and set on a cake stand in the display case, alongside the wheat-based baked goods, entirely defeating the point of it being gluten-free. But I was surprised that such a major US chain would go to the trouble of developing the treat, stocking it nationally, then just ditch it within weeks. I’m not sure what Starbucks’ message to the growing number of gluten-free consumers was supposed to be, but it certainly wasn’t that they were committed to serving us.

Triumph Dining has organized an online petition to Starbucks, designed to get the company to bring back the cake. Personally, I’m choosing to focus on shopping at places that have consistently shown an interest in serving celiacs. The recession has made me more conscious about where I spend my money. With the growing number of empty storefronts in New York City, I want to support new businesses like HealthSmart of NY, which opened in Murray Hill a couple of weeks ago and which boasts a surprisingly huge gluten-free section for a relatively small store. I also like to buy my groceries at local stores like Natural Green Market and Fairway, or national chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, all of which have demonstrated a longstanding commitment to the celiac community.

My feelings about supporting businesses that serve celiacs extends to bakeries — such as Babycakes and Shabtai Gourmet — and especially to restaurants. When I’ve gone out lately, it’s mostly been to spots such as Bistango, Risotteria, GustOrganics, and Rosa Mexicano, all places with an impressive record of serving celiacs. (Rosa Mexicano doesn’t have a gluten-free menu, but over the course of many visits I’ve found them to be very celiac-aware.)

At a time when we’re all watching our budgets, I’d like to make a case for spending even more carefully. If a major corporation like Starbucks isn’t serious about serving the gluten-intolerant, I see no reason to support them. As Ethan at Gluten-Free Maps pointed out to me last week, Starbucks offers a gluten-free fair trade chocolate cake at its outlets in Great Britain. And this isn’t just about Starbucks; as Chris at Celiac Handbook has noted, McDonald’s restaurants in Finland have a gluten-free menu (as do the ones in Sweden). If these American-based companies can manage these feats overseas, they can do it here. No excuses.

Conference Dining for Celiacs


I just spent four days at the ThrillerFest conference at the Grand Hyatt in New York. If you’re a fan of mysteries, crime novels, or thrillers — or if you aspire to write them — you may have heard of it. Best-selling writers such as Lee Child, Steve Martini, Lisa Gardner, David Baldacci and Meg Gardiner all spoke at the event (along with many others). It was a fascinating scene.

And yet, what I was really thinking about was lunch.

When I registered for the conference a couple of months ago, there was a place on the online form to add any special notes. I mentioned that I have celiac disease, and that I would need a gluten-free meal for the luncheon on Thursday (other meals weren’t included in the conference, so this was the only one I needed to arrange in advance). I didn’t really expect to hear anything back from the organizers, so 10 days before the conference, I e-mailed them. I told them what I needed, and asked them how I would go about arranging it. They responded promptly and assured me that they would look into it. And so I waited… and waited.

After a couple of reminder e-mails, I got a message from one of the organizers. This is what it said:

I never got an answer back on my question about this. What we have done in past years for the banquet is that you tell your waiter your special requirements when you are seated. If I learn something different, I’ll let you know.

At this, alarm bells went off for me. While a restaurant can come up with a gluten-free meal with no notice, it’s tougher at a catered event. My worst experience on this front was at a conference I attended in Chicago five years ago, just after I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I’d told the organizer what I could and couldn’t have, and she told me I’d be fine. Then, at dinner the first night, I discovered that our meal consisted mainly of pizza. When I cornered the organizer, she was indifferent. “You can eat the toppings on the pizza,” she told me. “You don’t have to eat the crust.”

That was an eye-opener for me. And however ill-informed that conference organizer was, she forced me to realize that even when you explain to someone else what celiac disease is and what you need to avoid, they may not take it as seriously as you do. It was an important lesson.

In the end, my luncheon problem was easily solved, because I got in touch with the catering staff at the Hyatt directly. As with every Hyatt property I’ve visited — from Toronto, Canada to Santiago, Chile — they assured me that it would be no problem to get a gluten-free meal ready for me. And they meant it: I was served a main course of chicken with steamed broccoli and carrots. (Several people I’ve interviewed, including Alice Bast and Vanessa Maltin, have mentioned how helpful and accommodating Hyatt is on the gluten-free front.) But it reminded me that sometimes you really do have to take matters into your own hands.

Luxurious Gluten-Free Dining for Less


One of my favorite things about my job is that I get to discover and review wonderful places. I was just up in Toronto for my annual Frommer’s guidebook, and I’m happy to report that I found plenty of things worth writing about (including the amazing Frank Gehry renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario — the photo above is of his spiraling showpiece of a staircase). Given the state of the economy, I focused on finding places that are particularly good value for the money. One of the things that’s bothered me over the past few years is that the prices at some restaurants have veered off into the stratosphere; last year, it seemed like many of the new spots that opened were charging upwards of $40 for an entrée. You could argue whether that’s a good idea at any time, but in a recession it just seems wrong.

That’s one of the reasons why I was so happy to discover Madeline’s. Toronto has plenty of famous chefs, but one of the most celebrated is Susur Lee. He closed his flagship Toronto restaurant, Susur, when he moved to New York to open a new restaurant in the Thompson Hotel. However, he promised that he’d replace it with another spot, and Madeline’s is the result. Named for the chef’s mother, it’s a breathtakingly beautiful spot, with a glamorous dining room decorated in a mix of Moroccan, French and Byzantine styles. But the shocker was the menu: almost every entrée is under $20. Coming from one of the most renowned chefs in the city, that’s something unusual. Especially since there doesn’t seem to be any trade-off with the quality of the food (incredible) or the service (outstanding). Why aren’t more chefs doing this? (I should note that the fabulous Jamie Kennedy, another Toronto star chef, has been offering excellent tapas plates at very reasonable prices for some time now; I reviewed the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar last year.)

There were a few things I couldn’t have on Madeline’s menu, but the staff was savvy about celiac disease and the gluten-free diet, and had no problem pointing out what would be safe for me. I ended up starting with a portobello mushroom salad that was dressed up with sweet onions, capers, and a poppy vinaigrette. For the main course, I had bison carpaccio with potatoes, chives, garlic, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I passed up dessert (not many gluten-free options there), but went home satisfied — and excited about spreading the word. It’s still an indulgence, but one that felt well worth it.

Madeline’s [address] 601 King Street West (at Portland Street), Toronto [tel] 416-603-2205 [web]