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.