Baked beans. They were my safety net during my four-week trial of living as a coeliac. Staring into a half-empty tin of Celebrations at Christmas, realising I couldn’t have anything other than a Bounty, I wondered to myself: ‘why on earth am I doing this?’
The answer is, I was curious. We’re developing allergen-friendly menus alongside our main menus for restaurants including Sports Café and Huck’s, and I just wanted to see what it was like out of interest. I wanted to know how accessible gluten-free food is, not at home because there are supermarkets – although some are better than others – I wanted to look out onto the high street.
I embarked on my mission and, in the first seven days, I actually had a 100 per cent gluten-free week. What I soon realised was that, inside the walls of my home, I could live a gluten-free lifestyle fairly easily. But step outside and it’s an absolute minefield. It’s everywhere! I was surprised at how many foods contained the ingredient, in things I didn’t even think possible such as chocolate. You really need to think about what you’re going to eat for your next meal: planning ahead was key for me.
“Inside the walls of my home, I could live a gluten-free lifestyle fairly easily. But step outside and it’s an absolute minefield”
But overall, I was most surprised – astounded, really – at just how neglected coeliacs are. Some high street coffee or sandwich shops couldn’t offer me more than a brownie or a single wrap.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. The silver lining for me was TGI Friday in London; I visited there with our suppliers after Eddie [McAdam, Group Food and Beverage and Retail Manager] had been waxing lyrical about it. I opened the menu and – between the burgers and pasta – I thought ‘there’s nothing on here for me’. But I asked the server and he presented me with this gluten-free menu.
It was honestly amazing. No fuss, no asking: “Sorry, can you take this out” “Can I have this without that”. I could just enjoy the experience.
Gluten-free Center Parcs
My trial made me realise that, actually, we do need gluten-free dishes, we do need gluten-free beer. The Mac ‘n’ Cheese in Huck’s is now being made gluten-free across the board, for example. The experience has really made focus more – where we can – on tweaking dishes and taking ingredients out where we don’t need to have them, so we can make them accessible for coeliacs. For example, the fajita spice in our fajitas contain gluten, so I’ve now changed the spice and changed the wrap.
As chefs you are guilty of being a bit inflexible. Particularly in top restaurants I’ve worked in; there are chefs who won’t cook lamb any way other than medium, for example. Vegans and vegetarians were often made to feel a nuisance. But it’s their world as well as anyone else’s, and during my gluten-free trial I can attest that when you do have dietary requirements, you are literally made to feel like a second-class citizen when dining out.
But that hasn’t deterred from our mission at Center Parcs. I’m especially looking forward to the launch of the new Huck’s menu at the end of this month. When you think of American food, you associate it with carbs and gluten, which could put some people off. So I just can’t wait for our guests to see it and feel at ease knowing they can select a burger or the fajitas from the menu, even if they’re gluten-intolerant.