One of the biggest challenges to living a gluten-free lifestyle is finding a restaurant that you both enjoy and feel you can trust. After being gluten-free for over a decade now, I can honestly say that while I have mastered the kitchen and am lucky to have very understanding and accommodating friends and family, dining out still remains a source of personal anxiety and frustration. (Case in point – just a couple weeks ago, I ordered a gluten-free salad at a well known restaurant and was pleasantly delighted to have gluten-free croutons… until I ate two and realized they were regular croutons.)
That’s why I was so excited when I met a lovely woman recently by the name of Rachael Hunt who is organizing Toronto’s first ever Gluten Freedom Week. The easiest way to describe the event is a gluten-free Summerlicious… a celebration of local restaurants in the GTA who will be serving delicious gluten-free meals, giving us all a wonderful opportunity to discover new (and safe) places to eat.
Everyday until Gluten Freedom Week starts, I’ll be profiling participating restaurants on this blog. So check back often for new updates and profiles, and make it a point to go out and support our local gluten-free restaurants!
So what inspired this amazing idea? I recently caught up with Rachael over lunch to talk about some the challenges of a gluten-free lifestyle, how the food industry has responded and what inspired her to start Gluten Freedom Week, and here’s what she had to say:
Q: How long have you been gluten-free? And what you lead to this change?
A: A little over a year ago I began experiencing a number of health concerns that could not seem to be resolved. After a series of tests and visits with several doctors and specialists, I resorted to a naturopath who confirmed my suspicions of a food-related issue. Once I began following a strict gluten-free diet, I slowly went back to normal and have been feeling great since.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in making the change to a gluten-free life?
A: Definitely the impact it had on my social life and my ability to eat and drink freely. It was a huge adjustment to plan everything so meticulously when organizing meals whether eating in or dining out. A lot of people didn’t understand it at first, so even they haven’t become accustomed to my new lifestyle.
Q: What were your first experiences like when you started dining out again?
I think I was my own worst enemy at the beginning because I was still learning so I didn’t fully know what was safe or not, nor did I ask the proper questions. Needless to say, I’ve “glutened” myself far too many times to count.
Q: How do you think the restaurant industry is doing in general when dealing with food intolerances?
I think within the past year there has been more awareness amongst the restaurant industry about gluten allergies, mainly due to the increase in demand for gluten-free options within these establishments.
Several are jumping on the bandwagon and offering options for those of us who suffer, however there needs to be a greater level of education about how to properly handle and prepare gluten-free foods for individuals with severe intolerance or Celiac Disease. Just because the ingredients in a dish are gluten-free, doesn’t mean the risk of cross-contact isn’t prevalent. While most restaurants cannot avoid this concern all together, they can certainly implement some simple practices to reduce this risk.
(Victoria’s addition: Restaurants can also do much better at articulating their risk level to customers so that customers can ultimately make an informed choice for themselves.)
Q: What inspired you to start GlutenFreedomTO and Gluten Freedom Week?
A: I found I was putting in a lot of time and energy into researching which dining establishments in the city offered gluten-free options that I wanted to share my findings with the public. I figured if I want to know this information, there have got to be others who are seeking it. Through the blog I wanted to connect with the community on a greater level and provide something really amazing. I was a supporter of the Toronto foodie culture and attended many events such as TUM, Winter/Summerlicious, Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, but none of these events catered to the growing gluten-free community.
Through Gluten Freedom Week, I wanted to replicate such events for individuals like me who appreciate them but can no longer participate. I wanted to bring friends and families together over delicious gluten-free food.
Q: What are you most excited about for the event?
I’m most excited to eat all of the delicious food each restaurant is preparing during this week, but also to see how the Toronto restaurant scene grows after realizing how beneficial catering to this community can be. I think this could be the beginning of something really great in terms of fusing gourmet, high-quality foods with the growing number of food allergies, in particular gluten. The industry really needs to adjust to keep up with it all.
Up next tomorrow: A feature profile of Italian restaurant, Little Anthony’s in Toronto’s financial district. For more information on this event and a full list of participating restaurants, visit www.GlutenFreedomWeek.com.