Pulse: Chatter: Restaurants: If You Can’t Take The Wheat

Why the city’s best kitchens are going against the grain

That Philly’s best pasta chef is now serving wheat-free meals may seem a sign that End Times are nigh. But it’s really just smart networking by the Ambler-based National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, which is turning the city that gave birth to the Schmitter into ground zero for gluten-free food.

 For celiac sufferers — about one in every 100 Americans, with diagnoses on the rise — just a smidgen of the protein gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye) can lead to bloating and stomach troubles. For restaurateurs, that might mean two, three, maybe five customers a night struggling to avoid breads, pastas, sauces. Before, that is, the NFCA intervened, recruiting Jose Garces and Marc Vetri to participate in its certification program. Others have since followed: The nonprofit has trained more than 200 restaurants around the country, about half of them Philly spots. (In the ranks: Amada, Distrito, Vetri, Zahav, L’Oca and Lolita. And Philly’s first allergen and gluten-free bakery, Sweet Freedom, is slated to open this month on South Street.)

Chefs are surprisingly game for rearranging kitchens to avoid cross-contamination and, of course, for dreaming up gluten-free dishes. “I scratch my head because it seems like some people can’t eat anything — no wheat, no dairy,” says Vetri chef Brad Spence. “But we always make it work.” (He subs polenta and risotto for pasta.) “You know, we’re in the hospitality business.”

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  • abigail

    Vetri and Garces rock, I’m so glad to hear this, having relatives with gluten allergies. And we enjoy fine food, so this is great news. Zahav is another favorite spot. My hat’s off to these chefs and their hard work and common sense!!

  • Robin

    As a resident of Charlotte, NC, where change is slow to occur, I am delighted to learn that Philadelphia is leading the way in enlightened dietary accommodation. A note to eaters of all stripes and particularly to chefs seeking new non-gluten food ideas: for a delicious alternative to regular corn polenta, try this recipe for non-gluten millet polenta. http://bit.ly/8WY4fM