Against the Grain

When guests have a diet-dependent condition like celiac disease, it takes the fun out of dining if they aren’t confident in the hotel’s chef and kitchen staff. Celiacs manage this lifelong digestive disorder—and prevent uncomfortable, painful, and sometimes debilitating symptoms—by maintaining a gluten-free diet. Consumption of even the tiniest speck of gluten, which is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye, can trigger an autoimmune reaction in the small intestine. To avoid cross-contamination, hotels that offer gluten-free dishes in their restaurants, bars, banquet facilities, or room service must follow strict procedures.


Properties that accommodate the needs of gluten-free guests are welcoming a wider potential customer base—celiac disease affects one out of every 133 people in the United States, and approximately 6 percent of the nation’s population suffers from gluten sensitivity.

While some hotels prepare gluten-free dishes on a case-by-case basis, others have created special menus to meet guest expectations. For example, in January 2011, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts launched Lifestyle Cuisine Plus, a menu that caters to guests with celiac disease, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as dietary preferences including macrobiotic, raw, and vegan diets. The program is an extension of the brand’s Lifestyle Cuisine menu options, which are prepared with fresh and nutritionally balanced ingredients and cater to guests who follow low carbohydrate, low fat, vegetarian or Mediterranean diets.

“Up until now, these individuals always had to ask for something special, but they didn’t want to,” says Mariano Stellner, Fairmont’s corporate director of food and beverage, the Americas. “Now they go out and feel like they are accounted for before they even show up.” Gluten-free items are by far the most requested from the Plus menu, he adds. From a cross-contamination standpoint, Fairmont treats this sensitivity in the same manner as a food allergy.

The company partnered with San Francisco-based culinary nutrition consultant Katya Baxter to develop the health and wellness-oriented program, which has been implemented portfolio-wide. All Fairmont chefs were trained to prepare an array of special dietary and allergy-specific meals, and all are equipped with recipe analysis software to help customize entrees and menus.

Sky Lodge, a luxury hotel in Park City, Utah, launched a gluten-free menu at its steak and seafood grill, Easy Street, in August, after receiving certification from The Gluten Free Institute.

“It’s a real treat when we can say, ‘By the way, we have a gluten-free menu available,’” says Executive Chef Scott Boberek, whose girlfriend has celiac disease. “It makes you feel on the same playing field as the average person looking at the menu.”

Jill Molchan, owner of The Gluten Free Institute and a celiac individual, helps restaurants achieve certification by researching their ingredients and preparation techniques, establishing a new protocol for food production, and educating staff members in all aspects of gluten-free safety. Molchan stresses that even the front of house staff, from hosts to servers to the busers, must be educated. “It helps them to sell the product,” she says.

In her work as a certified nutrition and wellness consultant and gluten-free lifestyle specialist, the biggest complaint Molchan has heard from celiac and gluten-sensitive individuals is their difficulty in restaurant dining, due to hidden ingredients and cross-contamination. Once celiac diners find a restaurant where they can confidently enjoy a safe meal, they tend to become loyal customers, leading to additional business from family members and friends.

“If a mom has celiac disease and can eat in your restaurant, you’ve just now brought in the five other family members,” Molchan says.

When customers order gluten-free menu items at Easy Street, the kitchen staff uses separate, color-coded cutting boards, tongs, knives, and other utensils to prevent cross-contamination. There is also an area of the grill that is marked off for gluten-free dishes only. Fried items like sweet potato chips are made in clean fryer oil so the batch stays gluten-free. “It goes down to the molecule,” Boberek says.

“Don’t guess with this,” Molchan adds. “It’s not something you can trail and error.”

The restaurant offers alternative preparations of signature dishes, such as rotisserie rosemary chicken, cowboy rib-eye, and burgers on gluten-free buns. Fish tacos formerly made with flour tortillas are now prepared with corn tortillas. Boberek has replaced all soy sauce with gluten-free Tamari and Ranch dressing with gluten-free packets of Ranch seasoning. If a dish has sauce that uses a roux, he might use cornstarch as a thickening agent instead. He happily discovered that the restaurant was already using one of the only gluten-free blue cheeses available, from Point Reyes Farmstead in California.

Executive chefs at each of Fairmont’s 60-plus hotels worldwide create menu offerings that are local and distinct to the property, but all have the same nutritional parameters. “If there’s a diabetic dish at the Royal York in Toronto it meets the same criteria as a diabetic dish in Dubai and London, but it’s not the same dish,” Stellner explains. Gluten-free dishes include baked tofu with bean noodles at Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, grilled hammour with spicy tomato sauce at Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, and chocolate ganache flan at Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.

From an operational perspective, implementing the project property-wide was challenging, Stellner says, and it requires constant engagement and training to be effective. “It’s one thing to cook for you at home,” he says, “but it’s another thing to provide to thousands of guests coming in through the door every year.”

Laurent Poulain, executive chef at Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston, says creating new dishes and tweaking recipes to make them gluten-free was the easy part. He agrees the challenge is in avoiding cross-contamination and making sure the cooks are informed and take it seriously. To this end, the kitchen staff meets once a month to discuss allergies and other dietary restrictions, he says.

A few months ago, Poulain prepared a gluten-free, three-course banquet lunch for 75 people at the property. “You would not believe the amount of gluten-free requests, even for weddings,” he says. “We always have to be ready that.”

Poulain’s wife was diagnosed with celiac disease five years ago. Now, Poulain and his two children eat a mostly gluten-free diet by choice.

After implementing the Plus program, one of the first comments Fairmont received was from a doctor who stayed at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. He expressed his appreciation that the restaurant had gluten-free options on the menu, and promised to tell all of his patients. “What else can you ask for?” Stellner says.