A Gluten-Free Ride: How SF Chefs Are Embracing The New Starch-Intolerant Diner

A Gluten-Free Ride: How SF Chefs Are Embracing The New Starch-Intolerant Diner


Digest it for a second: "Gluten-free." Not the most appetizing of terms now, is it?  But now diners with celiac disease and/or the related gluten-free diet restrictions are multiplying faster than active yeast. And it's in every restaurant owner's best interest -- be it Michael Mina or Ike Shehadeh -- to consider catering to the gluten-free lifestyle. Quick tutorial: gluten is the protein found in pasta, bread, pizza dough and pretty much anything made with wheat flour. After interviewing a handful of chefs around town, the term doesn't seem to faze most of them anymore.

Take Dennis Leary of the Tender Nob's Canteen:  "Yes I suppose I accommodate gluten free - it's not terribly difficult. I don't have any agenda or plan. Just no wheat and it's relatives, sub with polenta or something. Incidentally, more than a few "gluten free" types eat my brioche with reckless abandon. Sigh." You know the dieting type, claiming gluten-intolerance so they can forgo pizza without social embarrassment. But for an ever-growing camp of people, eating gluten can legitimately induce nausea, cramping and some other things we'd rather not discuss in a food blog.

Enter Hoss Zare of Zare at Fly Trap: "Gluten-free is no problem," he says. Every staff member in his restaurant knows exactly how to handle the restrictions and, lucky for Zare, his Persian Californian menu is already built to be gluten-free friendly. He doesn't flour meats before cooking, nor does he thicken sauces or soups with any sort of roux (flour and butter), so there's no hidden starch in most things. "It's the customers that come in and ask for no onions or no garlic, that really kill me," he adds. "Those ingredients are in almost everything on my menu."  Subbing a pile of fresh asparagus for the fregola in Zare's salmon entree is indeed a no brainer. A testament to the larger number of celiac sufferers walking through the door, he has recently gone out of his way to add a special gluten-free Persian custard dish called fereni to the dessert menu. "It's been gluten free long before celiac was ever documented," says Zare. "I top it with fresh carrot jam. It's delicious." Going with the gluten-free flow has come back to Zare ten-fold. "People talk. And good word-of-moth reputation has led to lots of happy customers coming back again and again."

Even undeniably bread-reliant places like American Grilled Cheese Kitchen are bending over backwards to accommodate the gluten-free set. Owners Nate Pollack and Heidi Gibson have formulated a gluten-free bread recipe in house for diners to substitute in any sandwich on the menu.

All chefs don't come around to the idea quite so quickly, as one would imagine, Vincenzo Cucco of Italian restaurant Bacco in Noe Valley -- a chef who's "like Primo from Big Night" according to his colleague and general manager Luca Zanet -- was a very hard-sell. Zanet works as a personal trainer during the daytime and went gluten-free years ago because it gave him more energy. "People think I'm a bad Italian," says Zanet. Around summer of last year he started to realize he wasn't the only one who liked to eat this way and he went about trying to change things at Bacco.  After laborious taste-testing of countless local and international brands, he deemed the gluten-free pastas from Rustichella most worthy of a place on Bacco's menu. Surprisingly, the brand is based in Abruzzo. "Gluten-free is becoming more of a thing in Italy too," adds Zanet. Shocking. He had to slip the pasta into chef Cucco's bowl when he wasn't looking to get him to commit to the new noodles. Chef liked what he tasted; gave it the nod for the menu; now fast forward a few months and gluten-free tourists are calling Bacco from Chicago to make reservations at his restaurant. Their sous chef has since formulated a gluten-free homemade bread recipe to round things out. And Cucco is working on a recipe for handmade gluten-free pasta noodles he plans to release later this month. 

Take it as a sign of the times that kitchen innovation has made everything from grilled cheese to pasta alfredo amenable to the gluten-free population. Maybe it's time to go on a "diet."

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