"It's one of the top requests from our guests and our managers and staff, to have a gluten-free menu and to make sure they're prepared to take care of the guests who are so loyal to us and eat in our restaurants," Donald Moore, chief culinary officer of the Calabasas-based chain, told the Weekly by phone, adding that the choices are "larger than some restaurants' entire menus ... we have a range of everything."
Sampling the menu the other day, we noticed that instead of reinventing the wheel, the chain instead tweaked some of its most popular dishes. Burgers are served on gluten-free buns and gluten-free fusilli is used to made dishes like Evelyn's Favorite Pasta (with broccoli, oven-dried tomatoes, roasted eggplant, peppers, artichoke, Kalamata olives, garlic and pine nuts). Some of the SkinnyLicious selections also have been transformed.
Evidently, creating a gluten-free cheesecake is not that easy, because there's only one on the new menu -- the Godiva chocolate. But if you've got a sweet tooth, no worries: There's also a hot fudge sundae, as well as ice cream and fresh strawberries.
"We did a lot of research and a lot of study to make sure we could put a gluten-free menu together that was as special and delicious as our regular food, but also very, very safe for our guests. Yes, it's a definite challenge, but we wouldn't have done a gluten-free menu if we didn't believe we could execute it properly," Moore said.
But the chain still wants diners to alert restaurant staff about any gluten or other dietary concerns and restrictions, so that the kitchen can take appropriate steps. The menu cautions: "We prepared this menu for our guests with sensitivities to gluten. While we strive to provide accurate information, our menu items are freshly prepared in our kitchens, which are not gluten-free. Cross-contact with other food items that contain gluten is possible. This is especially true for fried items, which are cooked in shared fryer oil."
This warning illustrates the complications of crafting a gluten-free menu. Some 3 million Americans have the autoimmune condition known as celiac disease, in which ingesting even a tiny amount of gluten (found in some grains, such as wheat, barley and rye) can damage the small intestine, causing serious health problems, including malnutrition.
Other people have an allergy to components of wheat or gluten; as with any food allergy, even a trace amount may cause a life-threatening allergic reaction. There also are individuals who have a sensitivity to some gluten products -- this does not involve the immune system but it can nevertheless cause unpleasant symptoms. And finally, in recent years, there are people who simply choose to go gluten-free as a lifestyle choice.
Dr. Nancy Snyderman, chief medical editor for NBC News, said on Friday evening's network broadcast: "Eating gluten-free has become a fad for millions who don't have the condition and it's big business, a more than $4 billion industry and growing."