Behind the Scenes at Country Gourmet:
What restaurateurs do to serve the gluten-free community
By Vic Dolcourt
Country Gourmet, a Sunnyvale anchor for 28 years, is a model of a restaurant in continuous transformation. The restaurant’s bright and inviting interior and ever-changing menu reflect an ownership that evolves to meet customer preferences. Here is a peek behind the scenes from the perspectives of proprietor Julia Blom and chef Jimmy Connors, the creative team behind the restaurant’s menu.
Julia began to move the restaurant’s menu toward having some gluten-free offerings about three years ago after chasing down the cause of her son’s health issues, which turned out to be a wheat allergy. Julia’s testing, on the other hand, showed high gluten antibodies, but otherwise she experienced no symptoms. Accordingly, Julia made a change to her own lifestyle and her son’s. She said that since she operates a restaurant that maximizes the use of locally-sourced, fresh ingredients and makes most of the food from scratch (mixes, for example, are not used), it made sense to analyze the restaurant’s menu to determine which entrees lent themselves to being made without gluten ingredients. She and Chef Jimmy share a common viewpoint: gluten-free should never be an excuse for lack of savor. Accordingly, not all of the restaurant’s entrees can be made gluten-free.
Chef Jimmy learned his trade as a line chef elsewhere and had already noted the increase in requests for special dietary consideration – dairy free, gluten-free, no added salt, or another vegetable instead of starch. Because of what seemed to be an increasing market demand, Jimmy began to experiment making tasty entrees without wheat starch or without dairy. Jimmy feels that if all of his gluten-free experiments are successful, then he isn’t trying hard enough pushing the envelope. He said, “Not everything works. You’ve got to have some failures to have successes.”
Many of the offerings at Country Gourmet are naturally gluten-free because the chef has avoided gluten ingredients. These are served to regular customers (without fanfare) because the restaurant has only one version, not one with gluten and one without. Among the reasons for this are reducing cost and complexity– restaurant management strives to remove confusion and opportunity for error in the kitchen. However, Country Gourmet ran into a hurdle: a number of their regular customers seemed to be staying away from daily special items that were designated gluten-free, possibly because they felt something must be lacking. So the term “gluten-free” morphed into “can be made gluten-free” on the daily special signboard. Julia noted the change in designation immediately brought diners back to ordering the formerly designated gluten-free daily specials. The restaurant also has a separate gluten-free menu for their regular offerings.
All of the gluten-free and “can be made gluten-free” items are cooked in their own pans from basic ingredients. The wait staff has been trained about the gluten-free menu and also must highlight orders in yellow marker for gluten-free, dairy free, no added salt and substitutions. Kitchen staff has been trained to take special care in preparing highlighted dishes.
All diners ordering ravioli are served Iamori gluten-free ravioli because that is all the restaurant serves. Julia said, “It is a high quality product, and the diners just love it. But most don’t know it is gluten-free.” Chef Jimmy and Julia regularly consult with Irene Kwok from Iamori and are involved in testing new products that might offer new taste treats to Country Gourmet customers.
Country Gourmet is not a dedicated gluten-free facility, and that has created a number of challenges. First of all, it requires lots of initial and follow-up training and continual awareness. This is made a bit easier because of low staff turnover. The kitchen is never as big as one would want, so when isolation is not possible, items are removed from gluten-free designation. For example, breakfast potatoes are gluten-free during the weekdays but not on the weekends due to high grill demand. The restaurant substitutes gluten-free cornbread upon request.
Julia wants to maintain a full meal selection for her gluten-free diners. There is always at least one gluten-free soup on the menu. The restaurant is proud of its gluten-free cornbread, which is baked fresh daily in designated pans, and the pastry topping for blueberry buckle, which has been formulated from polenta and other gluten-free ingredients. What started out as somewhat failed coconut banana pancakes became successful coconut-banana muffins, also gluten-free. So, gluten-free has offered the chance for Country Gourmet to innovate their menu.
Julia noted that response to the restaurant’s published gluten-free menu has been positive. A number of their patrons say that they know someone who eats gluten-free, and they have recommended Country Gourmet to their friends. Country Gourmet’s listing on Yelp has a gluten-free designation, and the restaurant publishes all of its menus online. Chef Jimmy and Julia estimate that 20% to 25% of the meal orders have dietary changes highlighted in yellow (gluten-free, dairy free, etc.). Julia feels it can be difficult to reach the gluten-free community, but overall she feels that she is serving a dining segment that appreciates the safety precautions and enjoys eating fresh and locally-sourced food in a restaurant.