My Facebook and Twitter feeds were all abuzz last week and we all know what that means. More dang controversy in the gluten-free world.
What people were sending me was an article on Huffington Post titled “I’m Gluten Intolerant…Intolerant“. I figured it was just another hack article meant to draw traffic like so many others on Huff Post these days.
I figured wrong.
The article was written by Marc Vetri, a chef. But not just a random chef. He is the chef/founder of Philadelphia’s Vetri Family of Restaurants, which operates a collection of the country’s most critically acclaimed Italian restaurants. He is a member of Food & Wine magazine’s 1999 “Best New Chefs” class and the 2005 winner of the James Beard Award for “Best Chef Mid-Atlantic.”
In other words, he’s not working the deep fryer at your local Applebees.
And when he speaks, the industry listens. And boy did he speak.
Take a moment and read his article and then come on back. Only read the comments if your feeling brave and you have no sharp objects nearby.
Here…listen to some acoustic Bruce while reading the article to help soothe your soul.
I know a lot of people are pissed about the article. Personally, I like hearing from the other side. I did a post from a chef in 2012 and totally get it.
So after the article came out and the storm was brewing, I reached out to Marc on Twitter asking if he’d grant me an interview to share his side of the story. I figured it was a long shot. He got back to me immediately. He was totally game.
The purpose of my interview was not to badger him. It was to try to dig a little deeper into his message and see if he could clarify some things.
Look…did I like the headline of the Huff Post piece? I did not.
Did I think he was too rough and condescending at times? I did.
Do I understand where he’s coming from? To a point, I do.
Ok…enough of this way too long intro. Bring on the questions!!
GD: First question is of the utmost importance. I’ve been desperately trying to learn to play the guitar for years and lack of time and frustration of not getting better is keeping me from moving forward. I see you are an avid player. You have any tips to someone who can’t get to the level beyond sucking?
MV: Ha, sorry…just like anything else…practice, practice, practice. You’re gonna go through hills and valleys. Just gotta keep picking away!
GD: Can you give me a brief story of how you went from Marc Vetri the person to Marc Vetri renowned chef?
MV: Honestly I can’t. I’m just Marc the person. I don’t see it any other way.
GD: You say that “if you need to explain Celiac disease to the restaurant…get up and leave. It’s not a good restaurant and you’ll probably have other issues there.” How do you train your staff to deal with a celiac eating at your restaurant as far as what’s safe, how to handle cross-contamination, etc.? What system do you have in place to make sure the meal is completely safe?
MV: I truly believe that if you walk into a restaurant these days and they don’t know what Celiac is…there is something wrong with the organization. They have certainly not trained their staff well and if you are in fact Celiac there is a risk of having something contaminated. As for us, we talk about it all the time, we put big colored marks on tickets with allergies and we have so many markers that the dish has to go through before it hits the table to insure its right.
Brad Spence from Amis was even the Iron Chef champion of the Celiac awareness fundraiser here in Philadelphia three years in a row. We take this stuff very seriously!
GD: Ok…let’s talk about your Huffington Post piece. You have to understand that “gluten-free” has gotten bashed in the media lately and the celiac/gluten-intolerant community has gotten defensive because of it. Based on the reaction on Facebook and Twitter, it seems many of those with gluten intolerance were pretty pissed at your post. For the record, do you want to clarify your point of view for those who perhaps misunderstood you or just saw the headline and reacted? Or maybe they were not misunderstood…you tell me.
MV: Well, I don’t really believe that’s entirely true. First, probably 95% of people were positive about my post. It’s up to almost 20K likes on the huff page, and 3K shares. I got numerous emails about it and twitter was almost all positive. It may seem like there was a lot of backlash because by in large, people who write comments are writing something contrary to the article, people who like it will just press the “like ” button. It was a very positive response!
I chose that headline specifically to draw people in to read it. I also thought that many would not read it because of the headline. But once you read it, if you think that I’m anti-celiac or anti gluten-free diet, you’re way off base. I even mentioned in the article how easy it is to cook gluten free. The fact is that many chefs don’t think of a specific kind of food like vegetarian or gluten free. We just cook good food. What I mean is…I make many dishes from vegetables, but I don’t think of it as if I have to make something for the vegetarians who come in the restaurant. We have pescatarians, vegetarians, lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant, nut allergies, shellfish allergies, kosher eating and more. To us…its really all just cooking food, its really not as much as effort as people seem to thing. It’s actually no effort at all..its fun creating! Nothing bothers me more when someone doesn’t eat the whole dish and I find out later that they usually don’t eat something I served them but they didn’t want to make a fuss about it because the rest of the table ate everything. Make a fuss!!! Please tell me! I want to cook for you and make you happy.
GD: I’m not a fan of the gluten-free trend. I don’t need 10 different types of mostly crappy gluten-free bread to choose from. What I need is for my autoimmune disease to be given the respect it deserves and I think the trend takes away from that. I know many people do gluten-free half-ass for all the wrong reasons and it makes it more difficult for us to be taken seriously, especially when eating out. Talk about the trend from your point of view. You have people coming in who MUST be 100% gluten-free and then you have the posers. Is this frustrating as a chef and restaurant owner and how do you handle it?
MV: I wouldn’t say its frustrating…just interesting. In that article I wasn’t so much frustrated with the woman than I was simply interested in the fact that she didn’t know certain things about what she claimed to be. This IS the problem! I use the restaurant almost as a metaphor to bring a much bigger issue to the discussion arena…we are a nation that is getting unhealthier by the decade and we’re all looking for a quick fix that doesn’t exist. So we’re talking on things like whole grains, finding a loophole where maybe eaten in a certain way it spikes Glycemic index and then jumping on the bandwagon of another serious disease like Celiac.
It starts there and goes into our everyday life. It’s in our lunchrooms at school, it’s in our quick grab and go eating trend, its about our decision to have a quick dinner instead of sitting as a family at dinner table and have a meal together. It’s in our lack of actual cooking at home. And “IT” is making us a much less healthy society physically and mentally.
GD: You state in your HP post that “Nowadays everyone is seemingly allergic to something.” I mean no disrespect in this, but at the end of the day, isn’t your job to deliver what your customer is asking for and not question them on what they are eating and why?
MV: Not at all…my job is to make people feel at home when they come to my restaurants. My job is to push the boundaries that are there and create new exciting things for people to experience in the restaurant. My job is to highlight Italy and its regions and respect the cuisine while at the same time moving it forward. My job is to run a successful business, create jobs, nurture my staff, teach, and give back to the community. My job is to cook. My job is to create memories for my customers, celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, joyful occasions, and give them an experience that they will long remember. When I question…I question because I believe I’m going to give you a better experience. For me, that’s what hospitality is all about.
GD: Not so much a question, but just want to make sure you understand…gluten intolerance is not an allergy to wheat as you claim. Someone who is gluten-intolerant does not have a celiac diagnosis but cannot tolerate wheat, barley and rye. I just want to make sure you and your stuff understand that it’s not just wheat.
MV: Yes…I left it out because I wanted to stay pretty simple. I actually have been studying this stuff for quite a while, although I feel like I’m learning more everyday!…and yes…I get that Celiac is not actually an allergy.
GD: You state that “Truthfully, unless you have celiac disease, which is a major issue in 1 percent of the population, you probably don’t know what gluten is.” I know many people in this community who have not had the luxury of a celiac diagnosis for various reasons and still suffer greatly would be really offended by this condescending statement. Anything you want to say to them?
MV: I don’t think it’s a condescending statement at all. As I said, most people who posted something are in fact Celiac or don’t eat much gluten because it upsets their stomach from other autoimmune issues. By and large its a pretty true statement, especially considering the amount of people who come in to the restaurant and don’t really know what it is. If you do know, than why would that statement bother you. Kudos to you, you should know.
GD: You tell the story of a woman who asked for a gluten-free meal and then refused to eat the risotto (one of my favorites by the way) because she insisted risotto is NOT gluten-free. And then at the end of the meal, as she was finishing her gluten-free dessert, she was drinking a beer. Two questions: 1) Do you serve beer or is it bring your own? If it’s bring your own, it could have been a gluten-free beer, no? 2) If it was indeed a regular beer, how tempted were you to say something? Because I have to be honest, if it was me, I would have lost it. These are the people that are making our lives more difficult than they need to be.
1) Its not a bring your own; we serve beer, and it was not gluten free
2) I was not tempted at all. As I said, you can only say so much. I made her a great meal and she had an amazing evening. She’ll figure it out. Again, I wasn’t angry at her…it was all very amusing. Like the vegetarian who told us that we can serve them foie gras last month. Or the vegan who said cheese was OK. We’re happy to serve you whatever you want to eat. Especially at Vetri. That’s our thing, we are there to make you happy.
GD: Anything else you want to say/clarify/spew? The Gluten Dude floor is yours.
MV: I’m actually glad that this blog caught on with such verve. I know a lot of websites spun it like it was a rant…but in fact, it wasn’t a rant at all. We should talk about things like these. If people think whole grains are bad for you, they need to know why that is simply untrue. I have been studying wheat for the better part of two years for a book that’s coming out called Mastering Pasta. The research took me on a journey that I never imagined I would go on. I read more scientific studies about wheat in the last couple years than I read about anything in my life. It’s really fascinating stuff.
Also, there is an amazing documentary coming out called The Grain Divide that I have been involved with as well. It talks about the history & future of grains. It features the world’s top bakers, chefs, researchers & scientists, and brings you on a journey through the fact/fiction of the state of grains & their byproducts. Something that EVERYONE who has an issue with this article should certainly see!
In the end…I truly hope that this article brings some awareness to the misrepresentations by many people about wheat. Its really is as simple as that.
I want to thank Marc for his time. As I said earlier, there are two sides to every story and I think it’s imperative we hear both sides.
I also want to give a shout out to Marc for his charity work. Outside the kitchen, Marc is the driving force behind the Vetri Foundation for Children, a non-profit organization whose mission is to help kids experience the connection between healthy eating and healthy living. Additionally, Marc and his business partner Jeff Benjamin are the founders of the “Great Chefs Event,” which brings together scores of the country’s greatest chefs to raise money and awareness for the pediatric cancer charity, Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.
Ok folks. I would love your feedback on this one. What did you think of Marc’s article on HP? And did reading this interview alter your opinion in any way? Thanks.