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Gluten-Free Dining Tips from the Experts

Q&A with Chef Jehangir Mehta

You might know Chef Jehangir Mehta as a finalist on the hit show Next Iron Chef.  At the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), we know Chef Mehta as a close friend and ambassador of our GREAT Kitchens program.  We sat down with Chef Mehta to get his expert opinion on safe gluten-free dining so we can help you eat without fear.

Selecting gluten-free dishes from a menu can be challenging, especially soon after a diagnosis of celiac disease. What clues should people be looking for?

I think they should completely ignore what the menu says and ask the waiter, chef or whoever they feel can give them a very good answer, since menus can be very confusing in terms of  what could be left out of the ingredients list.

If you had to write every ingredient of what it is in a dish, from the sauce to the vegetables, you would have about seven lines per item.  Never assume the menu shows a complete picture.

I don’t think you should only look at the menu. If you are someone with celiac disease, your only bet is to question the menu.

Chef Jehangir Mehta and Alice Bast
Chef Jehangir Mehta with
NFCA President and CEO Alice Bast

How should people approach that conversation?

I think the way to get comfortable with this conversation is to directly approach it like anyone else would if they have, let's say, a peanut allergy.  People with life-threatening food allergies explain the severity of their allergy by saying they'll have to go to the emergency room if they're exposed. Even though celiac disease isn't a food allergy, people can still explain the severity of the autoimmune disease so people understand.  So, if you say you have celiac disease, express how horrible it would be for you if you were to be exposed to gluten.  Whatever it is that happens, it’s your safety, so be clear about your needs.  People with celiac disease won’t go into anaphylactic shock, you won’t get this whole thing where the drama happens at the table.  There is going to be drama, but it happens when you get home. Many chefs don’t understand that this is as serious as any life-threatening food allergy.

What is the biggest culprit that people should be concerned about?

I think cross-contact is the biggest culprit and that can occur from anything - a clean pan to a grill to how they handle their cutting board. The conversation may be a little long, but if you bring the notion that your condition is severe, that is the only way that each and every establishment will say take proper care of you and your food.

Chef Jehangir Mehta
Chef Jehangir Mehta in action!

For those who love to cook, is there one ingredient that you could recommend experimenting with?

I think I would definitely suggest dabbling their hands a little more with different grains and lentils, but one specific ingredient that I would gravitate toward is tapioca. It’s a very, very nice starch to work with, it’s a very light starch for your body in general. You could use it as a thickener, for a jelly, even a sauce. It’s versatile and you could try it in anything.

When someone visits a restaurant with a group of people and they get nervous about the knowledge level of the staff, what is the safest thing to order?

I think if you feel it is an unsafe place to eat you shouldn't eat anything.

Tell us about your restaurants.

We have three restaurants.  One is called Graffiti, which has been in the East Village for the last nine years. It’s a very small place with an eclectic cuisine.  The other, Me and You, is just next to Graffiti.  It's a private dining room and seats anywhere from two to fourteen and customizes menus to whatever you want to eat. We have a third restaurant called Mehtaphor in Tribeca.  It is also an eclectic restaurant with a different menu than Graffiti. That’s is our collection. We also do a lot of outdoor events and catering.

Why did you become a chef?

I think it was just something that fell into place, it was not something that I always wanted to do. It just so happened that it sparked my interest and my education at the Culinary Institute of America just gave me the confidence that this is what I wanted to do.

gluten-free dish
Just one of Chef Mehta's delicious
gluten-free dishes.

Why are you in the restaurant business?

One thing that I did want to do while growing up was to be a business person. I think that is what I really like about where I am. I thing it's very charming for me. It’s a good way of understanding many different aspects of business, and I think that’s what I do enjoy the most about owning restaurants.

Has your culture and background influenced you?

I think my culture and background has definitely helped how I view this industry, cooking and the way food is handled.  I also have a sociology degree, which I think helps a little bit in understanding my customers and their needs. I think people should always embrace where they come from.

What was it like to compete to become an iron chef?

It was very exciting and grueling at the same time.

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