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Targeting the gluten-sensitive, with an eye on cost

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R.L. Boyd, executive chef at Georgetown’s Mie N Yu restaurant, loves inventing new dishes.

Most recently, he came up with an elaborate preparation of rockfish, set on a bed of crab fried rice—short grain brown rice, not white—with a red curry, ginger, carrot, and Tamari sauce. After he prepared it, he took a picture of it with his phone.

Another time, he engineered a tricky oil-free eggs benedict preparation.

Boyd considers these dishes particularly important because they were free of gluten, a substance found in wheat and other grains, and they were virtually indistinguishable from their gluten-filled counterparts.

In the past, he said, gluten-sensitive patrons have been restricted to bland preparations of rice or vegetables because the chefs weren’t trained to cook without gluten. But as 11 percent of the U.S. population have some kind of gluten sensitivity—whether a wheat allergy or full-flown case of celiac disease—Boyd figures to ignore them would be to “miss out on a chunk of money.”

Whereas other restaurateurs might consider the gluten-sensitive population a challenge, because of the ubiquity of gluten in most food preparations, Mie N Yu has chosen to invite them in, leading to innovations in the kitchen.

The restaurant has been offering a “gluten-free” menu since 2009—though it and other restaurants are now using the term “gluten-friendly” to hedge against the slight risk of gluten-contamination, general manager Mike Cherner said.

The strategy brings in customers. On an average night, the restaurant serves about 15 gluten-sensitive patrons out of 200 guests.

Mie N Yu is one of hundreds of restaurants in Washington, D.C. offering gluten-free options, according to Betsy Craig, chief executive of Kitchen with Confidence, an organization training restaurants to deal with customers’ food allergies. Though there is no clear statistic about the number of restaurants serving gluten-free options in the area, Craig estimates that about 70 percent of restaurants offer some alternative. In 2011, gluten-free product sales exceeded $6.2 billion, according to Spins, a market research firm focusing on natural products.

Craig has noticed a particularly significant uptick in gluten-free menus in the past two years. This could be because more patrons are being diagnosed with gluten-sensitivities, and because celebrities such as Lady Gaga have decided the diet could help them stay thin.

But gluten-free preparations often come with an added cost. Ingredients can cost more—for example, a five-gallon jug of soy sauce might cost about $56, whereas a two-gallon jug of tamari, a gluten-free alternative costs about twice as much.

It can also cost more to prepare a dish. At Mie N Yu, every time a gluten free order is put in, the kitchen’s order-printer spits out a piece of paper with the table number and the request in bright red letters, alerting the staff to prepare it differently. The server who took the order stops in the kitchen to make sure there are no mix-ups, and the chef and sous-chef monitor the cooking staff to prevent cross-contamination, according to sous chef Mike Santiago.

For example, a gluten-free preparation of calamari requires the squid to be fried in rice flour, not regular flour—so the staff must thoroughly wash the pan and cook the food as far from gluten-filled ingredients as possible. It takes about a week of on-the-job training for a staff member to really understand the protocol, Boyd said.

Dawn Daly, a bartender at Mie N Yu, has a gluten sensitivity herself, and makes sure to keep the bar stocked with gluten-free options like grape vodka, potato vodka, hard ciders and a Spanish gluten-free beer called Estrella Damm Daura. When she’s off duty, she often orders off Mie N Yu’s gluten-free menu—she particularly enjoys the hummus with veggies, chicken skewers, and tofu wraps.

But she noted that eating at restaurants with a gluten sensitivity is always a risk, and has suffered bad reactions from other restaurants claiming gluten-free preparation.

When a customer orders off the gluten-free menu, “you have to treat it like a health professional would,” Boyd said. “It’s surgical. It’s people’s lives—not whether someone doesn’t like something.”

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