Catering to All
Meeting the needs of coeliac customers can be very lucrative for Irish businesses, as Frances Buckley explains
Frances Buckley is an applied culinary nutritionist, licenced food safety trainer and chef with over 25 years of professional cooking experience in restaurants and diplomat catering. “My classical training was in Dublin College of Catering, Cathal Brugha Street. I have worked for over five years in food sensory science evaluation with Teagasc and Diageo as part of their food sensory testing panels, and for several years, I have been a guest judge for the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland.”
Frances attained a Master of Science in Applied Culinary Nutrition at Technological University of Dublin in 2020. “It provides me with the expertise to apply culinary skills and nutrition knowledge in developing food for health and wellness. It combines advanced nutrition science with professional culinary skills to provide health-supportive meal solutions. In my applied research project on coeliac disease, I evaluated the understanding of coeliac disease in workplace catering, together with the potential deficiencies in the gluten-free diet.”
Frances works with the Coeliac Society of Ireland and the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board educating and training chefs, catering staff and health professionals about coeliac disease and the gluten-free diet. “I developed a Catering Training Programme funded by the Restaurant Association and Skillnet. Catering Safely for Coeliacs is a guide to the importance of good practice to avoid cross-contact with gluten.
What I explored was if you were a chef working in places with a cohort of people for a long period of time, such as a boarding school or a prison, what does the chef understand about what should be included in food for coeliacs. They may know what they have to avoid – wheat – and about ‘hidden’ or less obvious sources of wheat such as some condiments like mustard. But are they aware of what the coeliac diet can lack in terms of nutrition?”
“This programme was created for the Coeliac Society, and it stemmed from my Masters: The workplace chef’s understanding of nutrition in the coeliac diet. What I explored was if you were a chef working in places with a cohort of people for a long period of time, such as a boarding school or a prison, what does the chef understand about what should be included in food for coeliacs. They may know what they have to avoid – wheat – and about ‘hidden’ or less obvious sources of wheat such as some condiments like mustard. But are they aware of what the coeliac diet can lack in terms of nutrition?”
Coeliacs suffer from malabsorption of certain nutrients as a direct result of the damage to the lining of the small intestine in those with coeliac disease. Increased intake of calcium, magnesium, iron, B vitamins, vitamin D and fibre is important in a coeliac diet, and pseudo cereals (ancient grains) such as amaranth, sorghum and teff can help to mitigate the risk of nutrient deficiency. Frances says, research has shown that if you eat foods higher in those nutrients, you will absorb more of them.
“If your front-of-house staff is giving the eyes turned up to heaven when you say you are coeliac, then regardless of what is coming from the kitchen, the customer has already lost faith in it.”
The programme incorporates videos of real situations, procedures for the safe production of foods for coeliacs, with a guide to good practice to avoid cross-contact with gluten aimed at chefs and managers, and front-of-house staff. “Very often, chefs will understand the needs of the coeliac customer, but the communication doesn’t reach the wait staff, mistakes happen and the person is given the wrong plate. For example, we have heard of cases where the customer will be told the soup is gluten free, but it will arrive with croutons sprinkled on top of it.” The programme also looks at non-verbal communication of front-of-house staff when interacting with the coeliac customer. “If your front-of-house staff is giving the eyes turned up to heaven when you say you are coeliac, then regardless of what is coming from the kitchen, the customer has already lost faith in it.” Restaurants and catering operations that participate in the programme receive a certificate and a ‘coeliac circle’ sticker that highlights that they are trained in the safe production of food for the coeliac customer.
The instance of coeliac disease has risen in Ireland, probably, Frances says, due to better testing, and meeting the needs of this audience can be very lucrative. “The most common request for ‘free-from’ foods in restaurants and other catering outlets is for gluten-free food, so the provision of dishes for coeliacs can be a valuable part of your business. You may decide to provide a separate menu, this can allow you to produce the dishes for this selection at a different time (time zoning) or in a different section to minimise disruption to the kitchen workflow.
“It’s not just the person living with coeliac disease your business could be missing out on as a customer, but their entire party. Research shows that 63% of coeliacs eat out once a month with the average spend on food €120, and 70% of coeliacs will be the decision-maker on what restaurant the party goes to, based on menu choices without gluten and staff understanding of their needs. It’s worth about €1 million to business a year.”