Destinations that Raise the Bar for Gluten-Free Travelers Part One
I’ve written in the past about the many choices we gluten-free travelers now have when it comes to picking a travel destination. In fact, no matter where your heart longs to take you, chances are you’ll be able to find safe gluten-free options for meals whether you cook in, dine out, or take most of your meals at your hotel or resort.
But there’s a growing group of large hotel chains – as well as independently owned properties – that is emerging as another class of destinations altogether. They are places you can go and feel understood, nurtured, and spoiled. In this first installment of a two-part series, I’ll be introducing you to some large hotel chains (and even a world-renowned spa) that place great importance on serving, not merely accommodating, their gluten free guests. In the next issue (July/August 2015), I’ll share a handful of independent properties that has emerged with some of the best options for worry-free, gluten-free getaways.
Over the past few years, I’d heard that the Grand Hyatt Kauai was an oasis for those following gluten-free diets. After speaking with Diann Hartman, Director of Public Relations, I was sold. While the Hyatt chain in general has placed an increasing emphasis on serving gluten-free guests, each Hyatt property develops its own recipes. At the Grand Hyatt Kauai, that means five different restaurants, which together offer enough tempting gluten-free choices for a month-long stay!
Gluten-free options are marked on each of its menus and the kitchen staff is trained to avoid cross contamination when preparing gluten-free (and other special request) meals. Gluten-free items you might find on the menu at Dondero’s, the resort’s Italian restaurant, include lobster and crab with shell pasta, kabocha pumpkin risotto with smoked duck breast, sautéed local snapper with braised butternut squash and green beans, red wine braised beef short ribs with heirloom carrots and parmesan polenta, lemon chicken, cioppino shellfish stew, and a New York strip steak.
Executive Chef Matt Smith and his talented team ensure guests aren’t at a loss for choices at the resort’s four other restaurants, either. Like Dondero’s, they all focus on fresh ingredients with a tropical influence. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ll probably melt over the gluten-free black forest tiramisu, toasted coconut panna cotta, a trio of crème brulee, and homemade gelatos and sorbets. The resort always has gluten-free pasta, bread, and breakfast choices like pancakes and waffles available to gluten-free guests. The sushi restaurant at the resort offers gluten-free tamari in place of soy sauce.
While the Grand Hyatt Kauai used to offer separate gluten-free menus at each of its restaurants, Diann said the current practice is to notate each gluten-free item (as well as vegetarian items) on the regular menu. That way, she explained, it’s very discreet, and diners appreciate the fact that they don’t feel singled out. Kids menus have “gf” and “v” notations as well.
Omni Hotels, with 53 hotels and resorts in North America, is equally gracious about serving gluten-free guests. Daven Wardynski, Regional Executive Chef based at Omni’s Amelia Island Plantation Resort, is particularly proud of the “Art of Breakfast” program available at all Omni’s resorts. In addition to offering cage-free eggs and hormone-free and gluten-free breakfast meats, there’s a separate gluten-free station (complete with a dedicated toaster) for homemade breads and muffins, and a daily hot item like buckwheat pancakes or gluten-free French toast. There’s even the option of ordering Eggs Benedict on a homemade gluten-free English muffin.
Chef Daven explained that Omni tries to “stay relevant” by developing gluten-free menus (and vegetarian options) for most of its restaurants, so that all diners can enjoy a worry-free dining experience. His own wife is gluten-free, so he understands the importance of safe kitchen practices and rigorous staff training.
Gluten-free guests at Omni resorts have been particularly pleased to find gluten-free pasta, burger buns, and corn-based hard taco shells offered in place of flour tortillas for fish tacos. While it’s always wise to have a reservationist note your gluten-free needs when booking your stay, it’s usually just a matter of asking for a gluten-free menu at the host station for each restaurant. Chefs are available to answer any questions, and they oversee all orders flagged with a special dietary request.
With 87 worldwide properties, The Ritz-Carlton is another hotel chain that you’ll find in most major US cities and many locations worldwide. I had the privilege to talk with David Serus, Executive Chef at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes, who said they are no strangers to special dietary requests from Disney vacationers staying at the property. Its facilities accommodate large parties for 800+ guests, and there are invariably at least 10-15 people at these events who require a gluten-free meal. While there is no centralized gluten-free program that’s mandated by its corporate office, each Ritz-Carlton is tasked with meeting the dietary needs of all guests. This is not surprising, given that The Ritz-Carlton – like the Hyatt and Omni chains – is known for its high level of standards and service.
Chef David explained that, at the Orlando Grande Lakes resort, they set up breakfast buffets with gluten-free breads, coffee cake, and muffins, which are all made in a separate area of the kitchen to reduce any chances of cross contamination. At all five restaurants, both lunch and dinner menus clearly indicate which items are gluten-free. Other items can be made gluten-free upon request, with minor substitutions or tweaks. They run primarily “scratch” kitchens, with very few items coming from outside vendors, and Chef David estimated that 80 percent of menu options are already gluten-free. “As a chef, the more of a menu that’s glutenfree, the better,” he said.
Michelle Valle, Director of Public Relations for The Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes, mentioned that once a guest notes his need for gluten-free meals when booking a reservation at any Ritz-Carlton property, this information stays in his profile for future visits to that, or any other, Ritz-Carlton property. “Whether it’s a dietary need or even a dietary preference, guests don’t have to repeat the request when they go from one Ritz-Carlton to the next,” she explained.
Last but certainly not least on this list of resorts with a gluten-free focus is Canyon Ranch Spa, with locations in Tucson, Arizona; Lenox, Massachusetts; in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas; and with “Spa Clubs” aboard Oceania, Celebrity, Regent Seven Seas, and the Queen Mary 2 cruise ships.
With a focus on the health and well being of its guests, it’s not surprising that Canyon Ranch serves “natural, clean cuisine” with grass-fed beef, hormone-free chicken, sustainable fish, and fresh in-season produce. It is corporate policy to avoid anything with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), artificial ingredients, preservatives, and gums. “We give our guests a level of confidence other restaurants can’t,” said Corporate Chef and Vice President of Food and Beverage Scott Uehlein.
When guests arrive, they will find that gluten-free items are identified on all menus. Chef Scott and his team even maintain a 40-page ingredient list for every single item they serve, and they’ve done things like switch to gluten-free tamari to open up more Asian-inspired menu items for gluten-free guests. When it comes to sauces or roux, Canyon Ranch generally shuns flour and tries to use only cornstarch or tapioca starch as thickeners.
Canyon Ranch also takes pride in making gluten-free baked goods using its own proprietary flour blend that incorporates buckwheat flour, other flours, and flax seeds. It is used as a one-forone substitution for regular flour in gluten-free cookies, breads, muffins, pancakes, and even pizza crust. Dedicated pans are used when baking gluten-free items, and pans are covered with foil to eliminate any airborne contamination. “We speak the language,” explained Chef Scott, who is clearly proud of the ongoing training they have for the kitchen staff and servers.
If you’ve been longing to travel but have been hesitant to trust someone else to prepare safe gluten-free meals for you, take heart in knowing you can pick a destination and then research whether any of these exemplary companies has a property nearby. Then, you can rest assured you’ll be in the very capable hands of the hospitality world’s finest, who are waiting to welcome their gluten-free guests!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Karen Broussard publishes GlutenFreeTravelSite.com and the free DINE GLUTEN FREE mobile app, which contain thousands of user-submitted dining and travel reviews from around the world. Karen also publishes the Gluten Free Travel Blog www.glutenfreetravelblog.typepad.com and recently released an e-book, Gluten-Free in LONDON: A Worry-Free and Gluten-Free Guide to London.