Vail Restaurant month is featuring "Health and Outdoors" week this week, so with all the recent hype around eating gluten free, it might be time to take a closer look. At Larkspur Restaurant this week you can sample an entire gluten free meal, including dessert.
In 2005, before most people even knew what eating gluten free meant, Larkspur owners, Thomas Salamunovich and Nancy Sweeney, started searching for gluten free foods they could feel good about serving in their restaurant. Their passion started when Sweeney was diagnosed with Celiac disease, an autoimmune condition triggered by consumption of gluten.
"It's tough as a chef to serve gluten free foods, but the flavor profile has dramatically improved over the last few years," said Richard Hinojisa, chef at Larkspur.
Before adding a new gluten free product to their menu, the Larkspur team sets up blind taste tests to determine which products measure up. Larkspur has worked with The Last Crumb Bakery to create the gluten free pizza dough and gluten free Larkburger bun. The Last Crumb Bakery owners, Kathy Stinson and Lexie Justice, create specialty gluten free items for restaurants, and dry mixes to use at home (www.thelastcrumb.com).
"It's about normalizing the experience, so our guests don't feel like they're different," said Allana Smith, operations manager at Larkspur.
Now Larkspur always has gluten free pizza, burgers, sandwiches and desserts on their menu. Try making Larkspur's concord grape sorbet at home (recipe at http://www.larkspurvail.com/happenings).
You can even get a gluten free beer with that burger. Larkspur serves New Planet beer, "because it actually tastes like beer," said James Gall, managing director of Larkspur.
"Gluten free has become a mainstream movement in just a couple of years, making it easier for those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity to eat safely in restaurants; Larkspur does this as well, if not better, than any restaurant in the country," said Elana Amsterdam, who wrote "The Gluten-Free, Almond Flour Cookbook," and "Gluten Free Cupcakes" (www.Elanaspantry.com).
Eating gluten free may make you feel better, but these foods often have a high glycemic index to compensate for bland taste.
"There's still a lot of confusion out there - people mistake gluten free food for health food, which it's not," said Anne-Marie Keane, an East Vail resident, whose family has seen positive results from eating gluten free. "A cookie's a cookie whether it's gluten free or not - it still has sugar in it," said Keane.
With the dramatic increase in gluten free product sales and celebrity endorsements from Gwyneth Paltrow, Miley Cyrus and tennis star Novak Djokovic, best estimates are that more than half of gluten free consumers are joining the fad to lose weight.
"It's not just a fad - there's something serious going on. More and more people have gluten intolerance," Stinson said. If you know anyone who's struggled with gluten sensitivity, you know how difficult and debilitating it can be.
"Believe me, you don't want to go through this if you don't have to," said Jenifer Shay, who with her husband Russ, are owners in Surefoot. "I think the problem is the way our grain is processed, because my family gets terribly ill from eating wheat at home, but then we go to Chile, Mexico and some places in Europe and they can eat gluten all day long," Shay said.
"Wheat in the United States has been dramatically modified since the 1950s, and our bodies are being exposed to compounds in the wheat that past generations were not," said Jacqui Slavin, a chiropractor and functional medicine practitioner in Avon specializing in digestive disorders and gluten issues (www.functionalwellness.com).
A combination of the hybridization of high gluten (higher protein) wheat, the attempt to store wheat for longer periods of time thereby introducing mold and other toxins into the grain, the use of pesticides, and the processing of wheat through a "deamidation" process that makes flour softer and more water-soluble may be making the majority of us more sensitive to gluten.
"Any one of these factors can cause inflammation in our bodies, intestinal absorption problems, or an autoimmune response where our body essentially views gluten as a toxin," said Slavin. If her patients are experiencing any type of inflammation, they're better off getting gluten out of their diet. "We have more success in getting them to feel better faster by eliminating gluten," Slavin said.
"It's only the tip of the iceberg," Shay said. "I think a lot of people are walking around not even knowing they feel bad."
Now at least they seem to be paying attention.
Kelly Brinkerhoff, is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur (www.larkspurvail.com), at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999.