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How Colleges Go Gluten-free: Q&A with Chef Amy Fothergill

Gluten-free colleges with Amy Fothergill

We recently listed the top 15 gluten-free colleges and wanted to take a closer look at what it takes for a college to address food intolerances. We spoke with Amy Fothergill, chef and author of The Warm Kitchen, who also worked with Cornell dining services in the final stages before they earned their gluten-free certification.  

You have extensive restaurant experience, write articles for The Examiner and published The Warm Kitchen, a cookbook full of family-focused, gluten-free recipes. Can you tell us a bit about your gluten-free story?

Just about one month shy of a decade ago, I took my two-year old daughter to a naturopath to treat her eczema. We were told to cut gluten and dairy from her diet. I was trained as a chef in French cooking so the best way I can explain it is to say that I felt like I was thrown into a country without knowing the language. It was a shocking learning experience.

I wanted to make food that was worthy and used my cooking experience to figure out how to make food my daughter would like. I tried recipes with different substitutions. I made a lot of mistakes and eventually discovered how to make good food, including flour substitutions.

In time, I realized I also had a gluten sensitivity and now, I’d call it an intolerance. I didn’t put it together for some time. When my son was six, I realized he was gluten intolerant as well. Seven years ago, my family went fully gluten-free. That’s how it all began and now everyone is happy.

How did this impact your career as a chef?

I thought I’d be doing more family cooking, healthy food, but my path diverged, and I focused on allergen-free cooking because I saw there was a need and I could share what I’d been experimenting with in my home kitchen.

I always wanted to write a cookbook, and I published The Warm Kitchen myself. I believe in teaching people to make good food at home. My philosophy is, “Don’t give them a fish, teach them to fish.” I do this with my cooking classes, book, blog and lectures.

One of the things I learned is that if someone is healing from celiac or an autoimmune disease, start with more of a paleo diet (no grains or refined sugars) and move to gluten-free substitutes later to heal a lot faster.

You worked with Cornell dining services as they became one of the first colleges to have a 100% gluten-free dining hall. How did that come about?

I went to Cornell and studied at the School of Hotel Management. The school isn’t involved with Cornell dining services, but I have a fondness for the university.

I gave a talk in Worcester, Mass., about gluten-free cooking and baking. The chef in charge of Cornell’s Risley Dining Room, Kevin Grant, was in the audience. I noticed him because he had on a chef coat. When we met, I saw the Cornell bell tower on his jacket. I got excited. We chatted and he bought a few books. I was very excited when he told me about Cornell’s gluten-free dining hall and I offered to help. I got in touch with him and he referred me to Michelle Lefebvre, Cornell dining service’s dietitian.

Cornell was already doing a lot of gluten-free meals on their own. I came in at the end and just gave them the fairy dust to have the confidence to get their gluten-free certification. It seemed to me like they were apprehensive about calling something gluten-free and then there potentially being an issue. But I can say that Cornell’s dining services are really thorough in their kitchens. Kevin was already checking ingredients before they came through the door. They just needed the confidence to go for it.

After they prepared in the fall semester to get all of their certifications and complete testing, I came in to help with the grand opening of Risley in February 2017. They used some of the recipes from my cookbook. At the grand opening, I randomly tested food with Nima in three different places and everything tested gluten-free.

Do you see the trend of colleges going gluten-free, or at least being more accommodating, continuing in the future?

Yes, I do. There is a need for gluten-free cafes at universities because kids are being diagnosed as having celiac or being gluten intolerant. I’ve noticed that with my daughter’s age group, ages 8-12-years-old, kids are being diagnosed as celiac or gluten intolerant once or twice a month. A few years ago, it used to be once a year.

No one is doing this for fun. We have a need because there’s a problem. Universities need to do it for our children.

Cornell gave me hope that when my kids go to college there will be more options for them. It’s nerve-racking that someone else will be feeding them. It made me feel good to be able to help Cornell and these kids.

Did you see some difficulties for colleges that may be unique to them in going gluten-free?

Until recently, university administrations may not have seen it as needed. But the demand is growing. Five to 10 percent of college students have celiac. The norm is considered to be one percent.  

Cooking gluten-free correctly is always an issue. The challenge for university dining halls, or any restaurant, is doing it to a satisfactory degree and knowing how to do it. It’s not just using non-gluten ingredients.

The Cornell staff was forward-thinking, eager, ready and willing. They want to give their students the best they can.

How do you think Nima can help?

There’s value with Nima and what they’re doing. It’s brought a lot of awareness to what we can be exposed to outside of the house. A meal of chicken and veggies doesn’t automatically mean gluten-free. Nima helps us know that in restaurants and dining halls.

Amy Fothergill is a chef who teaches cooking classes, shares recipes on her site, Amy The Family Chef, and is the author of The Warm Kitchen. You can follow her @AmyTheFamilyChef.

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