Thursday, March 31, 2011

The "Chef" Who Claims to Gluten GF Diners


The internet was on fire yesterday with blog posts, message boards, Twitter and Facebook users angry with one man named Damian Cardone, who (on his now-removed Facebook page) claimed to be a chef feeding high-gluten pasta to gluten-free diners when they requested gluten-free meals. The above photo is a screenshot I took of the most damaging post before his page was removed. I didn't take screenshots of any other pages, but other sources online do have some posted.

You can click on the photo above to see a larger image of what he said. I won't type it all out here - you can Google "Damian Cardone" and find the text typed in numerous places, as well as more screenshots. You can also type #DamianCardone into twitter and see more. I also covered the last names and faces of others involved in the post to protect their privacy, and covered the expletive part of his post.

Cardone claimed to be a chef not only at a restaurant in Glenwood Springs, CO, but also in several other restaurants in the country. He also described himself as a chef for private hire, and listed a few big names as examples he had worked for. To my knowledge, most of these claims haven't been confirmed.

I, like many of you, have been angered by Cardone's story. As a former newspaper reporter, the journalist in me wanted to track him, and former employers, down and get the full story. I actually started to, easily finding some contact information for various individuals, but then I told myself to calm down. I was too emotionally vested in such a story to even begin to be objective. Leave the news reporting and phone calls to those who are active in it right now. No doubt this story will continue for a while, both with facts and misinformation, and may continue on to bigger news sources.

So I gave it a day and am now calm and ready to give you my take on it. I seriously debated on whether I should do this because it's already covered thoroughly on other blogs, but I ultimately decided that if one more person can be helped to understand where we as gluten-free individuals are coming from, then it's worth it.

When I first saw the above page (through a link provided, at the time, by many blogs, message board posts and twitter feed), I was shocked. Speechless. I had no idea what to say, what to think, about someone deliberately poisoning others when they are employed in a free country to serve a fellow lover of food. It's unthinkable. (Yes, poison. Gluten is like poison to someone with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.)

After I had time to process it, I was angered. Seething. I'm sure my blood was boiling. I thought back to the many times I have gone out to eat with my family and we have been fearful of cross-contamination even though we've alerted the restaurant ahead of time and spoken to multiple employees about our needs. We trust them to get it right for us and are putting our very health in their hands. And we are paying them to do it correctly.

Most of the time we've had good experiences. Many restaurants now not only offer gluten-free menu options, but they are also dedicating a separate area of the kitchen, as well as necessary tools and equipment, to gluten-free food in an effort to prevent cross-contamination. We haven't always been so lucky, though.

My husband was diagnosed with celiac through both blood tests and biopsy. Our daughters went gluten-free after tests showed they were reacting to gluten and that they had genes disposing them to gluten problems. I also went gluten-free after tests showed I was reacting to gluten. My daughters and I didn't get the biopsy because knowing we were reacting to it was enough given my husband's prior celiac diagnosis. It's easier for us this way, too. There's no chance of cross-contamination in our home.

I can tell you I react pretty severely to accidental glutening. Being glutened accidentally by small amounts will make me sick for days. I can't imagine if I had eaten a meal intentionally served with high gluten. I would have been sick for weeks.

The Glenwood Springs restaurant where Cardone worked until March 15, according to the owner in news reports such as this one, has been inundated with calls regarding this mess from what I gather from reading other's posts. I won't call them, and I hope you don't, either. They are not to blame if they had no knowledge of what Cardone claims to be doing.

In fact, the owner, according to this report, claims he was not a chef but a server. That doesn't explain, though, why Cardone had photos posted on his Facebook page in a commercial kitchen dressed as someone cooking the food, not serving it to tables. Perhaps it was another restaurant? I saw the photos myself and many other sites online have posted the photos, including the first mentioned news report, which also states they spoke to the head chef at the restaurant who said Cardone wouldn't have touched the plates because he (the head chef) personally prepared special request items.

I'm not sure, based on these two reports and the other photos I saw and claims by Cardone himself, whether Cardone was a server who didn't have a chance to touch gluten-free plates. I hope whatever is the truth will come out eventually, and the best thing for all involved is to simply tell the truth from the beginning. (Added 1:15 p.m.: This news report also verifies above that the owner states Cardone was not a chef at his restaurant. So the question remains, since he has been confirmed as a former chef at least one other restaurant according to this report, whether Cardone was talking about doing this at a previous restaurant or restaurants?)

Part of me wants to hope that Cardone was joking about his intentional glutening of gluten-free diners. If he was, then at best it was a very sick joke and was irresponsible and reckless. It could have given others in the food industry ideas on how to "use people as experimental research test subjects," to use Cardone's own words.

If he was serious and really did serve gluten to gluten-free diners, then it was at the least assault, in my opinion.

Cardone made many ridiculous claims about his unbelief in gluten intolerance, including it just being in "disturbed little heads." He felt that because wheat had been around for thousands of years as a staple, it couldn't be a problem. Guess what, Damian? Celiac disease was first identified in the FIRST century, A.D. Check out this article from the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center if you don't believe me.

Also, our ancestors weren't eating processed foods every day. They weren't eating food that had gluten added to it with every bite they took. They weren't eating food that was engineered to contain more gluten to make it taste better.

He also insinuates that he doesn't believe it because people walk out of there fine. Well, Damian, most people aren't going to have a reaction until they have left your restaurant. My stomach may start burning about 30 minutes into it (which could be attributed to something else in my mind so I'm not going to say anything yet), but I'm not going to be feeling more severe effects until at least three hours later. Also, if I'm eating in a restaurant that doesn't make good gluten-free claims, I'm going to know that I took a risk eating there and chalk it up to cross-contamination. I may or may not call to discuss it (I've done that before and the staff didn't seem to care), and I probably won't ever return.

If you are reading this, Damian Cardone, I hope you also read this open letter to you that I read yesterday. It is very, very good and states what I wanted to yesterday but was too angry to type out.

And for you, fellow gluten-free individuals, this has brought about some great discussions, has it not? For that, we can be thankful to Damian Cardone. Perhaps his fiasco will bring more awareness to other chefs and restaurants who haven't been so kind to us in our requests. And will help those restaurants who are get all the recognition they deserve.

Let this also be a good reminder to us all on how important it is that we give restaurants advance notice of our needs. Stop by with some printed information if you feel it might help (I've done this), call again before you head over there to remind them of your needs. Remind your server, and speak with the manager if necessary. Don't be a burden - you can express your needs calmly. You should feel reassured that they know what you need, that you haven't failed to provide them with that information and that they have listened to you.

Now that I've calmed down, I wish no ill will to Damian Cardone and hope you don't, either. Certainly, if he really did do what he claims and it is proven, then appropriate legal consequences will come about (as they should) and he will, hopefully, learn his lesson and be truly, truly sorry.

He will no doubt be very well educated in the gluten-free lifestyle by the time it's all said and done, and hopefully will feel more compassion for those who have dietary restrictions based on medical need. He is feeling extremely overwhelmed, I'm sure, by this point, with what's next for him. I doubt a future career in food holds much promise for him, so I hope he finds one that suits him and he is able to live a happy life with his family - with a new attitude. He will probably be much more cautious, as we all should, about what is posted for the world to see.

The gluten-free community united on this, and we are also uniting in the effort to get the FDA to finally do something about gluten-free labeling (see my last brief post for a link you can click to visit the 1in133 site). Let's continue to unite for good causes. Big things can be done.

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