Gluten-free cooking made easy
Award-winning chef Keith Kenny's wife is gluten and dairy intolerant, so when a restaurant order of a chicken salad for her proved impossible, he vowed to teach everyone how to cook gluten-free, says Ailin Quinlan
It started with an argument over a warm chicken salad. Chef Keith Kenny and his wife Melanie were enjoying their stay in a prestigious five-star hotel last year – until they revealed that Melanie was gluten – and dairy – intolerant.
Discussing the issue with the waiter in the hotel restaurant, Keith, an award-winning chef who runs La Banca Ristorante in Lucan Village, suggested the kitchen serve his wife a warm chicken salad.
But, he said: "What came out was three lettuce leaves, three rings of red onion, some cold poached chicken and two sliced cherry tomatoes; no dressing, nothing."
The 38-year-old, who also runs the Unique Cuisine outdoor catering service, was not impressed and requested to speak to the catering manager and the chef. He was told neither was available.
Keith then offered to cook the meal himself: "I said the chef lacked imagination. I told them to take the food back and we left.
"This was a five-star hotel and they couldn't put together a simple warm chicken salad with a bit of flair.
"They contacted me later and apologised and offered a free meal in the restaurant, which I declined."
It was an uncomfortable incident – but one which was to act as the catalyst for Keith's book 'Cookability', Ireland's first cook book for gluten and dairy intolerant diners.
He already had the recipes – when Melanie was diagnosed in 2009, he created a repertoire of dishes after discovering that the usual restaurant response to the request for a gluten and dairy free meal was limited and unimaginative.
"I found that once Melanie mentioned to a waiter in a restaurant that she was gluten and dairy intolerant, he or she would go back into the kitchen and come out with one suggestion – a salad of some kind or a bit of grilled fish.
"That used to irritate me because I'm a chef and if your ingredients are cooked fresh you should be able to cater for anyone's dietary requirements.
"However, as a chef I found that a lot of chefs in the kitchen wanted to take the easy option and did not want to make an effort so Melanie might have to go without a starter because it would be too awkward, and the options for her main course would be very limited."
Keith found himself becoming increasingly annoyed with the lack of imagination and flair shown in restaurants towards diners with alternative needs: "It would lead to arguments between myself and the waiter because I would lose patience with it."
Over time, he came up with a selection of simple, tasty dishes for the home, which were not only a big hit with Melanie, but popular with his customers.
However, the warm chicken salad incident was the last straw – it was after that, he recalls, that he started to think about putting his recipe together in a book – but a very special book.
"I didn't want to make it a 'chef's cookbook'. I wanted simple recipes using simple produce and then I wanted to design the recipe so that someone who has never cooked could pick it up and make a dish from that book," he explains.
"For me that was the driving force."
Although he and Melanie have since separated, the cookbook has been a big success. "A lot of people who are coeliac have said that the biggest pain was cooking dinner for the family and then cooking something separate for themselves – this cookbook is something for everyone," said Keith, who won best Kids Size Me meal in 2013.
"People are telling me they can cook the dishes from the beginning and everyone loves them.
"The reason I call the book 'Cookability' is that everyone has the ability to cook – all they need is to give themselves a bit of confidence in the kitchen.
"Nothing annoys me as much as people saying they could burn an egg. I think a kid could pick up this cookbook and make a recipe from it," he added.
Keith is big on the concept of teaching children to cook – he gives free cookery classes to local school students – and he is also very mindful of doing his bit for the local community.
Royalties from 'Cookability' will be donated to the Irish Cancer Society and Keith distributes free homemade soup every evening to elderly people in Lucan as well as providing a six-course Christmas dinner for 60 senior citizens every year.
It's no surprise that this dynamic young chef has just been nominated for the Best Community Award at the Local Authority Members Association Community and Council Awards 2014.
However, while 'Cookability' is crammed with recipes for soups, sauces, seafood, chicken, lamb, pork and beef dishes as well as delicious desserts, it has another, very interesting dimension to it.
Nutrition expert Erika Doolan collaborated with the Lucan chef on the recipes, ensuring that, despite avoiding certain food groups, all the meals featured contain the key nutrients people need in a healthy diet, like iron, calcium, and fibre.
"I felt it would be a great idea to 'break down' different vegetables to explain about their nutritional values, and I decided to incorporate this idea into my cook book," Keith explains.
"The response to the book has been fabulous – a lot of people have been posting dishes that they cooked from the book on Facebook.
"One guy even told me that it wasn't a cook book, it was a bible – and that he could now cook for his gluten-intolerant wife."
Doolan, who also worked on the innovative raw-food menu at Dylan McGrath's Rustic Stone restaurant, made a comprehensive analysis of each dish to ensure it was not only gluten-free and dairy-free, but also great-tasting and healthy.
His experience of writing a cookbook?
"I've never done anything like it. It was nerve wracking," the chef laughed.
'Cookability' is published by Blackwater Press. €20.