In the wake of #wheatweek, we thought it’d be good to check in with one of our favorite chefs, Joe Beef’s Fred Morin. In the past few years, after discovering he had celiac disease, Morin has radically overhauled his lifestyle and diet.
Why don’t you eat gluten?
The thing is, I can’t eat it. It’s not a fashion choice; it’s not a lifestyle choice. It’s not because I want to be smooth-skinned or anything. For me this is binary: it’s zero or one, not zero point five. Either you’re celiac or you’re not celiac. And I am celiac.
When I eat it, the outcome is that my mood, my gut, and my skin feel like shit. Long-term, it can cause lymphoma and stuff that causes cancer. It’s not worth trying a lesser, manipulated strain of wheat. Celiac isn’t a metabolic disease that’s caused by my past excesses. It’s not diabetes because I ate too much at McDonald’s. It’s not because of decisions I made.
How did you come to be diagnosed with this?
I had terrible rashes and I would take baths of baking soda. It was like poison ivy 24/7. I couldn’t even go swimming. My body was always tired. I looked at going up a set of stairs like credit-card debt. Then I went to a bunch of doctors, and after three years, one said, “That’s gluten.” He takes a little sample and tells you, “Yeah, that’s dermatitis due to gluten.” There are two things you can do: take this medication that lowers your white-blood-cell count and counteracts the skin reaction, or go on a gluten-free diet. And then, magically, it’s like someone shooting pristine crystal meth and chamomile while you’re watching pictures of baby sheep. It’s the most beautiful thing.
Don’t get me wrong, though—a crusty pizza dough and an ice cold beer are delicious, too.
But you can’t eat it. Has it changed the way you cook?
The restaurant game lacks empathy these days, right? It holds itself in very high esteem. People care about the coolness of the playlist; they care about the way the chairs look in the dining room. If you just look at Instagram, it’s so funny. The suspenders, the mustache, the this, the that—it’s tormented, it’s recycled, it’s fucking not recycled, it’s a pop-up, it’s whatever. But you never hear about the customers. You never hear a desire to please. The restaurant has become very, how could you say, onanistic. Self-loving.
When I was in cooking school, and to this day, there’s not one mention of allergies. We think that people with garlic allergies are people who are about to make out after their dinner and don’t want to smell like garlic, right? Or people say they don’t like chives because they stick between their teeth. But I know somebody who had a customer two weeks ago that just can’t have chives. It’s a serious allergy.
If you take something from the garden to your kitchen to the table, how do you make sure it’s not cross-contaminated? What’s a cleaning agent that’s good enough to remove allergens? And what is the chain of knowledge from the guy making the sauce in the afternoon to the guy finishing the sauces, and to the guy plating the garlic and the veal stock? And if you lie about the cream content to shut people up, or you didn’t take the appropriate measure to communicate in the kitchen, and then somebody has to leave the restaurant because they’re suddenly shitting their pants, I mean—you haven’t won the greatest Yelp review.
It’s fucking like you’re born without feet, and then there are people who don’t let you in the restaurant because you need feet to walk in there.
Do you think that the thing that cooks and restaurants need to embrace is that—
I don’t think they should embrace it as a movement. Let’s all make ice cream with herbs. It’s not that. What they have to embrace is understanding their customer. I used to work in a restaurant where whenever we had a customer that didn’t drink, the waiters would come in the back and talk shit. But the fact is the customer could be my dad, it could be you. Who fucking cares? It could be anyone, and it’s not up to me or the waiter or the cook in the back to determine a legitimate reason for not drinking. So the restaurant establishment needs to show more empathy in general towards people’s individual needs.
Instead of having cool benches that topple when you have too many PBR drinkers on them, sometimes it’s good to put a little pillow and a little rest for the back. And sometimes it’s good to have a restaurant where my mom and your mom could have a dinner and not feel like they’re old and that they don’t understand the sarcasm of the new generation, you know what I mean? And where my mom who doesn’t want to eat too much potatoes and doesn’t want to die can have a green salad instead.