Chicago's Senza restaurant, the proud recipient of a recent Michelin star, does modernist cuisine right. Dishes are creative and artfully plated, decorated with various microgreens, reductions and other fine touches. All courses are perfectly paired with a wine or a cocktail. The 48-seat restaurant is housed in a stylish yet welcoming space. Service is friendly, knowledgeable and exceedingly professional. People swoon over the pasta courses.
Oh yeah, it’s also completely gluten-free. Like, not-a-speck-of-enriched-wheat-flour-in-the-entire-joint gluten-free. Senza, in case you didn't know, is Italian for “without.”
Chef Noah Sandoval explains: “We’re set up for extreme celiacs, and they can’t be around gluten at all. I know there’s a lot of stuff around right now about whether or not it’s legit, but there are people who can’t eat anywhere. [Celiac disease] is real. It might not be as common as people believe, but that’s why we’re here.”
Originally from Richmond, Va., Sandoval cooked in New Orleans before moving to Chicago to work at C-House, Spring and most recently, Michael Carlson’s innovative Schwa. Food Republic recently sat down with Sandoval to talk about the rigors of keeping a gluten-free kitchen and the struggle to appeal to the greater, non-celiac masses, too.
Do you keep a gluten-free diet?
No, not even close. I eat as much gluten as possible!
So how did you end up at a totally gluten-free restaurant?
I answered a Craigslist post! I came in and the owners [Susan McMillan and Amelia Fonti] were super nice. I really liked them. And they were like, "Oh yeah, it’s gluten-free." And I thought, "Am I going to walk away from this? Am I that closed-minded that I’m not going to do it?" At that time, I was just like everybody else: "Oh man, these gluten-free people are coming in….You have to watch this, and they can’t eat that, and I think they can eat this, but I’m not sure." Thinking that it’s a pain in the ass to cook for them. So, my first reaction was to be a little scared — I didn’t know if I could do it or not. I wasn’t sure if I was educated enough. I wasn’t! But, eventually, it became pretty easy.
I think one of the biggest surprises here is how good your pastas are. What’s in the flour mix?
Guar gum, xanthan gum, potato starch, tapioca flour and rice flour, in different proportions. Guar gum is the only ingredient [in the kitchen] that is only used for the gluten-free stuff.
Who has been your biggest influence on what you’re doing at Senza?
Anyone who has ever worked at Schwa will say [Michael Carlson] is the biggest influence. Michael’s a genius. He’s very aware of what he [and other people] are doing. He’s traveled and he has cooked all over the world. And there are just all of these little things that you never knew, and he’s like, "Hey, check this out…." You don’t have to be playful to be kind of Schwa-ish. It’s just the idea of balance. He has a different type of balance that he’s learned from extremely knowledgeable people. He’s been really influential to me.
What’s been the biggest challenge for Senza?
Just overcoming the perception that we’re some kind of health-food restaurant. People just stay closed-minded about it. We started a little behind based on that, but we now have regulars who come back all the time who aren’t gluten-free. You know, they eat pizza but they also come here! It makes me realize that we aren’t seen as just a gluten-free restaurant to everyone.
Senza got a Michelin Star last fall, making it the only gluten-free Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. That must help, right?
Absolutely! But it just goes to show that it isn’t that hard. We just need to be sure that we stay clean. And, you know, we’d do that anyway. We’ve just got to watch what’s coming through the backdoor and we’ve got to make sure things taste good. People think it’s so hard, but it’s not. Anybody out there who is skilled and has a restaurant that is good, I think that it could be equally as good without using gluten. I’ve never really had a roadblock.
Any tips for home cooks who need or want to try gluten-free cooking at home?
Yeah. This is a good one: When you’re baking, cool it down and then reheat it again. Don’t eat it right away. It’ll be gummy. Even though everyone wants to eat cookies and bread out of the oven — wait until it’s cold. Cool it completely, then reheat it. And just experiment with things and read good sources. Don’t read health-food sites for your recipes!
2873 North Broadway
Chicago, IL 60657