Is being gluten free holding back my career?

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Q: Anonymous, Stew, 26:

“I recently got turned down for a job based on the fact I have to follow a gluten free diet! I was really upset as it’s not just a choice or some fad I’m following, it’s a medical condition (I’m a Celiac.) After this I also had a frustrating conversation with a random Captain in a bar who said he’d never hire a gluten free crew member, because it’s just annoying for the chef and he wouldn’t want the chef to get fed up and leave! I’m brand new to yachting, so I’m wondering how common this is, and whether I should be telling people during the interview process, or hide it from them and just figure it out with the chef when I get the job?”

A: The Crew Coach:

I hope you can see my eyes rolling from here, because as a Gluten Free follower (by choice!) and an ex Crew Chef, I get pretty annoyed myself when people are intolerant of dietary preferences. Let’s first deal with this ‘GF diet as an inconvenience’ issue. I personally believe that having crew with special diets is actually really good for chefs to hone their skills. Lots of guests follow gluten free diets, so expertise with GF diets is invaluable for a modern yacht chef. When the chef cooks for GF crew on a daily basis and then a GF guest comes on board, it’s no bother at all. The chef doesn’t have to scour the ingredients lists of sauce bottles to find out whether soy or hoisin sauce have gluten (yep) or sneaky additions of gluten to products you’d never expect, like adding flour to lots of brands of pre-grated cheese so the strips don’t all stick together.

Also, the chef can use the GF crew member as a guinea pig to find out which commercial breads or home recipes are best. Which pastas? Which products taste the least like cardboard? If chefs only cook gluten free for a couple of weeks a year when guests request it, they’re not going to have this specialist knowledge. Chefs who cook for special diets also learn to be very adaptable, knowing where they can substitute chickpea flour in a batter, and how different flours behave when baking. From a cheffing perspective, this is all valuable learning that can be applied across their repertoire.

And the same goes for other special diets, whether dairy free, vegetarian, vegan, sugar free, nut free, paleo etc. From a chef’s perspective, it’s all great practice and a great chef will view it that way, as a creative challenge they are happy to rise to. You’ll probably find as a Celiac with a genuine food allergy they’ll be more accepting of your requirements than some of the other diets though, as it’s a medical condition rather than a dietary choice.

The gluten free diet is also a pretty healthy, basic diet when you get your head around it, so if the chef is cooking a fresh diet of meat, salads, soups and veggies, as well as stocks from scratch (as they should be), then gluten free isn’t actually that hard after all. It’s certainly not as tough as it used to be with so many GF alternatives coming on the market. Yacht chefs normally prepare several different meal choices for the crew and will always have a soup or salad on the table which can very easily be made gluten free. All in all, it’s really not as hard as people make it out to be, and professional chefs will generally just take your diet in their stride. (Ok, so they might groan first and even roll their eyes when you tell them, but then they’ll just get on with it and see it as an opportunity to build their skill-set.)

Now I’ve given you some ammunition to fire off at the next Captain in a bar who tells you they’d never hire a GF crew member, let’s get down to how you need to approach this issue in the first place to improve your chances of getting a job.

How to Tell Your Dirty GF Secret

First things first. A lot of Captains won’t be bothered by your special diet. If they want to hire you, they will. There will be exceptions, like the two you’ve met recently, but there’s plenty more boats in the sea, and you don’t want to be made to feel guilty for a medical condition you can do literally nothing about. If anyone hassles you about this again, ask them politely ‘Should I have to give up my yachting career because I can’t eat gluten?’ It’s a ridiculous proposition when you hear it out loud.

As for whether you should tell people in the interview, I don’t think it’s important enough to mention. It certainly shouldn’t be a deal breaker, so I simply wouldn’t bring it up unless you are asked. But if you are asked, or if you have to add details of your ‘special diet’ on crew agency profiles, then always be honest. Otherwise, wait until you get the job, and then break the news to the chef. The Captain liked you as a candidate enough to hire you out of the huge pool of crew out there, so it’s deeply unlikely this is going to get you kicked off the boat. They may huff and puff for a minute, but it will blow over.

I do have one cautionary tale in this regard, of a girl who wasn’t asked so didn’t bring her GF diet up in the interview, only for the Captain to react exceedingly badly when informed when she joined the yacht. She was told that she would have to pay for her own food, and shop for it on her own time, as the chef ‘shouldn’t have to waste boat time on liars’. Apparently the chef then pulled her aside, winked, and said, ‘I’m a celiac too, I barely cook with gluten anyway.’ (There’s a lot of people keeping this stuff quiet in yachting.) Even though the Captain was furious and had it in for her for a while, she kept the job and all was well in the end.

As a gluten free crew member who wants to retain good relations with the chef (which you totally do!), it’s important to make it clear that you understand your diet can sometimes be a bit of an inconvenience, and that you’ll be happy as long as there’s something for you to eat, particularly when guests are onboard and the chef doesn’t have as much time to spend on crew meals.

I’ve known gluten free people getting jobs with no issues since the turn of the century when the GF diet was anything but mainstream, so I wouldn’t feel like it will hold you back too much. You’ve possibly just met the only two people who will ever make a big fuss about this in your entire career. Pick yourself up, thank your lucky stars you’re not working for either of them, and move on.

Are you Gluten Free too? How has this impacted your yachting career?

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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