Last week I had the great pleasure of speaking with Chef Jemiko L. Solo in his beautiful Italian restaurant, Senza Gluten, located in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Senza Gluten is a rare treat of a restaurant in that it is 100% gluten free (“senza” meaning “without” in Italian). With their strong focus on community and creating a safe haven for those with food intolerances, it is no wonder that they have quickly developed a loyal following of customers.
Thank you so much for agreeing to do an interview with me! I’ve heard wonderful things about your restaurant and cooking. What first inspired you to become a chef?
My father was an executive chef for about forty years. I watched him cook every day, and I wanted to learn from him. I wasn’t really thinking that I would become a chef. I was just a kid. When my father passed away my mother started working at the hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia. I began cooking there when I was around fourteen. They gave me a hat that was taller than me! It was very funny. I started like everyone else – peeling vegetables and organizing storage – and gradually I moved up. The hotel employed the best chefs from all over the world, and for eight years I cooked alongside them. That was biggest inspiration of my life. For the next several years I worked as a chef and managed different restaurants in the city. When I came to the United States, I started cooking in Italian restaurants, which I loved – I love Italian food! I consider myself very lucky that I had opportunities to work under wonderful chefs in NYC. They didn’t hesitate to share their experience and knowledge with me, and I am very grateful to them. And after all those years of cooking, I decided to attend AINYC to study pastry arts professionally. I have a great passion for baking.
I know that you do not have Celiac Disease or a gluten intolerance yourself. What inspired you to start a 100% gluten free restaurant?
I have very close friends who have Celiac Disease, and every time we went out to eat they were afraid. So a few years ago I made them a promise – “I will open a little Italian restaurant for you and for others with Celiac so that you feel safe.” They come here and they don’t have to worry about anything.
Have all of your friends who inspired you to start Senza Gluten come to the restaurant?
They have – they’re here very often!
I imagine they love the food!
Yes, they love the food! And they continue to give me more and more ideas. They tell me what dishes they’ve missed the most since going gluten free, and then I try to surprise them.
What has been your greatest reward in creating this restaurant?
The people – the feeling we get when customers say they enjoy our food is unbelievable. Sometimes people come here and haven’t had lasagna or tiramisu in ten years because of their gluten intolerance. To see their faces after they take their first bite – that is the greatest reward.
How do you handle other allergies in the kitchen? Say if someone were to come in with a lactose intolerance or nut allergy?
The first thing that our waiters ask when they greet a customer is “Do you have any other food intolerances besides gluten.” And even in a tiny kitchen, we really do our best to keep everything separate. We can accommodate many intolerances like dairy, egg, soy, fish, shellfish, nuts, and peanuts. We also use latex free gloves. Everyone here is very knowledgeable – I even send out weekly text messages to the entire staff that includes a gluten free trivia question. It’s a fun way for the staff to bond and solidify important information. Also, if someone has a long list of allergies, I invite them to send us an email or call before they dine so that we can better serve them. Everyone in the kitchen will be aware of what food and equipment to use, and I’ll have time to plan a custom dish.
What kind of gluten free substitutions do you use?
The pasta we use is called Le Veneziane. It’s a corn-based pasta from Italy that is diary/egg/GMO-free, and the bread is from Everybody Eats. Unfortunately, we don’t currently have the space to make our own pastas or bread, but I would love to start making them. And of course I love to bake! All of our desserts are made here.
I wish there were more gluten free restaurants like this. We often recommend other safe restaurants in Manhattan to our diners. Of course we want everyone to love our restaurant and come back! But we want the gluten free community to grow and have options. We want to help each other.
That’s lovely. It’s nice to see that there are new restaurants like this that are so dedicated to being gluten free, and not just doing it half-heartedly.
Yes, I’ve had experience working in other restaurants that had shared kitchens and no gluten free menu. When a gluten intolerant customer came in we always did our best, but it wasn’t a 100% gluten free environment. Those customers always had to question their food. That’s why I decided that it was necessary for my kitchen to be 100% gluten free. Outside food isn’t allowed in. My customers are safe – that is the most important thing to me. And if customers have other allergies besides gluten, I am always happy to meet them, talk with them, and listen to their ideas. My customers always have such great ideas.
That’s wonderful that you continue to draw your inspiration from the gluten free community itself.
They give me the energy to do new things. This restaurant has become one big family – me, everyone in the kitchen, the waiters, the diners – everyone is involved. We are the restaurant we are because of this community. It has become a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. We love our guests. Their safety and happiness is our main focus.
For me, as a Celiac, I find that one of the hardest parts about dining out is the cross contamination issue. You always have to do research beforehand and ask questions, even after the waiter brings out your food. So it’s surprising when you go to a 100% gluten free restaurant! You think that you have to question every bite, and then you remember that you can eat all of the food.
Yes! It happens here, too. We put out the bread basket, and so many times people forget it’s safe!
What is your favorite thing on your menu?
We put a lot energy into testing every dish until it is perfect – we test them until each dish becomes my favorite, so I cannot choose! (laughs)
That’s such a great answer!
When you’re testing a recipe, many people may say that it’s perfect, but until you know it here (he touches his heart), you know it’s not ready yet. Then when you finally get it, it becomes your favorite dish….But I do love chocolate a lot.
(laughs) Me too! Is there anything that you’re currently working on that we can look forward to seeing on your menu soon?
Yes, actually I am working on a new lunch menu. There will be pizzas and paninis. We are also working on the brunch menu and we’ll have tables set up outside.
There is an old stigma that implies that all gluten free food tastes awful. Even today with hundreds of wonderful gluten free options in stores, I still hear people saying this and making comments about it on social media. What would you say to these people?
I would suggest that they come and taste our food! Many people who come to our restaurant are not Celiacs – they come with their Celiac friends. Sometimes they don’t realize that it is all gluten free until their friend tells them. In the end they have positive things to say.
Lastly, what do you want the gluten free community to know about Senza Gluten?
This is a 100% dedicated gluten free restaurant. We do our best to give our customers everything they miss. They don’t have to worry. That’s the whole idea. It’s for them, and they become a part of our family.
You can learn more information about Senza Gluten at www.SenzaGlutenNYC.com.
Visit the restaurant in person at 206 Sullivan Street in Manhattan off the A/B/C/D/E/F/M trains.