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Interview with Eat to the Beat's Heidi Varah on tour catering and gluten-free diets

Eat to the Beat is an award-winning international caterer, based in the UK, who has been providing catering for over 25 years to touring bands, festivals, films crews and sporting events. Their impressive portfolio includes such clients as Coldplay, Muse, Dave Matthews Band, Flaming Lips, Take That, Snow Patrol, Glastonbury, Chicago’s own Lollapalooza, Mighty Boosh tour, Little Britain tour, Cirque de Soleil, Celebrity Big Brother to name just a few.

I have often wondered, when one has to be in charge of thousands of eager eaters, how is it possible to manage those with specific diets, such as eating gluten-free? I had the opportunity to speak with Eat to the Beat caterer Heidi Varah, about how gluten-free needs are handled on tour.

How did you get started in catering, especially catering for touring bands?

I learned to cook at Leiths School of Food and Wine. I couldn't really afford to take any catering jobs in London, as they were all so badly paid. I knew that there were touring catering companies as my best friend’s mum had worked for Eat Your Hearts Out some years before and I knew the names of a few of the companies. So I sent my CV off and I got a call from Eat To The Beat and have now been there for 16 years.

Has Eat to the Beat always offered allergy-aware/special dietary options?

If there is someone on the tour, be it crew or artist party that has a specific requirement then it is up to us to make sure their needs are met.

Do you often receive requests for gluten-free diets?

It is definitely something that we have seen more of in the last few years, although obviously there is a big difference between a celiac and someone with a wheat intolerance. I do find that if someone just has a wheat intolerance then they tend to lose their willpower at some point and eat a big slice of cake that they shouldn't!! This can be quite frustrating for us if we have taken the time to cook something specifically for them and then they decide that they would rather eat something else on the menu. Obviously an allergy is a much more serious thing and there isn't the option for falling off the wagon.

Most of the wheat-free diets have been for crew members. Lots of bands try to eliminate wheat from their diet whilst on tour, due to the associations with bloating, sluggishness, etc… but they wouldn't claim to be wheat-free.

What is the most common special diet requested?

Other than vegetarian, which we would always provide for without it being requested, I would say gluten-free or a nut allergy. Occasionally we will get a lactose-free or a shellfish allergy request. We don't really see that many vegans and if we do they are mainly Americans, it seems to be much more prevalent there than here.

How is staff trained to be knowledgeable about the gluten-free diet, and avoiding cross-contamination?

All staff have their food hygiene certificates, so cross contamination shouldn't be an issue. But we do take extra care if we know that there is someone with an allergy on the tour. Experience is the best way to learn about a gluten-free diet. Wheat and gluten are in so many things that it can be quite restricting if you don't know how to replace them with a wheat-free substitute. Like anything else, the more experience you have with something, the easier it is to deal with. Obviously each gluten-free person is different so you have to work with their likes and dislikes, for example one person may not like wheat-free pasta or someone may be vegetarian and wheat-free. Often we can adapt one of the dishes from the main menu to make it wheat-free but obviously there is no point in doing that if the person doesn't like that dish.

I know that if there were a beef and mushroom pie on the main menu that someone would like to have that but in a wheat-free option, we would make some pastry with gluten-free flour and thicken the gravy with a wheat-free gravy thickener so that they wouldn't miss out on a dish that they like.

Pretty much everything that we do can be provided in a gluten-free way. Not everything can be substituted, if you were making a beef and Guinness casserole you can't find wheat-free Guinness but of course you could always leave it out.

Nearly everything that we do can be made to be wheat-free. You can replace pasta with wheat-free pasta, in Asian food you can use a wheat-free tamari instead of soy sauce, pastry can be made with gluten-free flour.

Communication is the key, there is always five minutes in the morning to talk to who ever it is and give them some options so that they get something that they want that day.

Is there someone who checks every product used, on tour, for gluten?

Yes, between the head chef and whoever is running the tour there will usually be a discussion about what any special diets will be getting. We definitely use trusted products, we are very fortunate that the supermarkets in the UK have great wheat- and gluten-free substitutes. It's not so easy in Europe though so we have to stock up before we go there.

When working in countries where English is not the primary language, do you work with someone in advance about products to buy, or do you take ingredients with you to avoid any problems?

When we are working in Europe we have a local catering runner who is supposed to have a good understanding of English. They would be able to go to any specialty shops for us and try and get what we need, luckily using the internet it is quite easy to translate things these days. It is relatively easy to get basic wheat-free products in Europe, such as wheat-free pasta, but more specialized ingredients are a bit trickier. I generally keep my eyes open when I am doing the main supermarket shop and if I see something that I think we could use or may need I pick it up and carry it in our dry stores.

Do you bake gluten-free items from scratch, or do you get them from gluten-free food manufacturers?

We do both. I would buy some wheat-free biscuits for snacks through the day and would make a wheat-free desert with substitute ingredients if necessary.

Being that catering is often the first one in, last one out of the venue, how long is your average workday on tour?

We are definitely the first ones in but we are not always the last to finish. We will generally have the main rig packed and ready to go by about 10 PM, we then go for a shower, check emails, watch the show, etc.. until it is time for us to pack down the tea and coffee and wait to clear the dressing rooms. I would say that our average working day would be from 7 AM until midnight making 15 hours.

Since you cook for a living, do you enjoy cooking at home, and what are some of your favorite things to cook?

I do cook at home, I never get bored with cooking, in fact it was the only thing that kept me sane when my baby was 12 days overdue. Unfortunately, my husband is quite a fussy eater so I try and work around that, but my favorite things to cook at home are cakes. Particularly cupcakes as I love decorating them, I have loads of piping nozzles and different decorations that I pick up whenever I see them, so if anyone has a birthday that I know, they are guaranteed a cake of some description. Generally there is always a pot of soup on the go in our house; my husband definitely seems more adventurous if something is called a soup!!

What are you favorite utensils?

My favorite utensils at home would be my piping bag and blow torch, and at work I couldn't live without a mouli, for perfect mashed potato, and my Global meat cleaver.
 

To read more of my interviews on living gluten-free, click here.

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