Extraordinary Special Meals
Kindness is catering well for those with special dietary needs and food allergies.
Like so many businesses Libero started as a personal journey. Like our now multi award-winning gluten-free restaurant Niche in London it began when I was diagnosed with coeliac disease, and Adrian, my friend and business partner saying well there is not point owning a restaurant you can’t actually eat in. From there spawned the notion to create London’s first 100% gluten-free restaurant and so the journey began. It was not as simple as just replacing one flour with a gluten-free one, we wanted our food to be good, we tried, failed and tried again until we found a menu, we were proud to serve, and that most people at that time would be oblivious to the fact it was gluten-free. Gluten-free food had a dubious reputation at that time, so we were determined to change that reputation.
We soon discovered that people with coeliac disease were only part of the story, much of our menu became dairy free, we discovered many vegans and vegetarians wanted a gluten-free meal and then came along low fodmap for those with IBS also on a gluten-free diet. We wanted to cater for all these diets well, not just safely and without compromise. With this in mind we created a catalogue of dishes that are loved by many. We want to be the friendly welcoming face for those with food allergies, coeliac disease, intolerances, and special dietary requirements, where often there is only small corner of a menu. In our business there’s plenty of choice, we proudly embrace those people who are all-too-often considered a pain in the proverbial.
It was during this time that I was working for the largest airline caterer in the world as Culinary Director for the UK, serving some 75 airlines. Now needing gluten-free food for myself I perhaps had more of a vested interest in really discovering what we were delivering for special meals both in the UK and beyond. The special meals offered by most of the carriers we served were clearly not put together with a choice, and much love or semblance of empathy, it was clearly more about compliance and service provision. Eating gluten-free for me is not an option, I need to eat that way to be well, like so many with food allergies and intolerances it was a journey of discovery leading me to my own path of food discovery as a food professional and latterly food scientist. I have coeliac disease, but I still love food as much as I have always done. I remain in search and craving of a delicious buttery croissant, c’est la vie.
I was and remain very concerned that flight kitchens are simply not set up to safely prepare special meals for food allergies, there are a plethora of reasons for this but simply put the risk is too great of harming someone or worse. Back when allergen labelling laws changed there was a huge discussion around nuts, for many airlines its culturally not acceptable for them not to remove them therefore the legal team made the decision that the business could not provide food that was nut free.
Menus on the whole were old fashioned, usually accompanied by the obligatory and inappropriate fruit salad. Teams were insufficiently trained on allergens, and special meal codes which frequently do not meet the requirements that are actually intended for. In our learned opinion currently the IATA codes do not meet the modern dietary needs of today. IATA have washed their hands of it, putting responsibility out to airlines themselves of paid commercial organisations to assess but this is entirely voluntary. Most airline software uses the 34 year old IATA SPML codes so we have tried to combine some of those codes to meet more of the requirements of today.
I worked on a project to create a dedicated special meals production facility but there was little appetite at that time so when I left the company decided to create our own and go a few steps further.
Libero meaning Free, was born to create delicious food entirely dedicated to special meal provision, and the all-important guarantees on allergies for those requiring them and no “may contain” statements. Our BRC/STS/AOECS facility is entirely gluten, nut, and sesame free. We wanted to create special meals policies and programs for airlines and the travel industry in their entirety, with food that is culturally appropriate for the airline or part of the world they are travelling, delicious and safe to eat for those it is intended for. We have partners around the globe who operate to our exacting standards and specifications, we have plans as we grow to build more of our own
The kitchens we use around the globe that are dedicated to our cause. Our own dedicated team were drawn by our mission to create delicious food that is free-from and truly safe. Many of whom have food allergies themselves and feel that vested interested themselves.
FEELING SAFE WITH WHAT WE EAT SHOULD BE A RIGHT, NOT A PRIVILEGE
Eating is such a normal and often casual part of our day that most of us don’t really stop to think about it, at least not at every meal. Of course, many of us put thought into our diets and what we choose to eat and drink, but that’s often out of preference, not necessity. But for some of us, every meal, every snack, and literally everything that passes or even touches our lips and in between requires careful thought, planning, and due diligence to make sure that what we eat or inadvertently consume doesn’t cause bodily harm or even worse.
Eating as if your life depends on it is stressful and exhausting, and really not something the majority of people even consider. Just because safety is a top concern for those making — and eating — allergen-free foods, that doesn’t and should not mean that’s the stopping point. In reality, it’s just a foundation waiting to be built on. Because, like we said, those who aren’t faced with the struggles that come with food allergies regularly focus their attention on the flavour and experience of their food, not on whether it could make them sick, or worse.
MAKING WAY FOR WHAT’S IMPORTANT: TRULY ENJOYING WHAT WE EAT
So instead of stopping at “good enough,” we’ve created new versions of classics, new and exciting dishes with their own merit all-too-often inaccessible to those with food allergies, special dietary needs, or food intolerances. Because up until now, it seems most substitute brands out there have had the same memo: create an alternative that is 100% safe-to-eat. No mention of delicious, flavour, no attention given to texture. And it’s no secret that being an alternative doesn’t exactly scream better than, or even as good as “the original.” It may be a perfectly adequate directive, but it surely leaves room for disappointment.
It’s been said we are what we eat, and food does in some part bring meaning to our lives. It sustains and nourishes us, connects us to others, and can give us immense joy and satisfaction. If all we can think about though is whether or not what we eat is safe for us, we might never get there. Even still, when the question of safety is answered, many other questions still remain unanswered and ignored.
Find out more about Niche at Niche Free-from Kitchen | Airline Special Meals | England (nichefreefromkitchen.com)
Find out more about Libero at Libero Special Meals | Airline Special Meals | Free-from Frozen Food