This week I’m over-the-moon excited to be featuring a gluten-free goddess who has saved my butt countless times – Jackie Aanonsen McEwan! If you’re not familiar with Jackie, she’s the creator of Gluten Free Follow Me, a gluten-free gal’s bible when it comes to eating out and finding the best restaurants in New York, California, and a ton of other places throughout the world.
Eating out at restaurants can be one of the most complicated and frustrating parts about being gluten-free. When I first discovered my gluten intolerance, it was the first thing I worried about. I didn’t want to feel like I was missing out when I was spending time with friends and family. I also was not going to let gluten hinder me from eating delicious food. The first thing I did was scour the Internet for resources, and Jackie’s website was one of the best resources I could find. To say it was a lifesaver would be an understatement.
I went to New York for the first time shortly after finding out about my food intolerances, and I really did use Jackie’s site as my bible. It was hard enough navigating an entirely new city in general, let alone figuring out the food scene. I used her site to plan out almost every restaurant we were going to eat at, and I had it set as the homepage on my cell phone during the trip so it would be easy to reference. Having such a simple guide to follow made my trip so much easier. With Jackie’s help, I wasn’t paranoid about getting glutened – and that paranoia can definitely ruin a trip. I also really impressed my mom with all of the delicious restaurants I picked out. 😉
Jackie’s website is a goldmine of information. Not only does she tell you where to eat, but she provides pictures of different gluten-free dishes that are guaranteed to make your stomach growl. I’m (selfishly) so happy that she moved to California because that means the California section of her website has really ramped up. Not only does she cover the best gluten-free eateries in California, New York, and other places she’s visited, but she also shares her favorite gluten-free products, posts her own delicious recipes, and blogs about other gluten-free and healthy living tips. Everything is extremely organized – my favorite. Jackie is one hell of a businesswoman, if I do say so myself, and if this interview doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will.
First, tell me a bit about yourself so my readers can get to know you!
Hi Addicted to Lovely readers! I’m Jackie, and I’m the founder of Gluten Free Follow Me, the Guide to Dining Gluten Free. I detail and rank over 2,000 gluten free friendly eateries, products, and recipes in NYC, California, and beyond on my website www.glutenfreefollowme.com. I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut and went to Georgetown University in Washington DC where I majored in Finance & International Business and minored in Sociology. I studied abroad in Hong Kong and Sydney Australia which I highly recommend if you guys have the chance to do so! After graduation, I moved to New York City and lived there for five and a half years. My husband and I got married in August, and we moved to Santa Monica, California a couple months ago. I’ve worked in the finance industry at a bank since July 2011, and as of a couple weeks ago, Gluten Free Follow Me is now my full-time job! I still come back to the East Coast every month or so, and I feel so fortunate that I can split my time between the best coasts 🙂
When and how did you first find out your body reacts negatively to gluten?
Five years ago, my sports doctor had all of his patients take a food intolerance test, and gluten came up in my test results. I was like, what’s gluten?! Looking back, my diagnosis made a lot of sense because I would get sick at least once a week in college. My reaction to gluten is that I throw up anywhere from three to ten hours after eating it. In college, I would eat stir fry on Sundays (using gluten-filled soy sauce) and always felt nauseous. I would get sick after eating my favorite sandwich at Cosi and thought it was food poisoning. I went to the Emergency Room at a nearby hospital a few times because I couldn’t keep any food or water down. I had these reactions throughout college but no one ever brought up gluten as a reason for my sickness. Gluten intolerance and celiac disease were not as widespread as they are now.
How did you handle it?
I was incredibly overwhelmed when I found out that gluten was making me sick. I had recently moved to New York City and was so excited to eat out at all the restaurants. I went to a few gastroenterologists and found out I didn’t just have a gluten intolerance – I also had celiac disease. This diagnosis forced me to rethink my meals and snacks because I had to immediately cut gluten out of my diet. I did a ton of research on what foods had gluten in them, what foods were gluten-free, and all of the grey areas in between. The gluten-free diet has become much more popular in the past few years, but it wasn’t as prevalent five years ago so it was challenging.
What made you decide to start your website / how did you get into it?!
A few years ago, I started to post about some of the gluten-free foods I was eating on Instagram. Surprisingly to me, my posts were met with great reception. My followers kept asking for more gluten-free friendly eateries, products, and recipes, and I was more than happy to continue to make these discoveries. I was getting so many questions that I knew I needed to put all this information in one place rather than just Instagram. I taught myself how to make a website and how to code, and I launched www.glutenfreefollowme.com in September 2014! I wish I had something like Gluten Free Follow Me to guide me through my new gluten-free diet five years ago, but I’m glad I can be a guide for others now!
What was the hardest part about starting your website?
One of the hardest parts about starting my website was learning how to make a website and how to code. Once I taught myself how to do it, it was pretty easy, but it took A LOT of time! Another challenging part was backtracking through thousands of photos from the last couple of years so I could add hundreds of gluten-free friendly eateries and products to my website. I also had to go through my notes on which items were gluten-free and sometimes call restaurants to see if anything had changed since I last dined there. A good chunk of my photos disappeared after my phone broke, and I hadn’t backed up my phone in awhile (now I always back it up!). After I figured out which eateries were missing, I literally walked around Manhattan to take pictures of the restaurants that I didn’t have food pics of!
What‘s your favorite and least favorite part about your job?
My favorite part about my job is getting to interact with my followers – I seriously have the best followers! I also love being able to wake up every day and do what I love. I feel like I appreciate it even more because I hard-core juggled GFFM with my finance job, and now I can truly dedicate time to my passion.
If I had to say what my least favorite part of my job is it would be that I sometimes put too much on my plate, literally and figuratively. I’ve learned how to eat a balanced diet when eating out (always eat greens first) but it can be tough when I eat out at multiple eateries in one day. It’s one thing to schedule it ahead of time and figure I can try out a few eateries at once, but it’s another thing when you’re at a restaurant and already pretty full. I’ve learned that I don’t need to finish my plate, and it’s totally fine to bring leftovers home and/or give leftovers to homeless people.
How do you pick which restaurants to review?
All of the restaurants that I review are places I have personally been to and ate at. I want to be able to review them properly, and it would be difficult to compare eateries if I had different people go to the restaurants. I receive a lot of restaurant invites so I typically accept them as long as I live in the same area as the restaurant or know I’ll be in that area at some point in my travels, and they have something I can eat. The restaurants that are 100% gluten-free or have a ton of delicious gluten-free options are always the most fun. However, even if a restaurant only has a few gluten-free options, I’m still fine with checking it out because it’s good to point that out. If you’re with a group of gluten eaters who choose a restaurant that isn’t very gluten-free friendly, you still want to know what you can eat, even if it’s just salads.
Your site is so helpful and has a TON of info, and you‘re constantly visiting and reviewing new restaurants and products. How do you manage everything?! Any time management/organization tips?
Thank YOU! I definitely have to stay organized. I’m very thankful that I was recently able to make GFFM my full-time job because it was getting difficult to juggle GFFM with my finance job. My finance job was pretty much a 9-5 job. I would duck out for lunches if I could and if the restaurant was close to my office. I always had Instagram events or dinners after work, sometimes several in one night. I wouldn’t get to the gym until 9:30pm (always have to get my workout in!) so I was definitely running low on time. I would open my packages from brands after the gym, and then do all of my recipes on the weekends.
You have to be very motivated and structured to work from home and run your own business. Now that GFFM is my full-time job, I’m able to be more flexible with timing but I still like to have some sort of schedule to keep me organized. I definitely recommend keeping a schedule, write everything down even if you think you will remember it (I use the Notes section on my iPhone), keep your calendar up to date, “star” emails that you still have to respond to, and use spreadsheets!
What are your top tips for dining out safely if someone has a gluten allergy or intolerance, or any other kind of food allergy?
I feel very lucky to live in NYC and LA, two of the most gluten-free friendly cities. If you don’t live in a gluten-free friendly area, I feel ya! And even if you do, you still need to be careful. When you have a gluten sensitivity, and especially celiac disease, you have to be incredibly careful when dining out. Thankfully, there are some eateries that represent themselves as 100% gluten free and thus are safe for those with celiac disease. There are other eateries that take precautions to keep their kitchen as gluten-free friendly as possible. Here are some tips for dining out safely:
- Call the eatery beforehand to see if they are gluten-free friendly. Ask if they offer gluten free options such as gluten-free bread, pasta, pizza, and desserts. I’ve found that many restaurants offer gluten-free options but don’t always list them on their menu. This is one of the reasons I detail the gluten-free options on my website and include any nuances I find.
- Speak to your server, and tell him/her that you are gluten-free. Don’t be embarrassed to say that you are gluten-free. It’s so much worse if you order something that you think is gluten-free and it isn’t and then you get sick!
- Ask your server if they have a gluten-free menu. If they don’t have a gluten-free menu, then ask which items are gluten-free or if they can make modifications and substitutions to make it GF.
What are your 3 favorite places to eat in NYC?
I get asked this question all the time, and it’s such a tough one since I eat out all the time! Here are a few of my faves though 🙂
- Senza Gluten – 100% gluten free Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. Their French toast and pancakes for brunch are heavenly, and I love all of their desserts!
- Erin McKenna’s Bakery – 100% gluten free bakery in the Lower East Side (also located in LA and Florida!). You won’t be able to leave with just one dessert! I love their cupcake tops and donuts.
- Inday – 100% gluten-free fast casual eatery in Flatiron. Their food makes you feel clean – I always get their “not rice” aka cauliflower “rice” and top it with all the veggies.
What about in California?
- Lilac Patisserie – 100% gluten-free bakery in Santa Barbara. It’s incredible to walk into a bakery that looks like “a real bakery” AND you can eat everything since it’s all gluten free. They have so many delectable cakes and breads and pastries – I’m so impressed.
- Beaming – 100% gluten-free superfood café in Santa Monica, Brentwood, West Hollywood, La Jolla, and Del Mar. They have delicious acai bowls, salads, and clean baked goods.
- Hugo’s – Very gluten-free & vegan friendly restaurant in West Hollywood, Studio City, & Agoura Hills. The menu is overwhelming in a good way because there are so many options, and almost everything can be made gluten-free including their five different types of pancakes & French toast, sticky buns, and mac & cheese.
When you‘re not reviewing restaurants and running your business, what are some things you like to do?
I love being active! I qualified for and ran the NYC and Boston Marathons in 2013 which were such amazing experiences. I live a few blocks from the beach so run and walk there a lot, and I’m still in awe with how pretty Santa Monica is. I feel so fortunate that I’m able to live in such a beautiful place! Brendan and I both enjoy working out and being outside. He rows a lot and competes in triathlons. We’ve been hiking on the weekends and recently got paddleboards. I love that California is all about being outside – almost all of the restaurants have outdoor seating!
What‘s a day in the life like?
No day is ever the same which keeps it interesting! It sounds cheesy but I really do wake up excited to conquer the day. On a typical day, I wake up and do my first social media post of the day either during breakfast or at the gym. When I run outside, I don’t bring my phone so it’s my time to zone out and get creative without technology. When I go to the gym, I answer emails, responds to comments on my social media networks, and post for the brands/eateries I manage.
For lunch, I either schedule lunch at a restaurant or throw together a salad and omelette before jumping into my recipes for the day. I dedicate certain days as recipe days so I can be in the kitchen creating recipes uninterrupted and then shoot them in the daylight which is so key for good photos!
During the week, if it’s not a recipe day, I’ll schedule one or two eateries in a day. I’ll meet with chefs and owners at eateries to figure out what’s gluten-free at their restaurant and bring up the right questions such as potential cross contamination and modifications/substitutions. If I have an evening event, then I may schedule a lunch in the area and work out of a coffee shop in between meals. When I’m with Brendan on the weekends, I only schedule one meal in a day so we still have time to enjoy other things besides food! 🙂
If you follow me on Snapchat, then you know that I’m constantly opening packages! I feel so fortunate to get sent so many delicious products, and I love being able to share my faves with my followers. I also go to multiple supermarkets every day, depending on what I need for a recipe! Different items are available at different stores, and I love finding good deals so I sometimes end up going to Whole Foods, Von’s, CVS, Ralph’s, and the local farmers market all in one day. Whatever leftovers I have from restaurants or recipes from that day usually ends up being Brendan’s dinner or we meet up for dinner at one of the restaurants that invite me in, so he ends up eating pretty well. 🙂
What‘s the strangest restaurant experience you‘ve ever had?
I typically have amazing experiences eating out at restaurants. However, there was a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan that invited me, and it was an unsettling experience. Whenever I go to a restaurant that invites me in, I introduce myself to the host and the waiter. The host typically tells the waiter about me but I still reiterate to the waiter that I’m gluten-free so there’s no confusion. One of the first things I ask at a Mexican restaurant is if the chips are indeed gluten-free. Even if the chips are corn chips, they could still be fried in a shared fryer which leads to cross contamination. The waiter told me they were safe for me to eat, so we ordered chips & guacamole to start, along with nachos and a salad with tortillas chips as one of the toppings. I was mid-bite with my first nacho when the manager ran over and told me to stop eating them because they weren’t actually gluten-free. This was unsettling because I had asked the right questions and still was about to get glutened. I also had to have them redo the salad since it came with tortilla chips that weren’t gluten-free. I’ve been to over a thousand restaurants, and thankfully this is one of the only times something like this has happened. When you go out to eat, I urge you to use my website as a guide for nuances like this, and definitely ask the wait staff and manager many questions!
When you‘re not eating out, what‘s your favorite go–to, quick and easy meal to make at home?
A big salad and omelette topped with lots of roasted veggies such as brussels sprouts, cauliflower, beets, and squash. It’s so easy to make, and it’s healthy and delicious.
That’s a tough one! I would have to say a few – a big salad, roasted veggies, lobster, and chocolate.
What‘s your favorite dessert?!
Anything chocolate and anything unique to the gluten-free world such as croissants, eclairs, and donuts!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to turn their passion or hobby into a career but is scared to take the plunge?
It’s so important for everyone to have a passion or hobby. I feel like that’s how your creativity gets going, and your side gig can help you in other ventures even if it doesn’t become your full-time gig. I never meant for GFFM to become anything, and definitely not my career. It happened so organically since it stemmed from my passion, but it also took hard work and dedication for it to become what it is today. When I started posting on social media and launched glutenfreefollowme.com a couple years ago, my family and friends never really understood what I was doing or why I was spending all this time focused on GFFM. Now, it’s easy to see how the journey happened, but it wasn’t in the moment, so I’m glad I believed in myself and kept at it! Don’t let anyone sway you from your passion or hobby. Only you know what you’re passionate about, and the reason you’re good at it is because you’re so passionate about it. I don’t recommend for everyone to turn their passion or hobby into a career, but if it works out financially then it may be worth it to take the plunge! Another thing to note – I get asked a lot how to get more followers, and that shouldn’t be your main goal. If you’re in the social media space, then yes, having a lot of good followers can be part of it but that shouldn’t be why you’re doing it. Your passion will shine through your work and can then translate into success.
Do you ever miss gluten?
I miss it a bit when I’m out with a group of people and everyone but me is eating the bread from the bread basket. However, rather than filling up on the bread, I am able to eat more of the “real food” later on in the meal. When a restaurant does serve gluten-free bread, it makes me appreciate it even more. I definitely don’t miss my gluten reaction, so it’s all worth it in the end.
What are your plans/goals for the future?
I love where I am now with Gluten Free Follow Me, but I am always looking for opportunities that can take me on other journeys. I could see myself writing a book about my gluten-free lifestyle and continuing to share my story and advice on other forms of media. Stay tuned!
Ummm.. How amazing is she? I cannot get over this interview. LOVE IT. HUGE thanks to Jackie for letting me pick her brain and for providing such helpful responses! Be sure to check out her website if you haven’t already, and follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat for more gluten-free adventures!
P.S. Please stalk her wedding photos. They’re stunning.