I’ve been quiet this summer. It’s not you, really. It’s me. I’ve been without words, drained of them. I was promoting my book, and in doing that I traversed the country, talking, and talking, and talking about my book. I thought writing the book would be the hard part, or perhaps the tedious recipe testing process. Or even the completely uncharted territory of the week long photoshoot, 3000 miles away from my kitchen. Maybe seeing my manuscript shredded by a copy editor. Or the weeks mailing pages back and forth to New York, every week a new urgent deadline.
But honestly, the hardest part was promoting the book. It took a lot of time, doled out in hour long increments all over the city of Chicago or on the phone. And it took a lot of travel, spending the hours between my last shift one week and my first shift the next getting somewhere, setting up, and getting home.
But the hardest part was doing all the talking, and turning it on for a crowd. It was as if every word that came out of my mouth pulled with it a tiny piece of me. By mid summer, I was drained in a way I’ve never experienced. It took my by surprise. I’ve worked 60 hour weeks since I can remember, sometimes more, and in some of the most intense kitchens in the world.
But talking, man. That’s a drain!
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for every single ear that bent towards me to hear me speak, and I will do it again in a heartbeat. I just didn’t expect it to be hard. I have a new found respect for anyone putting themselves in front of people over and over again, day after day, talking, sharing, speaking, giving. They make it look so easy.
Now that I’ve said what I’m going to say about the book, my last scheduled event has passed, and I’m not without words anymore, I realize I can’t write here gain without talking about something else I have spent this summer without.
This January I stopped eating anything made with wheat. Even typing this, I don’t want to say the word gluten. It seems like a dirty word. Gluten free. I’ve done as much as I could to withhold wheat when I could in my desserts for those who couldn’t eat it out of respect and understanding.
But how could that person be me?
When I took the position at The Publican, I started spending my 10-12 hour days in our commissary bakery. The pastry team occupies the front quarter of the space, and the back 75 houses a wholesale bread bakery called Publican Quality Bread. By the end of a shift, the floors look like you could ski through them there’s so much flour dusting the surface. And that’s with multiple sweeps a day. We laughed as we did “the bakery slide”, a maneuver that resembles Tom Cruises famous entrance in Risky Business.
But after 6 months, I was starting to go to a dermatologist to help treat rashes that were spreading all over my body. Ewwww…..gross, I know. When the steroid creams didn’t work, we took biopsies. When those proved uninformative, he said I needed to start looking at what was going on inside my body. He said the rashes were clustering in a way that was consistant with Celiac disease.
Uh, excuse me? I’m a pastry chef, I’ve worked with wheat every day for 20 years. This is not possible. I’d know by now.
During the 2 weeks it took to get all the blood tests back, I cut out eating wheat. When they came back negative, I sighed deeply, and inhaled a few cookies and slices of pizza along with it. That week the rashes came on so strong I could barely sleep.
On to an internist, my endocrinologist, and finally a holistic nutritionist, and turns out I’ve developed a severe intolerance due to over exposure. Inhaling wheat 60 hours a week has made it impossible to eat it anymore. And we work with quality flour from local farms. This isn’t an issue of mass produced Round-up ridden gmo wheat filling my lungs with every breath. It’s the good stuff.
This January I voluntarily ate wheat for the last time. At first, I thought I could still taste desserts, that a little wheat wouldn’t hurt. After all, I didn’t have Celiacs disease, and within weeks of cutting out wheat the tide had turned on the external rashes I had been suffering.
Then, after a couple months, tasting desserts started making me sick. Everybody I talk to asks what happens when I eat wheat. It’s 4 pronged, first my stomach blows up like there’s a basket ball inside. Then I get a splitting headache. There is a third thing involving my digestive tract that we don’t need to discuss. And then, I pass out cold and sleep for, like, 36 hours. And the longer I have gone without wheat, the less wheat it takes to trigger this.
The physical symptoms suck, but what happened to my ego took a long time to come to terms with. At first I didn’t want to tell anyone. I thought I’d have my pastry chef card revoked, I’d risk loosing my job, and no one would take me seriously anymore. When I started telling a few close friends in the industry, they all pointed to other bakers and pastry chefs they knew who were also becoming intolerant to wheat. Many are old timers, people well established in the industry.
After each time I accidentally ingested wheat and my body reacted, my ego would start to tell me I was making it all up, I just wanted attention, was jumping on some band wagon, and was not actually reacting to wheat. Which is stupid, but also, very telling of how hard it has been to come to terms with loosing the ability to consume a foundational ingredient of the craft I’ve dedicated my life to. In a way, I’d rather be a crazy, needy, desperate lemming than gluten intolerant.
I crack jokes to make it feel better, “at least it’s not ice cream!” And the chefs and cooks I work with have been so kind and accommodating, helping keep me safe at work, which at first gave me feelings of guilt, but now, great comfort.
A couple of my exposure incidents were because I was too embarrassed to say anything to a server at a restaurant and just ordered the thing i assumed was gluten free. I have been surrounded by a (small) handful of (mean) voices in kitchens that doubt and mock allergies, and I just didn’t want to be that person inspiring resentment from the kitchen. Or on most occasions, I didn’t want anyone to have to go out of their way for me. But really, I didn’t want to not be the person up for anything the chef was proud of.
Luckily I have an incredible and supportive partner who opened a Mexican restaurant a cuisine with a foundation built on corn instead of wheat, and has fed me and reassured me through this whole process.
And if you’re wondering, the answer is yes. It was very hard to adjust at work. I can’t taste anything with wheat in it. I can touch, smell, look, and listen, and gather a great deal of information from my other 4 senses. And I have a careers worth of recipes and experinece I can count on.
But I had to do something else, I had to start making gluten free desserts. We started with the easy things, recipes that were naturally gluten free. Pavlovas, panna cottas, custards, mousses, nuts, brittles, etc….. Then I started testing with every non-wheat based flour I could get my hands on.
I made a lot of pretty terrible things, particularly when chasing a duplication of a wheat based product like bread or crepes.
Wheat is magic. It’s a multitasking ingredient that can do things it takes the work of 4 other ingredients to do, and they often do it poorly. Nothing creates a strong, flexible web like wheat.
I’ve started to have some successes. After my cook Aja looked at me like she was going to cry when I told her I hadn’t had one of my own cookies in 6 months, I started working on gluten free cookies. And my sous chef Erika has been a testing maniac, making gluten free versions of everything she’s working on, even if it’s just to allow me to taste the dish while we finalize it with a wheat based product.
After making my own flour blends, I’ve come to realize that flours from different companies all behave differently. For example, if I used the rice flour from Bobs Redmill vs. the rice flour from amazon, vs. the rice flour from Anson mills, vs the rice flour from the asian market, I would get different results. This has led me to believe gluten free baking is as much about controlling your supply chain as it is learning the properties of the ingredients themselves.
I have been relying on flour blends from major manufacturers who all have the ability to control their own supply chain in a way I can’t. Cup for Cup has been our go to for now. As for what’s in the future, I’m open to suggestions, and eager to find out.
We have made some pretty spectacular things without wheat. An opera cake that I absolutely love. Cornmeal cobbler biscuits that just shine when baked over peaches. And we have managed a gluten free version of my brown butter chocolate chip cookie that would fool anyone. Our experience with gluten free baking is growing, who knew gluten free baked goods could taste so much more buttery than their wheat based counterparts! And at home I’m learning to live without eating the things that just can’t be done without it.
I’m not going to suck the wheat out of The Publican. That lacy Brussels style waffle on the menu? Wouldn’t change it for the world. But we will steer the three desserts that rotate through our a la carte dessert menu in that direction, choosing components that don’t need wheat when we can, and relying on my sous chef’s palette when we can’t. With plated desserts, it’s not hard to compose around wheat, and I doubt any of our guests will miss it as much as I do.
And like I said, at least it’s not ice cream.