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My life: Lena Kwak

The gluten-free specialist talks to Kavita Daswani about bringing families together around her creations

 

F OOD PROGRAMME My family is Korean but I was born in Hong Kong, where my family practised Chinese medicine and acupuncture. We left when I was four and moved to the United States, where I grew up mostly in New Jersey and Long Island. I was supposed to be pursuing a medical education but … I couldn't decide what I wanted to do. I didn't want to take a year off and I didn't want to go to university as an undecided major. So I thought I'd go to culinary school (in Rhode Island) and learn a skill set that I could use throughout my life. I pursued nutrition science, thinking maybe I would do recipe development for magazines. But then, in 2007, I came across an opportunity to intern at The French Laundry (in California), under chef Thomas Keller. I couldn't pass it up.

A BATTER WORLD Although I've always been interested in food, I never wanted to own a restaurant, but I had to incorporate something I'd learnt during my internship with my nutrition background. So I went back to (The French Laundry's) chef de cuisine at the time, Corey Lee, with a proposal to be appointed as a research development chef, and was accepted. It was the first position like this in the restaurant business. When I had the idea, it didn't have anything to do with dietary restrictions but, later on, one of the chefs said he was getting a lot of requests for gluten-free items. The chefs were already working 14-hour days and it was a very creative space. I started having all these ideas and theories about how to do beloved food items gluten-free. So I became something of a lab assistant to them.

FLOUR POWER Within Asian culture, food is such a social thing. Every time you meet with family, it's around a meal. It's how you connect with people. When we began offering gluten-free bread options, I was shocked to see how strong the reactions were. A woman cried because it was the first time she had eaten bread in seven years. That really resonated with me. So I had an idea to help create a line of gluten-free flours that people could use at home. I had no intention of asking chef Keller for a partnership but he said, "Pursue it. How do I help you?" It was amazing.

TASTE TEST There was a lot of trial and error for 1½ years. When people think of gluten-free as a dietary restriction, they think they have to sacrifice taste and texture in bread. I wanted to avoid that. I don't have any food allergies myself, but I do understand it when people are coming to us crying about not being able to enjoy something. I had tried gluten-free breads and they were dense and heavy. It's such a joyful moment when bread comes fresh out of the oven, the puff of steam, like a pillow big enough to sleep on. That was missing in gluten-free bread. As we were tweaking the formula, the testers were the chefs at the restaurant. They are people whose palates are trained. I wasn't going to use a tasting panel of average testers; these were super-tasters. I hated the term, "This is good for gluten-free". I wanted to hear, "This is a really great cookie, or brownie."

MEASURE OF SUCCESS We launched Cup4Cup in 2011, after a lot of research about individual starches, the different compositions of ingredients that, when combined, equal all the attributes that wheat flour would have. I hadn't realised how testing one single ingredient would have so many complexities. We use a combination of cornstarch, rice flour, potato flour, tapioca and xanthan gum, in just the right formulation, so it exactly replicates the taste, texture and performance of flour in every recipe. I don't think many people realise how much a single ingredient like flour can make lasting family memories. In a grandmother's beloved banana bread recipe, flour is the main ingredient. I wanted to be able to create something that would replicate that exactly for people who couldn't eat wheat. Now, it is such a pleasure to get e-mails (such as that) from a mother who can share cupcakes with her kids for the first time.

SPREADING THE WORD Right now, we have different products for pancakes, pizzas and brownies, plus a 25-pound bulk bag, and they are sold in natural food stores around the US and Canada. We have been getting requests from the UK and Hong Kong. We have an all-purpose flour that chefs have used to make beautiful tagliatelle pastas and lasagne sheets. You can fry chicken in it and it stays crispier than with regu-lar flour. Now we're working with other food manufacturers and small businesses because there is such a growing need for gluten-free products, so there is unlimit-ed opportunity to create new products. There is a little bit of inventing and a lot of operations involved and it's been like getting an MBA, unexpectedly, which is great.

MAKING THE LIST It's funny because I was working at the restaurant when someone came in who had just been on Forbes' "30 Under 30" list (an annual listing by the magazine of 30 people below the age of 30 who are "impatient to change the world") and I had just been reading the article. I remember thinking, "I want to be there." I've learned that if you visualise something it can really happen; so I definitely did visualise that. I was so honoured when it happened to me - but, if anything, it was difficult for me to accept it fully as it's always been difficult for me to take compliments well. To this day, I'm not sure how I got on that list and it's still a bit shocking. There is so much going on every day that once you go over one hurdle there's another one in front of you. There's a lot to take in, but I do remember to stop and smell the roses.

 

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