At one time or another everyone’s life hits a turning point. The path you’ve been traveling for years pivots, or forks, or on rare occasions ends in a sharp precipice overlooking a bottomless and terrifying gorge. My downfall came from a most unexpected source, the snowy white marzipan coating on a three tier wedding cake.
After four years at Rutgers University studying biology, evolutionary anthropology, genetics, and any other discipline of science I could fit into my schedule, I realized that spending my life doing lab work held little appeal. Congratulating myself on avoiding a life of boredom, I immediately packed up my sporty little pt cruiser (yes, people still drive them) and headed across the country to attend culinary school at the Art Institute of California.
I mixed, I chopped, I piped things out of plastic bags with funny shaped tips on the end, and I realized that most of what I was learning was based on the basic scientific principles I had studied during college.
Time passed, I graduated culinary school and got a job prepping, cooking, and most importantly baking, for a hotel in downtown San Diego. I loved it. I spent all day cooking, people would eat what I made and be happy, which made me feel good so I cooked more and they ate more, and it was perfect. Things were going so well in fact that one of the managers at the hotel asked me to make her wedding cake. It was a gorgeous cake; 3 floating tiers of square dark chocolate cake with panels of marzipan coated in sunshine yellow royal icing, decorated with flood filled flowers piped to resemble stained glass. Of course I hadn’t made a wedding cake before and I was nervous, it was my boss’s wedding, and it had to be perfect. So I practiced, and I practiced some more, and when I was sure I had it down, I practiced a little more just to be sure. The wedding went off without a hitch; the cake was perfect, everyone was happy, and I went home and had a piece of one of the practice cakes to celebrate. Then my throat closed up.
It was the marzipan. Marzipan is a paste made of sugar and finely ground almonds, and I had been elbows deep in the stuff for weeks. After a rather eventful ER visit, and an extensive allergy test panel at the doctor’s the next day, I was diagnosed with Adult Onset Food Allergies. Or more specifically, I was now highly allergic to almonds and cashews.
As anyone who is living with a food allergy knows, overnight the world becomes a scary and uncertain place. Was my burger cooked on the same flat top as the almond encrusted tilapia? Did my candy bar get made on equipment that also makes nougat? Had the friend stealing a sip of my soda just finished eating a handful of spiced cashews? The answer was inevitably yes. I went through a dozen epinephrine pens that first six months. My family had to relearn how to eat, and how to shop. Almost all processed foods were out, restaurants were chancy (putting my life in the hands of an overworked line cook did not appeal), and all baked goods were out unless I made them myself. Worst of all, my job, the job I loved disappeared after an ill fated meeting with a batch of rainbow cookies in the kitchen (almond flour and paste are the main ingredients).
I couldn’t blame them, I was a liability, and I put my own health and safety at risk every time I entered the kitchen. The only solution, as daunting as it seemed, was to open my own place where I could control what ingredients were used, and what products where created.
While I was researching for my business plan, I discovered something interesting. There were hundreds of thousands of people in the United States just like me. Children who had to be home schooled because they couldn’t risk a peanut butter sandwich at lunchtime. Adults who were baking their own bread because they couldn’t eat gluten. It was like an epidemic had swept the country, and the only people who were aware of it were the ones affected. So I started playing with my recipes. It’s easy to make a chocolate chip cookie without nuts, but what about eggs? What if you don’t use the common vegan egg re-placer that contains soy? Then remove the flour. That pancake-like greasy puddle on the cookie sheet? That’s what happens when you remove the flour, or the eggs, or the milk, or one of a hundred other ingredients that may not have one of the top ten food allergens, but could be contaminated by one due to how it was processed.
What started as a challenge, a way to fight my way out of the depression that inevitably follows a health crisis, became a passion. How many people are there out in the world who crave an honest to goodness chewy oatmeal raisin cookie just like their grandmother baked, but are allergic to the ingredients it takes to make one? As it turns out, a lot. Unfortunately not all of the allergen free baked goods on the market today would pass the grandmother test. The truth is it’s difficult to bake great desserts without flour, butter, and milk. Very difficult. But it’s not impossible. By deconstructing each cookie, determining the cause and effect of each ingredient and their combinations, and using a basic knowledge of how molecules interact with each other during the baking process, I was able to develop recipes that taste, feel, and look as much like the genuine article as it’s possible to get them. There were failures, and they were epic, but the successes more than made up for them.
All those times I dreamed about the future when I was a kid, I never saw myself here. Owning my own business. Waking up at 3 am every morning to essentially bury myself in cookie dough. Spending hours each night pouring over accounts and product catalogs. I hit my turning point, swerved off the road, and found to my surprise that I’m thoroughly enjoying the scenic route.