Living without wheat may be a bother, but some enterprising locals are turning it into businesses, too.
What’s to like about people profiting from our pain (gluten can cause everything from vomiting to a sore throat to joint swelling)?
Who wouldn’t want a specially trained private chef to cook them delicious wheat-free meals and teach them how to do it themselves?
Who wouldn’t love to find a comprehensive website to lead them through the maze of gluten-free products and onto a day-by-day path to healthy eating?
Who wouldn’t die for a meal of that all-American childhood staple – spaghetti – without regretting it horribly?
In a sign that gluten-free eating is here to stay, several Durango entrepreneurs have staked their life savings, to say nothing of their life’s work, on catering to those who can’t or won’t eat wheat, rye or barley, gluten’s components.
You probably could have guessed, but the local folks venturing forth into gluten-free capitalism can’t consume it themselves.
It took Kara Komick 10 years to figure out that her gastrointestinal problems were caused by those three grains. Already a well-regarded cook, Komick recently finished a four-month program at the Nutrition Therapy Institute in Denver, concentrating on creating meals made of whole foods and grains, organic, grass-fed meats and no gluten.
“It’s great if you’re addressing gluten, but people are still not looking at their whole health,” she said.
That’s where she comes in. Healthy eating can help treat the many chronic conditions Americans suffer from such as diabetes, high blood pressure, celiac, obesity and auto-immune diseases. In her newly minted business, New Roots Nutrition, Komick plans to cook for people in their homes and teach small groups how to cook for special diets – gluten-free, dairy-free, sodium-free, whatever. (To test her chops, try out her recipe for crunchy, nutritious gluten-free crackers.)
“I’m hoping Durango can embrace this,” she said.
Jan and Greg Phillips found themselves embracing the gluten-free world when their daughter developed gastrointestinal pain that turned out to be celiac disease, an immune reaction by the small intestine to gluten. (Jan later discovered she was intolerant, as well.)
But eliminating gluten from her diet was only a small part of a years-long struggle to come to grips with the disease. How to detect gluten in foods that otherwise wouldn’t include it (Who knew they flour french fries?); how to eat a balanced diet without staples such as bread, pasta and cereal; and on top of it all, how to deal emotionally with the difficulties of a wheat-free life.
The Phillipses, who once produced health-education materials for hospitals, began researching how to help the gluten intolerant through the transformation from a typical American diet to one that will keep you healthy. They talked to doctors, naturopaths and allergists, eventually forming a team of experts who helped them develop a curriculum for such elemental things as grocery shopping, cooking and dining out.
The result of their two years of efforts is a professional and attractive website called the Gluten Freedom Project. (Total disclosure: The Phillipses were once neighbors, and I appear in a short video, bleary eyed and stupefied, testifying about my own allergy to wheat.)
“It took a long time to figure this out, going to doctors, reading books, and I said, ‘We have to make this easier,’” Jan Phillips said.
The website is primarily by subscription, although it does offer recipes and basic advice for free. Subscribers get an online wonderland of cooking videos, a list of hundreds of certified gluten-free products, a weekly lesson about how to shop, cook or dine out and access to local health-care professionals who helped develop the curriculum.
The Phillips have high aspirations for the site to go national, and while it may not make them multi-millionaires, they hope to at least repay their years of research and contribute to their retirement fund.
Meanwhile, if you can’t eat wheat and you’re dying for a plate of lasagna, Roxanne Riccardi has your fix. The 33-year-old former interior designer ditched her chosen profession back East, moved to Colorado to develop gluten-free pasta dishes and opened Intolerant Italian in College Plaza three months ago. The little storefront was packed on opening day with college kids, harried moms and Durango’s reliable nuts-and-berries clientele, all wolfing down Riccardi’s delicious wheat-free lasagnas and nibbling mom Anne Vervaet’s likewise gluten-free muffins and cookies.
Riccardi’s inspiration came from her mother’s sensitivity to gluten (and later, her own) and her pining for pasta.
“We come from an all-Italian family, and it was the thing mom missed the most,” Riccardi said. “I said ‘I bet I have it in me to figure out how to make her pasta.’”
She started with ravioli. One of her first attempts was the Californian, a take on a fish taco, complete with cilantro dough and filled with fish, avocado, red onion and jalapeño. Really, it was good.
Using her sister and roommates as guinea pigs, Riccardi spent the next 18 months perfecting more traditional raviolis such as butternut squash, meatball and the Italian – filled with chicken, spinach and sundried tomatoes. She also makes dried pasta using sorghum, rice, arrowroot and tapioca flours, which she discovered make the most delicious dough.
She put her savings, her retirement fund and a healthy loan from her parents into the business. Her goals for Intolerant Italian are finite: If she can sell enough lasagnas and baked goods and keep local restaurants such as Cyprus Café stocked each day, then the business will make it.
“It makes me feel good to know I’m making a difference,” she said. “I hope this is my future.”
Those of us who must live without wheat, who crave childhood treats from a simple bowl of noodles to a decadent piece of birthday cake, hope so, too – not just for Riccardi and the Phillipses and Komick, but for anyone willing to take their livelihoods into their own hands and leap into the wild world of gluten-free commerce.