As a culinary researcher at Thomas Keller’s famed French Laundry, Lena Kwak co-founded Cup4Cup gluten-free flour so guests at the restaurant could rediscover their love for the foods of their childhood. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive — one customer cried tears of joy into her brioche! — and Kwak has since followed up with a gluten-free pizza mix, as well.
Here, we ask Kwak all about the making of Cup4Cup, plus some of her favorite uses for the flour. Read on for her responses and learn more in her video below — then, stay tuned for a gluten-free pizza tutorial tomorrow!
Describe your background. How did you get your start in the culinary world?
Food has always played such a role in my life. Growing up, seeing friends and family always happened over a table full of food. My passion for cooking was something I picked up from my mother, who always poured her love into every dish she prepared for the family. To this day, I do the same — if I cook for you it’s because I care and want to show you how much I love or appreciate someone.
When it came time to decide what college to go to, I was undecided. My family wanted me to go into medicine, but I was unsure what I wanted to do. So I decided, instead of making any final decisions, to take some time to explore culinary school. I thought to myself, give yourself one year to think about what you want to do. And in the meantime, I might as well learn to cook because it would be a skill set I could use for the rest of my life. It was at culinary school where I discovered how vast and diverse the food industry could be, with so many different opportunities — not just in restaurants. After my associate in culinary arts, I decided to major in Nutritional Science, where I also took classes in research development.
How did you start working at the French Laundry?
I first arrived to the French Laundry on an internship through school. For my project, I had to utilize my knowledge of nutritional science to impact the restaurant in some way. (Looking back, I recall being so stumped, because here I was among chefs who pride themselves in creating amazing food with no boundaries of calorie restrictions or fear of words like butter.) When speaking with the executive chefs at the time, there seemed to be an increased need for options for people who were dining with specific dietary restrictions — diabetic, celiac, vegan, etc. For my internship project, I had turned a few French Laundry classic canapés into gluten-free versions. Realizing there was an opportunity at the restaurant for tasks like this, I decided to sit down write out a proposal for a new position “Research & Development Chef.”
What inspired you to start working on gluten-free flour?
There had been stories from the dining room staff of people overwhelmed with joy when they had our gluten-free options on the menu. It wasn’t until I witnessed a guest weep tears of joy after experiencing our gluten-free bread during lunch one day that it truly hit me — what it meant to not be able to enjoy something as basic as wheat. While wheat never really is the star of any recipe, what we forget is how it often it is the structure or body of many dishes. If someone was moved to the point of tears by being able to enjoy something that brought back memories and a love of food, I wanted to develop something we could share with the public. Creating a flour blend that could allow people to make their favorite recipes once again seemed like a good first step.
How did Chef Keller support the development of this product?
Chef Keller is not only my partner in Cup4Cup, but a great mentor. Many times an idea is merely a concept until someone is there to turn it into something tangible. We share the same belief that there is something emotional about cooking and food, and how the aspect of sharing food is so very important. Chef Keller listens and collaborates on everything we do here at Cup4Cup. We aim to maintain the principles of the restaurants he has instilled in us — quality of product and the guest experience.
Do you serve C4C goods at The French Laundry, Ad Hoc, and Bouchon? What specifically?
At The French Laundry the menu rotates every day, so items change daily. But a few items that have been made at the restaurant using Cup4Cup are cornets, gougeres, desserts and pastas. The flour is also used as a thickener at times. At Ad Hoc we’ve used Cup4Cup for fried chicken and desserts, such as cupcakes, pies, cakes and biscuits.
What was the development process like?
Our standard was not to develop the best gluten-free flour in comparison to what was already in the market, but to make a flour that would closely resemble regular wheat flour. I am not gluten intolerant, although through this process I have grown to favor a lower gluten intake, as I just feel that much better when I do not consume gluten. So when I started developing this blend, it was important for me to make sure it tasted good enough that French Laundry chefs were going to approve of it. My goal was to make something that felt, tasted and looked like regular wheat flour. It was important to understand the complexity of wheat flour, to breakdown and categorize the different characteristics and create a blend containing ingredients that would mimic those same attributes.
What makes C4C different from other gluten-free flours?
Its neutral flavors. Texturally and appearance-wise, it performs like regular wheat. “Gluten-free, but you’d never know it!”
What can Cup4Cup flour make?
It is a multi-purpose flour blend that’s ideal for quickbreads, cookies, pie crusts, biscuits and pasta. I am surprised every day by the fans who use Cup4Cup and what else they are creating. Most of our content on our social media pages are full of recipes and pictures from people who cook and bake with Cup4Cup in their homes.
What is your favorite Cup4Cup food?
It changes from time to time, as there are recipes where Cup4Cup actually will perform much better than using regular wheat, like in waffles. This is one of my all time favorite chocolate recipes.
What has the reaction to Cup4Cup been so far?
It’s been incredible getting feedback from customers. Those who have tried it are so enthusiastic and have mentioned that Cup4Cup has brought back their love for cooking and baking, which is truly humbling to hear. We got started with the concept of Cup4Cup when I witnessed seeing a woman cry from having bread for the first time in seven years. It was such an overwhelming feeling to think one could affect people’s lives with a food product. Thomas and I may not be celiac, but we understand how emotional food can be.