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- American chef, restaurateur, and cookbook writer
Yahoo Food is proud to present a new weeklong series called “Master Class.” Throughout the year, we’ll visit with some of America’s top culinary talents and share a behind-the-scenes look at the worlds they’ve created. First up, the country’s most revered chef, Thomas Keller. Below, Yahoo Food talks with Lena Kwak, a former recipe development chef at The French Laundry who convinced Keller to help her found Cup4Cup, a line of gluten-free flours and baking mixes.
Cup4Cup co-founder Lena Kwak spent a year-and-a-half developing a special gluten-free flour. All photos courtesy Cup4Cup.
In 2010, a woman dining at The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., was moved to tears. Not because of some fresh heartbreak, nor any personal tragedy, but because of a slice of bread.
“She was celiac,” recalled Lena Kwak, who went on to co-found Cup4Cup, a line of gluten-free flour and baking mixes. At the time, she was a recipe development chef for the famed restaurant, tasked with creating gluten-free versions of The French Laundry’s offerings. Among them, the bread before the emotional diner.
“Here was a woman who was weeping, in tears, over a piece of bread that she hadn’t had in seven years,” Kwak said. Though not gluten-free herself, the sight struck a chord. “It reminded her of all her food memories, and how social food is. … It was a moment that made me realize that this was a career I wanted to pursue.”
Gluten-free cakes made with Cup4Cup flour.
Kwak was confident she had something — enough to approach her then-boss Chef Thomas Keller with a gutsy proposition: Develop a line of gluten-free flours and baking mixes inspired by her research at The French Laundry. She wrote a detailed proposal and requested a meeting with the head chef.
“I remember just shaking, you know?” Kwak recalled. “I realized I had never talked to him — I was 24, and just so new to all of this… I was spitting out words a mile a minute. And he says, ‘Breathe, it’s just me.’”
Kwak walked him through the facts, but what struck Keller most was the tale of the sobbing customer. He was sold. “How can I help?” Kwak recalled him saying on the spot.
Lena Kwak sits beside Chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry.
The first Cup4Cup products appeared in stores in August of 2011, and they’re now available at about 3,000 locations nationwide. Several fine dining restaurants use it in-house to make gluten-free offerings, including Chef Mario Batali’s Del Posto in New York City and Chef Corey Lee’s Benu in San Francisco.
The key to Cup4Cup’s success, Kwak believes, is that its gluten-free flours very nearly mimic their traditional counterparts. Just as importantly, they can be substituted, as the brand’s name suggests, cup for cup. Ensuring this was a tall order: The recipe for Cup4Cup’s original flour blend, for instance, took a laborious 18 months to develop. Kwak spent innumerable hours tweaking its various components: cornstarch, white rice flour, brown rice flour, milk powder, tapioca flour, potato starch, and xanthan gum.
Gluten-free cheddar polenta waffles, anyone?
In some cases, Cup4Cup flour may even outperform standard varieties. When making biscuits, for example, the baker must avoid overworking the dough, which causes gluten to form and results in a denser, chewier product. “If you make them with Cup4cup, you don’t have to worry about it. You actually get biscuits that are fluffier and lighter,” Kwak explained. The same goes for cakes, which come out light and tender thanks to the absence of gluten. “There’s a finer crumb, and it’s a tender texture,” she said.
Kwak has great ambitions for Cup4Cup, and plans to develop more products. She wants to develop more mixes, and even a line of prepackaged, ready-to-eat foods. Also potentially on the horizon: gluten-free bread flour, for people like the crying diner she first encountered half a decade ago.
“We never got to see who this woman was, and I never saw her again,” Kwak said with a hint of sadness. She wonders if the anonymous customer might someday see Cup4Cup on a grocery shelf and realize the role she played in its development. Kwak hopes she does. “The woman who cried and inspired this whole thing,” she said wistfully.
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