About six weeks ago, I received an e-mail from one of the chefs on campus asking for volunteers for the Gluten-Free Summit. I quickly replied that I was available that weekend and was assigned a presenter to assist. I had no idea what I would be in for! Also, as an assistant, I was going to be allowed to attend the whole summit for free! Sweet!
Living gluten-free (GF) is so difficult, but necessary for those who have classic Celiac's Disease or have gluten intolerance or sensitivity. We're talking about cutting out ALL wheat products from the diet - super hard! I had never heard of Celiac's until I moved to Hawai'i and met someone with this disease, who is now one of my very good friends. It always bummed me out to have him be excluded from the food I would prepare, and when I became a label-reader, I was astounded to find gluten present in so many products.
This GF Summit has two "editions", one in the East and one held in the West. I think this was the fifth or sixth year of summit action. Basically, speakers from all over the country are brought in to talk about the GF lifestyle (it's more than a diet) and to demo products and foods that are gluten free.
I pretty much had no prior knowledge about GF cooking or baking, except for the time we made pancakes on the fly at our friend's house using rice flour (which I thought was pretty crafty/cool!). As a student in the baking program here, I will only have one class that will focus on GF baking and baking for people with allergies/intolerances. This class is three weeks long, which is waaaay too short, I feel. For me, attending this summit was a huge eye-opener to the possibilities of GF baking and what some people have to go through. This summit also cost almost $400 for people to attend, and I got to go for free! So I took full advantage and attended the entire thing! Wow!
I will just talk about a few highlights and what I learned here:
- GF is an expanding market. This disease can take anywhere from four to 11 years to diagnose, and only about 1% of the US population has it. But it will be rising as doctors learn to diagnose it better. Unfortunately as of now, there is no cure, so the GF lifestyle is not a "fad diet". People have to eat this way to survive and live. More products are being made available now than ever before. One of the sponsors of the summit was Bob's Red Mill. I have seen their products for sale first at health food stores, and now it is available in mainstream supermarkets. Another sponsor was Pamela's Products, and Pamela was there herself! I got to speak with her about her mixes and learn about the versatility that they have when it comes to baking (ps - her chocolate cake mix is AWESOME!).
- I learned about the many different ways to prepare the 11 GF grains. I had no idea how before! We saw a wide variety of foods being demo'd and prepared, from fried chicken to linzer tarts to stirfry and risotto (made with quinoa!). I think this is the biggest barrier for people - they don't know how to prepare it all.
- I learned how one goes about preparing for a demo. The woman I was paired with was a total sweetheart! Margaret Dickenson, and her husband, Larry, came from Ottawa, Canada. She is an author and television show host and is the cutest little thing. Not only was she stylish, but she was incredibly detail-oriented, which I just loved! She had the station measured out and a diagram drawn to show me where everything would go. She went over the details of what I would do and how I would do it. I pretty much had to stand up there with her while she did her thing and keep an eye on the buckwheat and quinoa that was cooking, and hand her anything she needed. It was fun! She'd written out what she was going to say beforehand and was practicing it up until the moment she went out. So organized! She did great too, and had that lovely warm personality that everyone was immediately attracted to. Margaret's focus wasn't just on the cooking either, but on how to entertain in an attractive way - all the different kinds of set-ups and serving dishes that one can use. While I was helping her the day before, she asked me all about what I was learning, where I was from, and what I wanted to do (and Mom and Dad, she asked about what you guys do as well!). After her demo, she gave me a copy of her latest cookbook!!! And not only did she sign it, but she wrote me a little note inside! So awesome! And totally unexpected! She said that she hoped we'd be in contact in the future because she wanted to hear what I was up to. Nice!
And I got a sweet picture with her too, right before her demo began:
- I loved hearing about and seeing all the different types of people who came to the GF Summit. There were a few moms who had 1-3 kids with Celiac's disease - wow! There was also a family who sat in front of me with two girls. One of the girls had the disease, but the whole family chose to live GF in support of the daughter - how awesome! Also present were some industry professionals, others who had never been formally trained, and representatives from some of the GF companies. It was a great mix!
- NETWORKING! I never thought I would walk away from this event with so many contacts! When I absolutely have to, I will go up and talk to people, even if it feels a little awkward or I don't have much to say. Yes, I am interested in GF baking, but I don't have much experience and I don't have the disease myself, so I don't really know what it's like. I met people who knew A LOT more than I do, but it was a great learning experience! On Saturday, I sat next to a woman from North Carolina who had no professional training and had started her own baking company recently. She got her home kitchen healthcode certified and started selling goods at farmers markets, then had a huge demand for GF products, so she did a lot of research and testing. She recently got a contract to wholesale baked goods for a local community college. Wow! I also met a man who sub-contracts himself out to Whole Foods in his area, teaching consumers how to use products on the shelves that are unfamiliar. I met a guy who works for a gourmet to-go company and is studying food science, so I connected with him to get some book recommendations about that subject since I am interested! Of course, I met Margaret too, who sounds more than happy to write me a "letter of comment" (as she put it!). The last person who demo'd was a female pastry chef who was married to a culinary chef (he was the MC). They seemed like a great team! Then my ears perked up when I heard that she was a native of Hawai'i and had worked at the Royal Hawaiian! I thought to myself, "I have to talk to this woman!!!" At the end of her presentation, I went up to her and told her I'd lived there, also went to UH (she went there AND my current school too!) and that I was interested in working in the hotel industry and was looking for contacts. I got her information and we will see what happens! Wow! If something works out for me . . . I mean, I never would have thought that I would make this kind of connection from going to this summit! Wow! (Sorry, can't stop saying wow :)
I left the summit today with happiness in my heart for all that I had learned and inspiration to find out more as well. I couldn't believe how this weekend turned out, better than I had imagined. I also left with a new cookbook and lots of little samples and TONS of recipes! I am excited to learn more and go forward. Woohoo!!!