Chef-to-Chef Interview: Lena Kwak
Lena Kwak was in the right place at the right time when she applied for an internship several years ago at the prestigious French Laundry, the famed Michelin three-star restaurant in Yountville, California.
I sat down with Kwak at French Laundry to talk about how she brought gluten-free options to this world-renowned restaurant, became a research and development chef for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and partnered with Thomas Keller to create Cup4Cup, a gluten-free all-purpose flour blend that’s been on the market for more than two years.
As I sat opposite the trim, 20-something Kwak, I couldn’t help but marvel at the accolades and opportunities that have come her way in just a short time. In 2011, she was named to Forbes’ “30 under 30 for Food & Wine,” an honor she shares with celebrities like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and rapper Mac Miller. What’s more amazing is that it all started as a college project.
It was early afternoon when I arrived at French Laundry and the Napa Valley restaurant was already bustling with precisioned efficiency. Wait staff noiselessly ran up and down the staircase. With staccato snips, a florist transformed exotic blossoms into arrangements for the evening service. Across the street, a handful of gardeners tended the expansive herb gardens.
This attention to detail is the hallmark of celebrity chef Thomas Keller, owner of French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York City. Both restaurants are recipients of the Michelin three star-designation, making Keller the only American chef to have been awarded simultaneous three-star Michelin ratings for two different restaurants. In his 30-plus year career, Keller has influenced many culinary careers.
The fact that being affiliated with Keller and Thomas Keller Restaurant Group was like being handed a golden whisk was not lost on Kwak. She is quick to admit that, “without Thomas, Cup4Cup would be just an idea.”
Kwak’s love of cooking started when she was five years old, growing up in Long Island. Kwak’s parents, however, were grooming her to be a medical doctor.
“That’s 13 years of hard study,” she says. So before embarking on that path, Kwak took some time off to pursue her culinary passion. She intended to spend just one year at Johnson & Wales University, a school that specializes in the culinary arts, but she enjoyed it so much that she stayed, graduating in culinary nutrition “because it combined my love of medicine and helping people with my love of food,” she says.
When it was time to do an internship, her classmates applied to hospitals.
“I had an opportunity through a chef I knew at French Laundry,” she says. “I thought, why not apply there? What can they do but turn me down?” She got the position.
During the four-month internship, Kwak had to create a project that incorporated nutrition into the daily routine of the restaurant. She wondered how she could possibly benefit a fine dining establishment like French Laundry. As she talked to one of the chefs, ideas started to percolate. He mentioned they were getting a lot of special dietary requests—mostly vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free. He suggested that she try making over a couple of their trademark canapés for gluten-free diners.
She began with the coronet, a savory version of the tuile (a thin French cookie), which is served with a red onion confit, crème fraîche and smoked salmon.
“It was challenging. I had to decompose the structure of flour to rebuild it with the characteristics of flour but make it gluten-free,” she explains. “With many food allergens, you just remove the offending ingredient. But with gluten, you need to replace and remake it.”
And then there was French Laundry’s standard of excellence.
“It has to taste like the real thing. I kept trying out recipes on Thomas and the staff and they all shook their heads. My audience of tasters has high standards,” she laughs. “I finally got it right.”
Once she finalized the coronet formula, she worked on gougère (a Pâte à Choux or puff pastry with gruyere cheese). Now both canapés are served to gluten-free guests.
But there was still the school assignment to finish. As she wrote up her project, it included a proposal on how she could impact a restaurant like French Laundry with her nutritional background and knowledge of special diets.
“I knew about teaching students to modify everyday meals to suit special diets,” she says of her training at Johnson & Wales. But the question was whether she could apply that knowledge to instructing very experienced chefs in a fine restaurant. It turned into a job proposal. She was hired as a research and development chef.
The importance of what she was doing didn’t fully register with mega-chef Thomas Keller or French Laundry staff until Kwak took on her next project—making over the pain au lait (a brioche-type bread), another hallmark of the three-star restaurant.
“I’m a bit reserved by nature,” Kwak confides. “So when someone asked to meet me after we began serving the gluten-free version, I wasn’t sure what I would say. We were chatting and suddenly I heard sobbing. The woman was crying! She hadn’t had bread in many years. I was shocked that something as simple as bread could have such an impact.”
It was a wake-up moment for Kwak. “I guess I was jaded, shocked that someone would be crying over bread,” she says. “The French Laundry philosophy is about having an amazing dining experience. Why shouldn’t those with dietary needs have the whole experience?”
Imagining how people could recreate that fine dining experience in their own kitchens, Kwak expanded her thinking from the linen tablecloths at French Laundry to cooking at home.
“Wouldn’t it make life easier if people had a gluten-free flour that behaved like regular flour in baking—something that allowed them to rework their favorite foods gluten-free using a cup-for-cup replacement flour?” she wondered. The result was Cup4Cup.
“I worked on this for a long time,” she says of the blend that contains cornstarch, white rice flour, brown rice flour, milk powder, tapioca flour, potato starch and xanthan gum.
Noting that many Living Without readers are also dairy-free, I asked why she included milk in her formula.
“Milk powder adds texture and tenderizes the food. I wanted something that comes as close as possible to the wheat flour experience,” says Kwak, who doesn’t have food sensitivities and measures a gluten-free product by how satisfying it is to eat. “I never tried other gluten-free products. I worked from what I know, which is regular wheat flour and conventional baking.”
That concept resonated with me. I founded one of the first gluten-free mix companies, Gluten-Free Pantry, using the same premise. There was a moment of recognition as I stared into the mixing bowl of the next generation of gluten-free entrepreneurs. I asked what it’s like to develop a project with Thomas Keller, an internationally famous chef. “Does he work with you on an ongoing basis?” I inquired.
“Yes, Thomas is hands-on. So many celebrity chefs attach their names to products and cookware but Thomas has personally taken notice of the real need for gluten-free foods and products,” she says. “With this partnership and these connections, the possibilities are endless.”
These connections include a business relationship with Williams-Sonoma, where Cup4Cup was introduced to consumers in 2011. The blend is now available at Williams-Sonoma stores and online (williams-sonoma.com), as well as at Bouchon Bakery locations nationwide. It recently started appearing on store shelves throughout the United States. A 3-pound bag sells for $19.95.
Kwak went on to talk about her biggest challenges in launching the product—how she learned to set up a business, source ingredients, test the product and work with distributors. Then there was the terminology. “Restaurants use a different lingo than the rest of the food industry,” she says.
Kwak and staff at French Laundry develop recipes for Cup4Cup and post them on cup4cup.com. She says she prefers her blend to wheat flour in some baking, especially waffles and fried chicken. Both are a little crunchier because of the starches and the chicken stays crispy longer and “holds less fat,” she says.
Kwak shares the title, co-founder Cup4Cup, with Thomas Keller. Today, she concentrates on developing more gluten-free products and recipes for Thomas Keller Enterprises.
“I don’t want to forecast too far ahead or we can lose focus on the present. But the tremendous response motivates us to create more products,” says Kwak, who introduced a gluten-free pizza dough mix in 2012. “We want to be able to share something that makes someone cry, to share something wonderful even if people aren’t able to come to the restaurant to eat.”
“Working with Thomas on this project, I get to combine all my interests—food, health and medicine,” she says. “I often pinch myself.”