Starting a gluten-free diet is a life-changing experience. Many, in fact, would call it downright difficult and would be tempted to recoil from the kitchen. But not Elise Wiggins.
The executive chef at Panzano restaurant in Denver discovered she had wheat intolerance in 2008, just three years after her brother was diagnosed with celiac disease. Instead of throwing in her toque, she got creative with recipes, added some gluten-free items to the menu, and became the unofficial gluten-free goddess of the Mile High City.
We recently caught up with Elise and she chatted about cooking from scratch, the joy of farmers markets, and the best darn focaccia you’ll ever taste.
Life is Suite: You are known throughout Denver – and even the nation – for your gluten-free cooking. How did that distinction come about?
Elise Wiggins: The National Celiac Convention was held in Denver five years ago. I got a lot of good information there and moved forward with making gluten-free dishes at the restaurant. Now I do demos at the Convention and have trained my staff in dealing with wheat intolerance and allergies. I didn’t look at it as change. I looked at it as a way to find fun new ingredients.
LIS: At an Italian restaurant known for pasta dishes, that must have been no easy task.
EW: Well, we are a scratch kitchen, which by definition means everything is from scratch. We have always made our own stocks, pastas, everything. I know every single ingredient that goes into the food. There are no premixed boxes or cans that contain wheat stabilizers. Because of our natural approach, half of our menu is gluten-free already. Apart from that, I love the challenge of producing pasta or pie crust without traditional flour and expanding glutens.
LIS: Tell us about some of the interesting gluten-free dishes on Panzano’s menu.
EW: Our steak is gluten free. On the more surprising side, we have gluten-free bread, gnocchi, muffins, cannoli. You won’t just get stuck with a veggie platter. Actually, when I make gluten-free focaccia, I have to slap servers’ hands. It’s that good. Side by side with “normal” bread, it’s no different.
LIS: Any advice for the home chef?
EW: The best thing to do – and it’s a definite trend now anyway – is think the fresher the better. Everyone is going to their farmers market, not their freezer. Veggies, fruits … get it all local. And try cooking from scratch … even little things like salad dressing. All you need are oil, vinegar, shallots and fresh herbs. If you do get something off the grocery shelf, look at the label. You might not imagine, but lots of things – even ice cream and Tabasco sauce – have wheat stabilizers.
LIS: Good info – especially with the increase in celiac disease awareness.
EW: We have a ton of business from it now. They say one in seven people is diagnosed and they think there is even more. It’s a growing, growing thing, and we’re certainly at the front of it. Just like being vegan or diabetic, eating gluten-free is a challenge, but it can be just as sexy as the “usual.” You can still eat something and say, “Oh that’s so good.”
Say “Mmmm” after eating Chef Elise Wiggin’s gluten-free fare at Panzano, 909 17th Street in Denver (303-296-3525 or panzano-denver.com).
Gluten-free fad diets have recently become popular. A 2012 study concluded “There is no evidence to suggest that following a gluten-free diet has any significant benefits in the general population. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that a gluten-free diet may adversely affect gut health in those without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.;