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Interview Wed Nov 18 2009
Since May 2007, Dani Albers has worked as a baker for Floriole, the Green City Market fixture of French-inspired pastry and soon-to-be Lincoln Park cafe started by Sandra Holl. Albers lives with celiac disease, an incurable condition whereby gluten triggers one's immune system to attack the small intestine, preventing the proper absorption of food. All forms of wheat and related grains like barley and rye contain gluten proteins. In a traditional pastry kitchen, gluten is as prevalent as butter and sugar. I emailed with Albers to find out what it is like to have celiac disease in her line of work.
Sharon Bautista: Were you an avid baker before your celiac diagnosis five years ago?
Dani Albers: I was. But the need for a cookie (among other things) that didn't taste like sawdust kicked my baking hobby into a higher gear. It was really the catalyst for going to pastry school.
SB: What was your professional experience prior to joining Floriole?
DA: I graduated from the French Pastry School in Chicago in 2006. I joined Floriole as a part-timer just a few months out of pastry school, and now I'm working full-time. I've had some brief experience working in a handful of kitchens around the city.
SB: How, if at all, does having celiac affect your work day-to-day?
DA: A part of working in any kitchen is taste-testing. I obviously can't taste everything we make and have to rely on other cues to know that my product is turning out the way it ought to: color, texture, aroma, feel, etc. Sometimes I just have to ask someone to check something for me. I probably gravitate towards working on the flourless products because I know I can be fully involved in their development.
SB: What flourless projects have you undertaken with Floriole? How did they come about?
DA: This summer I started making gluten-free cookies for the MCA market (molasses-spice and oatmeal-ginger-cranberry). It came about because practically every week someone asks if we have any gluten-free products. I have been developing my own recipes for a while and with Sandra's blessing, decided to put them out for the public to see what kind of response they would get. (We can't offer these cookies at Green City Market because the gluten-free flours I use aren't locally produced.)
We offer other products that are naturally gluten-free (caramels, French macarons, meringue boulder cookies, peanut butter & jelly cookies), and I tend to work on those whenever I can. (The caveat is that while these products are flourless, they are made in-kitchen, where wheat flour is used liberally.)
SB: Do you think having celiac has affected the way your co-workers think about gluten sensitivities? What impact, if any, do you think you've had having celiac and being part of the Floriole team?
DA: I'm not sure. Perhaps it's more topical than it would be normally, but these days, it seems everybody knows somebody with a gluten or wheat allergy.
SB: What accommodations, if any, has the group at Floriole made because of your celiac disease?
DA: Sandra and the whole kitchen gang have been really supportive; I've received so much encouragement in developing my gluten-free recipes, and they offer great critique when I bring things in that I'm working on. And of course, Sandra tolerates the fact that I'm a cook who can't taste certain items.
SB: What do you like most about your job?
DA: Hard to pick one thing. We have an awesome team, and there's a great spirit of collaboration in the kitchen. I love developing new products. We've been developing new caramel flavors (bacon, gingerbread), and that's been really fun. But when there are fresh macarons to taste, I'm all over it.