I grew up in Minnesota. Meat and potato country. Our definition of fine dining was a little different than mine is now. And wine was for “rich people”. After high school, I joined the Navy and spent 20 years living throughout the country and travelling the world. My first real duty station was in Charleston, SC. Charleston is brimming with quaint, Southern charm and chock full of fantastic eateries. I wouldn’t really say my culinary awakening happened there, but it certainly opened my eyes to a much broader spectrum of food than I had ever experienced before. It was when I found myself living in the Pacific Northwest, a short ferry ride from downtown Seattle, that my love of food and wine really blossomed. There are some really fantastic restaurants in Seattle, and Washington produces some very good wines.
I believe that most people can point to a bottle of wine that really made them “get it” and it forever changed their view on wine (if you can’t, you just haven’t tasted that one yet). I think the same is true for food; there’s a meal or event that changes the culinary landscape for you. I experienced both of these while living in the PNW. I can’t tell you the dates or even which came first: food or wine. I can’t even recall what led me to them, but I’ll never forget them. I have had some incredible opportunities to drink some truly remarkable wines ranging from a 1907 Madeira to a Barolo made the year I was born to some of the truly legendary Bordeaux wines. These are the kinds of wines that most people will never taste, and most of the people that do drink them will only get to experience them once. Yet, as truly amazing as they were, none of those were “the one” (a fact which my wallet is greatly appreciative of). The wine that changed the game for me was a Burgundy (Pinot Noir) from a vineyard called Clos des Mouches in Beaune, France. I recently shared another bottle of it over a dinner of coq au vin and it was just as magical as I remember.
When it comes to food, I had the pleasure of dining at The Herbfarm in Woodinville, WA. This is a magical little place that specializes in locally procured items on a 9-course prix fixe menu centered around a theme that is featured in every course. Of course, being located in the heart of wine production in Washington, the dinner is paired with 5 or 6 wines. To experience high-quality, locally procured food, prepared by masters of their craft was enlightening, to say the least. To see something like salmon, lamb, or mushrooms (the three different themes I dined for) presented in nine different courses was inspiring.
At that point in my life, I enjoyed cooking, but it never occurred to me that those magical culinary experiences could occur anywhere but under the roof of a near-mythical restaurant with its equally impressive price of admission.
Fast forward a few years. My wife (Sam) and I are separated (not in a marital status kind of way, but in a “reality of Navy life” kind of way). She had been struggling for years with a host of medical issues ranging from multiple auto-immune diseases to things like idiopathic anaphylaxis (doctor speak for <shoulder shrug> “I don’t know”). Eventually, she’s diagnosed with Celiac Disease. When I returned home (months later), I arrived completely clueless how to feed my wife, and left her to do all the cooking, despite that never having been her role in our marriage. I should also mention that, at this point, we were living on a sailboat. I could write a lot about that but suffice it to say that cooking had an extra level of challenge and storage space was limited. This meant that most of our meals were “one pot meals” and many of my prized possessions (like my Kitchenaid Stand Mixer) were relegated to a box in a storage unit. We lived like this, post-Celiac, for about a year and a half, eating a limited, albeit tasty, fare of whole food, one pot meals.
Around this time a couple of things happened that really impacted our culinary trajectory. Sam was still having some medical issues, and we couldn’t quite pinpoint why. I could write a lot on this too (and maybe someday I will), but I’ll just leave it at these two points:
1. Gluten is far more prevalent than my wife and I ever imagined (did you know that it is present in most medications and vitamins, like the Vitamin B-12 Sam’s doctor prescribed)
2. The modern healthcare system, while incredible, is poorly equipped to deal with chronic disease. I highly recommend that anyone with chronic disease or undiagnosed chronic medical issues read the book “Unconventional Medicine” by Chris Kresser.
Sam began seeing a Functional Medicine Specialist and was placed on a very strict elimination diet. No dairy. No rice. No corn. No oats. No alcohol. No/minimal sugar. Sam was in tears, “What am I supposed to eat?”
What was the second thing that changed? We bought a house. We love our home, but the best feature is unquestionably the beautiful kitchen. It’s not huge, but hey, we came from a boat! And what it did have was marble counter tops and a gas range and convectional oven. Oh boy!!
Sam’s dietary restrictions meant that eating out was virtually a thing of the past (have you ever seen a gluten-free flour that isn’t mostly rice flour?!??). I can’t speak for most people, but I don’t have the energy to prepare separate meals for the two of us, plus, as a general rule, we don’t bring that stuff in the house to begin with. This meant that her dietary restrictions became mine. At least this time, we were together to navigate the tectonic shift in her life. We could overcome it together.
I love bread. Like, a lot. Sam viewed it as a vehicle to deliver peanut butter to her face and nothing more. A traditional punishment in the Navy was to be restricted to bread and water. I never viewed that as a significant punishment. Maybe in the days of hard tack, but the constant supply of freshly baked bread on the ship was the highlight of my day while out to sea. Now, my in-port life had been nearly devoid of bread for a long time. I was no longer stationed on a ship and I needed that back in my life (the bread, not the ship). And I wasn’t interested in the “it’s ok for gluten-free” kind of bread, either. I needed that warm slice of freshly baked bread heaven or that perfectly golden buttered toast. You know, the kind that after eating it either inspires you to go take on the world… or maybe just stand in the kitchen and eat the whole loaf. As it turns out, it wasn’t that difficult to make and it launched me on a journey.
GF food has a stigma. There’s a lot of bad GF food and that’s what most people know about. I once made GF/DF chocolate chip cookies for a bake sale at Sam’s work. They were literally the last thing left to be sold. One of Sam’s coworkers was late to the sale and wasn’t going to buy them because they were GF, even though the bake sale was raising funds for a good cause. Fortunately, the person working the sale mentioned that I made them, so out of guilt he bought one. And actually ate it. And then asked Sam for the recipe. I don’t think people with allergies or disease should also suffer a lifetime of mediocre, at best, food. Lilikoi is a platform to share my passion for uncompromising, delicious food that’s also Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free. I want people to be inspired and capable of eating great food regardless of dietary restrictions. The greatest compliment I can receive at a dinner party is when a “normal” person says “this is really good”, unaware of its GF/DF status.
Why Lilikoi? Lilikoi is the Hawai’ian name for the small, yellow passionfruit that grows here. It’s one of my favorite things on Earth. It’s tart and sweet and can be used in SOOOO many ways from frozen rum drinks to salads to crème brûlée. In short: it’s versatile, delicious, and passion is in the name.