It was such a kid who inadvertently brought celiac disease to chef Gracie Jones' attention, just under a decade ago when she was transitioning from working as a fine-dining chef to opening up the fast-casual Asian Box.
"When we started with the project of Asian Box ... (it) became gluten-free because of a family we met. That same year, they found out that their son, who was 4 at the time, had celiac," Jones said. While cooking at this family's home as part of the process of developing the Asian Box menu, Jones and the team decided to keep it gluten-free, especially since the change was straightforward. They eliminated just two ingredients from the menu, soy sauce and noodles. Asian Box's menu is still completely gluten-free, though that fact is not explicitly advertised.
Jones, who has devoted her life to "cooking nonstop" for 20 years, did not intentionally set out to open up a gluten-free bake shop. When she moved into the space at 2706 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto, she was in charge of opening up a commissary to produce sauces for Asian Box. Confused about the nature of the space, customers would come in, looking to eat at Asian Box, so she started to offer some dishes and used the space as a test kitchen.
Over time, she noticed people asking about desserts, and Jones, who has a passion for baking but had not had the chance to pursue it, began experimenting.
"I was keeping an eye on Asian Box, but in my free time, I would just bake certain little things to see what people thought," she said, adding that she enjoyed the challenge of gluten-free baking.
"My goal is I want to make sure that people can't tell the difference," Jones said. "I won't serve it until it tastes exactly the way I want it."
Because Jones is not personally gluten-free, she knows what an item with gluten should taste like, so she starts from there. Jones refers to recipes with gluten and then, through trial and error, goes through many iterations of a single item before she is satisfied with the gluten-free result. And because gluten-free recipes call for many different ingredients to create the flour equivalent, she has created her own gluten-free flour mix made from brown and white rice flour, sorghum and potato and tapioca starch.
Jones' assortment of baked goods is subject to change depending on her latest experiment, but she does regularly stock customer favorites like chocolate chip cookies, sprinkle donuts and paleo bagels. The oatmeal cookie, sampled by this reporter, achieved the perfect combination of chewiness and crispiness. If she's working on a special request, customers might see a new item in the display case, such as lemon bars, pies or brownies. In addition to baked goods, she offers savory lunch items, including a banh mi sandwich — a recipe she has been working on for years.
"I finally feel like I came up with a sandwich of bread that is comparable to a banh mi," she said of the Vietnamese sandwich traditionally made with a French-style baguette. "It wasn't easy. I was testing it for a long time."
You can also find Jones' sourdough and brioche bread locally at The Market at Edgewood, or her focaccia at Palo Alto Italian restaurant Vino Enoteca. She also provides gluten-free pizza flour to Pizzeria Delfina's five locations, including in Palo Alto. (You can also buy the dough mix at the bakery to make your own gluten-free pizza at home.) Her cookies and rice pudding are sold at Asian Box, and she takes online orders for cakes at graciejonesbakeshop.com.
Jones is clear on one thing: She's not baking for the gluten-free skeptics.
"I would suggest for them not to try it; they're going to try it, but then they're always going to be negative about something," she said.
Instead, she's focused on making delicious food, in its own right.
This story contains 747 words.
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