Larry Hill’s face lights up with delight when he says, “I can have toast in the morning.”
About eight years ago, Hill was diagnosed with celiac disease. Since then, he has tried to maintain a gluten-free diet to help repair and maintain his damaged digestive system. It has been a challenge; his smile gives that away when asked if he has been “responsible” with his diet.
“Don’t make me feel guilty,” he said.
But sticking to a healthy diet has become much easier for Hill since One Dish Cuisine moved into his neighborhood.
When he first heard that a gluten and allergy-free restaurant was setting up shop just a few blocks away from him in Taylor Village on Hillsborough Road, he said, “I thought it was too good to be true.”
One Dish Cuisine opened on Sept. 1, and business, according to head chef/owner Maureen Burke, has been great. The restaurant is entirely gluten-free, and also caters to a host of other allergies including casein, soy, eggs and nuts.
Burke understands Hill’s frustrations when it comes to eating. The Crofton resident was diagnosed with celiac disease in the 1980s, long before there were “gluten-free” sections in the grocery store. She speaks quickly and with a matter-of-fact tone about the health issues she suffered for years, both mental and physical, before her food allergies were diagnosed.
"I had abdominal pains, brain fog, I was walking into walls," she said, and she even had fertility problems as a result of food allergies.
According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 2 million people in the United States have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition in which gluten causes the body to attack villi, the fibrous hairs that line the stomach and which are responsible for absorption of nutrients.
So for most people with celiac disease, so many things are off limits: beer, cookies, most salad dressings, pizza, pasta ... So are most breads, including rye, a gluten-heavy grain.
But at One Dish Cuisine, one of the most popular dishes is a Reuben sandwich. On “rye” bread.
“It took me 20 years to develop that bread,” Burke said, and 22 to develop the pizza crust.
Burke’s entry into the world of allergy-sensitive cooking began with her nephew, who was diagnosed with a severe form of autism. His mother had heard that a gluten-free diet might be good for him. So she asked Burke, the family cook, to help create meals for him.
She began cooking for her nephew and then tried to team up with the major food providers in an effort to get her food to a wider audience. “The big companies didn’t want anything to do with me,” she said, “They liked their food just fine. But who knows what’s in the food you get at a hospital?”
So Burke, who had worked in sales before, began knocking on doors.
They are also available at the restaurant.
She doesn’t stop there. Burke trains the people who will be preparing foods for allergy sensitive eaters, color-coded cutting boards and even color -coded plates, all to eliminate the possibility of contamination.
Because of her allergies – which are not limited to gluten, “there are about 600 ingredients I have to avoid,” she said – Burke had become an expert at cooking with safe ingredients. “We could all feed ourselves at home,” Burke said, “But the problem is when we go out.”
When people with allergies go out, Burke said, they have to throw a ton of questions at a server who may not really know the answers. “Sure, French fries are gluten free,” she said, “but what if they were in the fryer with something covered in flour?” And there are so many allergens that aren’t familiar to many people.
“The world knows gluten now, but not casein,” a protein found in milk products that may be in some products labeled “dairy free.”
Burke has created a color-coded allergy legend that she hopes will catch on – green for gluten free; yellow for corn-free; brown for nut-free; blue for gluten- casein- soy-free and so on. One Dish’s colorful menu is not an aesthetic move, it is a way for people to, with a glance, be able to tell what they can and cannot order from the menu.
The kitchen at One Dish is as color-coded as the menus; to avoid cross-contamination utensils cutting boards, measuring cups are all brightly colored. And the Celiac Sprue Association certifies her foods as gluten-free.
Burke seems to have an especially keen sense of how kids are affected by food allergies. “I can remember, as a kid, being teased for ripping the bread and cheese off of my sandwiches,” she said, “and just eating the meat.”
The store is filled with inspirational quotes and pictures of people who she finds inspiring. T-shirts for sale read, “Warning. Don’t feed me, I have allergies.” A bookshelf is filled with literature about allergies, including many books for kids. A wall of the restaurant is covered in drawings that kids made for her.
“It’s so rewarding to see a kid with an allergy come in and leave with a big smile,” she said, “And not have to EpiPen himself after eating.”
Adults, too, can get excited about eating again, when they find One Dish. When asked if he’s been enjoying the new gluten-free options in his neighborhood, Hill’s posture changed and the white-haired, erect man looked more like a child who had just gotten away with something.
“I can eat pizza.”
This, Burke said, is why she started One Dish Cuisine and why the restaurant’s motto is “Welcome Back to the Table.”
“We spent so long not being able to eat with everyone else,” she said. “Welcome back.
Follow One Dish Cuisine on Facebook to learn about specials and what's fresh at the bakery.