Whether you go sans gluten because you have an allergy or intolerance, or you choose to cut it out because it makes you feel healthier, there’s one thing you’ve almost certainly noticed recently — the availability of gluten-free products, both in stores and in restaurants, has blown up. And that’s awesome! I remember walking around New York with a friend, probably a decade ago, and having trouble finding a place she could eat with her gluten restriction. Now? It’s a piece of (gluten-free) cake.
But, all those delightfully g-free products didn’t magically appear out of nowhere. Many of them came from small companies founded by people who were sick of missing out on their favorite gluten-y foods — people like Vanessa Phillips, CEO and founder of Feel Good Foods. She was diagnosed with Celiac disease before gluten-free foods became widely available, and she decided to work with her husband (who just happens to be an accomplished chef) to create a gluten-free dumpling. But it couldn’t just be an acceptable dumpling — Vanessa had grown up in her family’s Chinese restaurant, and her version had to be just as tasty.
Once they found the right recipe, she blindly sent a sample of dumplings (unpackaged and in an unmarked plastic baggie) to a Whole Foods Market buyer, and months later, her dumplings and her brand landed on Whole Foods’ shelves!
We had a chance to ask her a few questions about her journeys — both that of going gluten-free and launching a successful prepared meal company. (Speaking of which, we should probably mention that, what started as dumplings has grown into a full line of appetizers and entrees — from egg rolls to Asian-inspired meals like General Tso’s Chicken. And! Feel Good Foods is launching empanadas and taquitos by January. We are HERE for that.)
Vanessa Phillips: Feel Good Foods CEO
Vanessa Phillips: When we first launched the dumplings they were all handmade. We quickly grew and making them by hand was no longer a viable solution. We had to rework the dumplings so that they could be automated, and that took close to a year! We went through countless versions and had many sleepless nights until we got them to taste perfect!
FBE: How long did you suffer from Celiac symptoms before getting a diagnosis — and what was your diagnosis process like?
VP: I was diagnosed with Celiac in 2002 at the age of 20. I’m not sure the exact age when I started developing symptoms, but when I look back on my childhood I always felt something strange was happening in my body. The symptoms were vague and hard to pinpoint. I was often looked at as “kooky,” as my parents would refer to me. I would complain that the bottom of my feet itched, or that I was feeling foggy in my head, or my fingertips were tingling. Looking back now, I can see how it must have sounded strange. Once I got to high school my symptoms intensified and I would spend many days in bed, doubled over in pain. My parents took me to several doctors, but unfortunately it took several more years until I got the proper diagnosis.
FBE: Can you share what a typical day of eating during the work week looks like for you? We’d especially love to hear how you make eating healthfully on the go work with your schedule and dietary restrictions.
VP: I get asked this question a lot and I always laugh because I don’t think I eat any differently than the average health conscious, working woman in New York. There are mornings where I have oatmeal or granola with my son, or if it’s a crazy busy morning I will grab a gluten-free muffin or scone on my way into the office. For lunch I either have a salad or sandwich. I carry gluten-free bread with me everywhere — I keep it in my office, car, home (so having a sandwich on the-go is always an option).
Dinner is super easy — I eat all meat, fish, vegetables, rice, potatoes, and it helps that I love to cook! I will be the first to admit that when my blood sugar gets low I see a shift in my mood (and not for the better), so I always keep snacks on my desk. I usually have trail mix, apples and pirates booty easily accessible. It also helps that I live in a very food-centric city like New York where gluten-free has become so mainstream. Even if I am on the go, I can usually find a suitable gluten-free option.
FBE: Are there any foods you have just not been able to replicate in a tasty and g-free way?
VP: I don’t think there is anything I haven’t been able to enjoy in a gluten-free version. With that being said, there are many foods I can’t easily whip up. Given a good amount of time, I can figure out how to make any of my favorite foods delicious and gluten-free. But sometimes I wish I could just grab a traditional slice of pizza from the local spot on the corner without the fuss of combining five flours, taking out the pizza stone and dedicating an entire night.
FBE: Do you have any advice for someone who’s experimenting with creating g-free versions of their favorite family recipes?
VP: Don’t be discouraged if your first try is a disaster. Have fun with the cooking process because often times it will take two, three or even seven tries before you get it to your liking.
Ever had to modify a favorite recipe to accommodate a new dietary restriction? What was your experience like? —Kristen