Humming to herself behind a mound of chocolate chip cookies, Louise Dutton flattens the gluten-free batter for her miniature Key Lime pie crusts. Cocking her head towards the door as it opens, the baker/chef smiles and pokes her reading glasses higher up her nose. Her hands are gloved in dried dough.
"Are you hungry?" Dutton asks enthusiastically. "Because I'll feed you."
Affectionately nicknamed Weezie by her mother, Dutton opened the doors to Weezie's Kitchen in August and is eager to nourish people at her gluten-free bakery.
Giving up the wheat protein four years ago after being diagnosed with a gluten allergy, she understands the responsibility of declaring her cooking gluten-free. Lives depend on it, hers included.
Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. For those like Dutton or who suffer from celiac disease, even the slightest amount of gluten can provoke life-threatening reactions. There is currently no cure and dietary aversion is the only known treatment.
From cheerios to cheesecake, gluten is found on almost every pantry shelf, which deems any dining experience a potential hazard for those with gluten allergies. Highly sensitive to gluten (she's had reactions to traces so minute they aren't recognized by the FDA), Dutton has to closely read all nutritional fine print. She's often surprised by the foods she finds that do contain gluten.
"I come across foods all the time [that contain gluten]," Dutton points out. "Recently I stumbled upon dried beans that said on the package 'may contain wheat.' I'm assuming it's just the equipment or [the brand] is trying to cover themselves. But hair care products, lipsticks, face creams, and toothpaste [can] even contain gluten -- you really do have to read every single label."
New to the gluten-free scene, Dutton only noticed her reaction to gluten four years ago when she got ill each time she came in contact with the protein. After losing an unhealthy amount of weight, Dutton went on an elimination diet to try to find the culprit. It was gluten.
"I cut the wheat out of my diet and I suddenly felt better. The doctors wanted me to go back on the wheat so they could get a diagnosis, but I refused. I'm never ever going back on it," Dutton says adamantly.
A food aficionado since financing her way through college by working at a French bakery, Dutton never considered baking as a career, just a way to pay tuition bills. Learning the art of baking bread and croissants between computer science classes, she went to work in the luxury yacht market after graduating.
Accepting her gluten-free fate optimistically, Dutton struggled to find tasty baked-good alternatives. She missed the chewy texture of pizza and the refreshing taste of beer most. Recalling her stint in the French bakery, Dutton began experimenting with recipes to make bread without the gluten, and have it actually taste good.
And then one day she did it.
Keeping her recipe top secret to ensure a successful business, she manipulated her original bread recipe to create pizza crust, cookies, cake and everything currently in her shop. But the hard part wasn't over yet.
Starting off slow baking from home under the cottage law loophole, Dutton would provide gluten-free goods for a few restaurants in the area. From pizza crust to chocolate cake, her gluten-free treats were well received by customers regardless of their tolerance to gluten.
"If it doesn't make me sick, and my husband -- who isn't gluten-free -- eats it and thinks it tastes good, then I know I'm doing it right," Dutton chimes with spirit. "[My husband] would tell me if it's crap or not. And if it is? Well, back to the drawing board because everything I make should taste as good, if not better, than its gluten-filled counterpart!"
By popular demand, Dutton was forced to either pull-up her sleeves and pursue gluten-free cooking full-time in an industrial kitchen, or keep cooking from home and plateau, her hands tied without the proper license. She chose the former, and bought the quaint shop on Oakland Park Boulevard. Once Dutton made her decision, she never questioned it: from taking out loans, to getting the necessary licensing, and even voluntarily taking cross-contamination classes in her spare time.
"I've always been a really hard worker," Dutton shouts across the eatery as she takes her piecrusts out of the oven. "I never sit down, but balls to the wall or nothing at all, right?"
Before it was Weezie's Kitchen, the spot used to house an alarming amount of gluten as an Argentinean empanada and pizza shop. To ensure her safety and that of her customers, she scrubbed the entire restaurant down as if the previous owners had the plague.
"I cleaned, cleaned, cleaned, everything," Dutton says rolling her eyes. "The walls, the floors, every single solitary inch and surface, just everything, was cleaned. And then I did it another three times and finally I had professionals come in to acid wash everything with pressure hoses to be sure."
Confident in the absence of gluten, Dutton's shop is a safe zone for the gluten-intolerant. She explains that she wants to start slow, which is why she isn't having a grand opening. Juggling restaurant and bakery wholesale orders while serving customers at the shop, it's a full time job that keeps Dutton working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. everyday so far.
"A lot of times I get new customers just diagnosed with celiac disease and I send them links," Dutton sighs. "I remember when that was me, I was so lost. You just have to educate yourself and read your labels."
Since she has opened shop Dutton admits despite her hectic hours she actually has more free time now than when she worked from home. She uses it to experiment with more recipes. Her recent project has been finding ways to make her treats vegan as well.
"The vegans give me a lot of trouble," Dutton says raising an eyebrow. "They're the first to call and ask 'Can you make it vegan?' And since I'm a person that has a hard time saying no to people, I try to accommodate. But with the vegans, it's nearly impossible. But I'll tell you what, they did make my bread better. I was beating myself up about taking out the eggs, I mean it already doesn't have wheat, but then I figured it out and all my breads -- excepting the banana [bread] -- are vegan."
Not your typical eatery, Weezie's offer lunch specials, soups, and pizza in addition to an array of baked goods, from rich chocolate cake to blueberry tarts and miniature pastries. Her breads and cheeses are not to be missed either. Come in hungry, and like Dutton said, she'll feed you.