By Vic Dolcourt
Iamori gluten-free ravioli, focaccia and biscotti have been stocked at retail stores in the San Francisco Bay Area for some time, and the ravioli and pizza crusts are a part of the menu in several Bay Area restaurants. Iamori means “I found the light” in Tahitian, and many locals would agree; Iamori ravioli and gluten-free pasta have been Camp Celiac favorites for the past five years. I first met Irene Kwock, South Bay chef and power behind Iamori, at busy gluten-free venues and food demos, but I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to her at length until August.
The “ahhaa” moment
I’m always interested in learning about the inspiration that drives an entrepreneur to serve the gluten-free community. Irene doesn’t want to dwell on her past restaurant experience as a chef, but I discovered that it was definitely four-star. She was in a time-off mode from restaurant service when her niece was diagnosed with celiac disease. “You know the gluten-free food seven years ago wasn’t very good. So, I agreed to bake for my niece. I’d always baked with wheat flour. Suddenly, I had to use very different ingredients. This was a big experiment. The most successful at the time was biscotti. It was actually quite delicious and very adaptable to different flavor combinations. So, I got an idea: If my niece needs gluten-free biscotti, then she couldn’t be the only one. It turns out that placing your goodies in retail stores is complicated. You need packaging and UPC bar codes,” Irene said. “And, of course, there is distribution.”
Irene got packaging help from a chef-friend who told her that the biscotti should be packed in windowed bags so that customers could see what they were buying. Draeger’s management was very helpful in telling Irene how to work with food markets. “Draeger’s was my first retail store. They are always looking for fresh, different and local,” said Irene. Presently, Iamori biscottis are available in four flavors: chocolate, almond, hazelnut and nut-free cranberry-raisin. The most popular flavor? “Almond, by far,” Irene said.
More than just desserts
Although making visually appealing and delicious cakes and pastries is one of Irene’s great skills–you can see that from her website–her knowledge goes deeper into baking. After successfully producing biscotti, she felt that a great pizza crust needed to be developed. After a year of product development, Iamori began to offer gluten-free pizza crusts to restaurants, and these are currently used by several Bay Area restaurants. The pizza crust served as a foundation for baked and ready-to-bake focaccia, which is available in supermarket freezers. But Irene didn’t stop with just pizza and focaccia. Gluten-free diners, she thought, have access to simple pastas, but filled pastas were definitely missing from the scene.
Pasta, pasta, pasta
So far gluten-free ravioli has been her most challenging food to produce. Fresh and fresh-frozen pasta really shows Irene’s skills as a chef, and it took two years to develop a pasta that she felt was good enough to sell. There has been a real pay-off here. In addition to retail and food service availability for her popular standards–cheese, spinach and cheese, and dairy-free kabocha and yam–Irene has an exclusive arrangement with Country Gourmet restaurant in Sunnyvale to develop raviolis with different fillings that rotate seasonally and in concert with the restaurant’s menu. “These are available only at Country Gourmet,” said Irene.
Kids love it
Ravioli has been one of the constants for the campers at Camp Celiac at Camp Arroyo in Livermore. This year Irene prepared 900 cheese raviolis (150 servings of 6 raviolis each), and the campers could have eaten even more, according to Elaine Taylor, president of The Taylor Family Foundation and founder of Camp Arroyo. Raviolis for Camp Celiac continue to be a labor of love because the raviolis are hand-made. “Cooking for Camp Celiac is one of my great pleasures,” said Irene. “I want the campers to share my enjoyment of eating delicious food and to be aware that gluten-free doesn’t mean tasteless or sticky.” Irene really means it – she is gluten-free by need as well.
Dedicated kitchen and a new pasta machine
All of Iamori’s foods are prepared in a dedicated gluten-free kitchen in Hollister and have been for the past 2-1/2 years. Previously, Irene rented shared space that she cleaned every time she prepared foods. In addition, she had to transport equipment and supplies in and out. “There was limited storage, and I just couldn’t grow Iamori,” said Irene. “Then a space in Hollister opened up. It is perfect for my gluten-free line and it has all of the right equipment. It’s a little far away, but commercial kitchens aren’t plentiful. It’s huge and beautifully equipped. I’m willing to rent out extra time to other gluten-free food producers.”
Irene’s line of raviolis has been particularly popular, and she sees pastas as a growth direction. To that end, she’s acquired a commercial pasta machine to increase the production of ravioli and to branch out to other pastas, both Italian and other cuisines. “Right now my pasta machine doesn’t speak gluten-free perfectly,” said Irene. “It has a mind of its own, and I’m trying to learn what that is. But I’m winning. I’ve had some successes.”
Riding the top food trends
Irene feels that the food trend for elaborate restaurant meals with separate courses and extended dinner times is not growing in the Bay Area. “That’s probably one reason that San Francisco’s Fleur de Lys closed in June. People don’t want to regularly dedicate the time and cost for that type of meal,” Irene said. She wants to be on the forefront of how Forbes describes the 2014 top food trends, which include: local sourcing, vegetarian options, healthy meals, gluten-free, better quality pizza, and top-scale comfort foods. She also thinks fast, affordable and convenient are important factors that busy Bay Area consumers think about in their food choices.
Although most of her time is dedicated to her retail and food service products, Irene is happy to prepare custom pastry orders, including custom cupcakes and tartlets. Iamori can also prepare many other types of custom gluten-free baked goods, such as wedding cakes.