Gluten-free flour power: Pasta Flyer’s Mark Ladner '90 + Lena Kwak '07 of Cup4Cup
VIDEO: JWU alumni Lena Kwak (Cup4Cup) and Mark Ladner (Del Posto/Pasta Flyer) chat about elevating gluten-free products, the power of mentorship + why culinary learning never ends.
JWUx2 is an ongoing video series where we bring two JWU alumni together to talk about industry trends, careers and advice.
Lena Kwak '07 and Mark Ladner '90 have spun fine-dining experience into successful entrepreneurial ventures: Lena with Cup4Cup, a line of gluten-free flours and mixes, and Mark with Pasta Flyer, a fast-casual gluten-free pasta concept sparked by his experiments as executive chef at Del Posto in New York City.
We brought them together to talk about the joys + challenges of working with gluten-free products, as well as their advice to students looking to integrate food science, nutrition and entrepreneurship into their careers.
Lena: I was reformulating certain items on the French Laundry menu for diabetics, for vegans and for celiac. And there was such a strong reaction to what we were serving — cornets, gougeres and pastas — that I sat down with Chef Thomas Keller and proposed to him that this was something we should share. The timing was right — the gluten-free market was expanding.
Mark: At [Del Posto], we were [also] responding to the market. In fine dining it’s really about hospitality and creating an experience for people who have a dietary restriction without their feeling left out of the conversation.
Lena: By having chefs involved [in developing gluten-free products], it’s really caused people to start asking for better texture, taste, flavor and performance.
Food is very emotional. And when we’re able to provide an experience — maybe something someone hasn’t had in years — the look on their face when they try a piece of bread or pasta, is really an incredible feeling.
It’s the idea of inclusiveness. And eating is such a social activity.” - LENA KWAK
Gluten brings elasticity, mouthfeel and all kinds of important qualities to dishes. How did you compensate for that?
Lena: I came out of this with a deeper appreciation of wheat flour. I approached [the original Cup4Cup] by thinking about the single ingredients I could combine to equal all the attributes of wheat flour — it adds flavor. It browns in the recipe. It’s a filler. It binds.
Mark: Lena has created a blend that really does behave in ways similar to gluten structure — the cup-for-cup ideology that you can substitute it for AP flour.
Pasta with pesto, pickled red onion and chickpeas at Mark Ladner’s JWU Pasta Flyer pop up. | Photo: Samantha Riley (JWU Sans Gluten Club)
I recently created a gluten-free pasta that’s instant — you can rehydrate it in a sort of tea method where you just pour boiling water over it and let it steep. It behaves like ramen or Cup o’ Noodles, but I think it performs better gluten-free than [similar] experiments we’ve tried with gluten pastas.
That sounds like an unexpected reward of working gluten-free!
Mark: We’ve also found that gluten-free pastas perform better in the microwave than gluten pasta, which gets really rubbery.
Lena: There are some instances where gluten-free flours outperform, like in frying, because of the similar ingredients it has to tempura — it’s a lighter texture that will stay crispier, longer. What causes fried foods to sog up is the gluten, actually! Some cakes will also be more tender.
What has starting your own companies taught you about leadership, communicating your vision, and working as a team?
Lena: It’s very different! Working in a kitchen is a lot more structured, like the military. Stepping outside [of it], you realize that there’s a lot of gray in the world. I would say that, for me, entrepreneurship is about learning. You just have to take punches, pick yourself up, brush it off, and learn from your mistakes — and have the courage to move on.
Being an entrepreneur takes so many left and right brain skills that it’s hard for one person to contain them all.” -MARK LADNER
Both of you have partnered with notoriously exacting chefs. How has that forged your own standards?
Mark: I’ve been cooking for Mario [Batali] for 20 years now, so I’ve seen the trajectory of his growth and been able to enjoy the fruits of those labors. But when you see a company start to grow … you see that it takes money to make money.
In a pop climate, you need to have a recognizable personality behind your brand, in order to be able to get better opportunities that will actually seek you out.
Lena visiting JWU’s Denver Campus as a Distinguished Visiting Chef.
Lena: Knowing that someone like [Chef Keller] could believe in me, my skill set — it makes you realize how far you can push yourself.
Mark: It’s only fairly recently that people with our level of experience have been creating in this space. The standards that are ingrained in us from our mentors require us to perform at a really high level.
Did either of you have mentors at JWU?
Lena: There were a lot of mentors at JWU! It’s really important for students to realize the resources they have around them, and to reach out.
Mark: Also, learning never ends. You have to always want to behave and think like a student — it’s not just in the classroom.
Opportunity doesn’t just knock on your door. At JWU there are lots of people with a heavy amount of experience — it’s important for you to tap into that network.” -LENA
Lena: Mark brings up a good point. The moment when you think, “I’m pretty smart. I’ve got this” — that’s when you going to limit yourself forever. There’s always going to be someone who knows more, so be open to it — and be gracious about it.
Our Providence campus has an entrepreneurship center where culinary students can develop their business ideas. What advice do you have for them?
Lena: Your immediate network of professors is easiest to access. Listening to their experience — or even trying to gain a contact through them — is [crucial].
Mark: Realize that it’s not a race. It’s important not to short-change yourself in terms of trying to [learn your craft] before going out and doing your own thing. Give value to the exercise of gaining experience, and of working with other masters of the craft.
Lena: Mark, I want to know how your Pasta Flyer college tour went! [Mark brought his Pasta Flyer pop-up to a number of New England college towns this past fall, including a stop at JWU.]
Mark: It was a very productive vacation that I took! [both laugh] It was really inspiring to visit universities and speak to so many young people who are excited about the food they eat, and are also concerned about where it comes from, as well as how their bodies react to it.
Health is wealth, and materialism doesn’t seem to be something that young people are that concerned with right now. I found that to be really encouraging and really inspiring as well.” -MARK
The Sans Gluten Club here on campus wanted me to ask you what you see as the future of gluten-free — not just in products but restaurants, bakeries…?
Lena: There’s always a cycle. The movement now with gluten-free, which may have started with people making requests in restaurants, you’ll start to see in products. Eventually you’ll see more large restaurant groups provide gluten-free options. It’s about risk — if they see there’s a viable market, they see less risk to enter into it.
Mark: I’d love to see a more of a farm-to-table ideology taken — I think you’re going to see people starting to get more interested in milling. The results you [get] when consuming something that is freshly milled and cooked is astronomical. I’d love to see people taking rice or corn, grains and kernels, and milling them and perhaps even concocting their own blends at home.
Add to the conversation on Twitter: Follow @CupForCup, @ChefMarkLadner + @PastaFlyer.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited from the video transcript. Watch the video for the complete 49:00 conversation.