Pastry Chef Marisa Lown on Eating Well: "It's Not a One Size Fits All for Everyone"

Pastry Chef Marisa Lown on Eating Well: "It's Not a One Size Fits All for Everyone"
Evie Carpenter

Marisa Lown Pastry chef The Radical Cupcake

These days you won't find pastry chef Marisa Lown in a restaurant kitchen, but that doesn't mean she's left the Valley pastry scene. Lown is still active both in her kitchen and on social media as The Radical Cupcake, which was once the name of her custom bakeshop that specialized in allergy-friendly and organic baked goods. She stopped that side of the business, but is now offering allergy-friendly consulting services to restaurants and chefs.

According to Lown, it's a growing priority for chefs and restaurateurs.

"From a restaurant perspective, food allergies are the bane of their existence," she says.

See also: What's a Restaurant's Responsibility Regarding Gluten-Free Items?

Up until early this year you could have tasted Lown's dessert creations at Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden where she wooed many with homey but creative dishes such as Strawberry Tart with Mascarpone Gelato and Milk and Cookies with Darjeeling and grapefruit juice shortbread and whole wheat chocolate chip cookies.

But even for a pastry chef who's familiar with handling food allergies, Lown says it was difficult to meet people's needs in a restaurant setting. The challenges ranged from having a menu that wasn't written to be easily adjusted to accommodate food allergies, to the fact that the kitchen wasn't set up to make adjustments even where they could be made.

Throw in the fact that some people coming in had serious, possibility fatal, food allergies while others just prefer to cut out certain food and you get some really "muddy waters," she says.

But that doesn't mean it's a hopeless fight for chefs or those with food allergies, sensitivities, and diet restrictions - Lown included. The chef is allergic to dairy and keeps to a whole foods diet.


Lown makes healthy banana bead.
Lown makes healthy banana bead.
Evie Carpenter

She learned to bake at a young age from her two grandmothers, who she describes as typical mid-century housewives from Texas. Baking was "always a passion," but that didn't stop her from going to school to get an undergraduate degrees in Anthropology and Environmental Sciences, plus a paralegal certificate (she thought she wanted to go law school at one point). Now she'll be returning to school to get a graduate degree in Nutrition with the ultimate goal of earning at Ph.D in Food Science.

The goal is to put all that knowledge to good use, helping make eating easier for people with diet restrictions.

"To me, it all makes total sense," Lown says of her varied educational achievements. "Eventually I'd like to come up with recipes for food products for people with allergies."

Considering how things were just a few years ago - "everything tasted pretty much like cardboard," she recalls - Lown says the allergy-friendly dining options have come a long way. The diversity of products available today is a good indicator of progress, as well as the increased general awareness about food allergies.

More people are taking an interest in whole foods and the effects their diet may have on their health, Lown says, which is a good thing.

"For me, I know that I eat certain foods and I don't feel good," she says. "That's all the science I need. It's not a one size fits all for everyone."


Lown pulls the banana bread out of the oven.
Lown pulls the banana bread out of the oven.
Evie Carpenter

Has the rise in awareness about food allergies been a good thing? Yes, of course. It is estimated that over 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies, and many go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. However, as awareness increases, more questions also arise. New information regarding food allergies seems to surface almost daily, from improved detection methods to possible treatments. Results from studies, particularly long-term studies, are published that sometimes contradict information that has already been generally accepted within the allergy community. How is the public supposed to best synthesize such an entirety of information while obtaining correct analyses to assist them with making informed decisions that sufficiently suit their particular needs and lifestyle? The clarity and availability of quality information regarding food allergies is a particular focus of my studies, and I hope to be able to better assist those newly diagnosed transition into a quality allergy-friendly lifestyle. Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) has a wonderful website; I recommend anyone seeking more information to check out their website at Modern Western medicine tends to be more focused on illness rather than wellness, and a nutritionally balanced dietary regimen can be one of the best holistic preventative medicines available.

What is the downside, if there is one? Misinformation, misunderstanding, and lack of compassion. Increased awareness can also lead to more divided camps of opinion and schools of thought, particularly from those that aren't aware of the severity of some food allergies. Not all food allergies result in an anaphylaxis reaction but when they do, it can be life threatening. I've suffered first hand from the laissez-faire attitude of some restaurant staff who aren't prepared to serve a customer with food allergies. Having worked in restaurants, I'm realistic about what establishments I visit and accept the risk of dining out. I recently had a reaction after dining out that was in no way life threatening but still unpleasant. Needless to say, I won't return to dine there again. Lack of compassion and understanding is also plaguing the allergy community; I've recently read articles and commentaries about whether or not non-celiac gluten sensitivities actually exist. Many of the naysayer's comments are reminiscent of schoolyard bullying. Food allergies aren't a laughing matter, or fodder for poking fun at someone who suffers from them.

What changes would you like to see come out of the attention? More restaurants welcoming diners with allergies, and the ability to safely accommodate them. There are some wonderful startups that are currently working to assist and address this issue. I've been assisting a local startup, Qapproved, to help create a comprehensive food allergy training program for food handlers and restaurants in order to create a safe network of establishments for diners in addition to creating allergy-friendly menu items. There is a significant portion of potential revenue from customers with food allergies that currently don't frequent restaurants due to the fear of having an unpleasant reaction to the food they have paid someone else to prepare for them. There is an untapped revenue stream for any dining establishment who is willing and able to make the shift toward more allergy-friendly menu items and safe practices.


One thing you want people to understand about allergy-friendly cooking and baking: It's not rocket science. There is some science involved but I believe there is a pretty easy formula to follow: use high quality ingredients sourced from trusted purveyors, start with the basics, and keep it simple. Allergy-friendly cuisine shouldn't be daunting but a fun culinary adventure with an improved quality of life as the destination.

Why did you decide to go grain-free? After being diagnosed with a wheat allergy last year, I initially went gluten free for 6 months and then completely grain free several months ago. Despite eliminating gluten, I continued to experience symptoms that my physician indicated could be a result of consuming grains that can simulate digestive issues similar to those from gluten. I've experienced great results from going grain free, despite the challenges of completely eliminating grains from my diet. Nutritional regimes are extremely personal and I recommend anyone who is considering making considerable dietary changes should consult with a nutrition or medical professional for appropriate guidance.

The most common mistake people make when baking is: Being fearful of a seemingly difficult recipe or of baking all together. Don't be afraid to make mistakes! Mistakes can teach you what not to repeat again, so keep a notebook and write down the results from your culinary experiments. That is how I learned to create some of the best allergy-friendly recipes in my arsenal. Since the ingredients for allergy-friendly recipes tend to be more costly, I recommend making a half or quarter batch of a new recipe to start. That way if the results aren't as delicious as you would like them to be, you haven't wasted your month's baking budget on one experiment.


Lown uses a Kitchen Aid stand mixer
Lown uses a Kitchen Aid stand mixer
Evie Carpenter

My best advice for home bakers is: Know the rules so you know how and when to break them! I often hear people say they don't like to bake because it is too scientific, too difficult, or not creative enough. When you know the basic rules of baking, for instance the difference between baking powder and baking soda, you can start to use different ingredients interchangeably and better predict the outcome while intentionally changing flavor profiles or texture.

The one baking tool every serious baker needs: Aside from the essential stand mixer, it's a tie between an offset spatula and microplane. A small offset spatula can be used for anything from spreading out batter so it bakes evenly to expertly frosting a birthday cake. A microplane (or zester) is the best tool for infusing flavors from citrus zest, fresh whole nutmeg, and finely grated ginger root or garlic.

The most overrated baked good is: Anything on a stick. The only dessert I can think of that needs to be on a stick is a paleta.

I think the next big baking trend will be: Healthy and allergy-friendly, of course. Coyness aside, I have seen more allergy-friendly (particularly gluten-free) baked goods on the market in the last few years and even dedicated establishments like Jewel's Bakery. I believe there is also a trend of consumers moving toward less sugar intake (both added sugars and natural fructose from fruit), so perhaps that will translate into a push for more savory baked goods. I'd love to see someone tackle a savory donut!

How did you get started in allergy-friendly baking? I became lactose intolerant in my twenties and started experimenting with dairy free baking ingredients about 10 years ago. When a friend asked if I would make a gluten and dairy free wedding cake, I gladly accepted the challenge. The cake received so many positive accolades and referrals, I started a custom allergy-friendly baking service called "The Radical Cupcake" in 2007 in Seattle. There weren't very many readily available allergy-friendly baked goods at the time; several of the larger bakeries were experimenting and had limited options on the shelves. I was able to enter a niche market and provide a service to people with allergies or specific diets by creating baked goods that satisfied their sweet tooths while using high quality, local, and organic ingredients.


Lown makes gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.
Lown makes gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.
Evie Carpenter

What's the biggest challenge when trying to bake "healthy" desserts? Although "healthy dessert" can seem like an oxymoron, it is possible. My biggest challenge to date has been finding a "healthier" sugar replacement. I prefer honey or maple syrup but neither works well in cookies or any recipe where you don't want added liquid. Generally, I make my own maple sugar or use finely chopped dates to sweeten my desserts. When a liquid sweetener will suffice, I enjoy using a local raw honey (such as from the Farm at Agritopia). Both maple syrup/sugar and honey are much sweeter than granulated sugar so you can use less and still satisfy that sweet tooth. Of course, keeping fat/protein/carb ratios and total calories in mind is also essential to achieving a "healthy" dessert. I prefer to indulge in a smaller portion of a high quality dessert than over consume something mediocre. It ultimately comes down to how you decide to allot your daily calorie consumption and what your personal goals are.

The best trick for gluten-free baking is: Mix at least three types of gluten free flours to replace an all purpose flour. You need at least one flour for flavor, one for body, and one for texture. I prefer a mix of almond flour, tapioca starch/flour or arrowroot starch/flour, coconut flour, and rice flour (omit the rice flour for grain-free). For those with nut allergies, I recommend a combination of rice flours (brown and white) with at least one starch and corn flour (not corn meal) for texture. There are also several good commercially available gluten free flour mixes but I recommend staying away from any mix containing bean flour when attempting a dessert recipe. Unless you are using a mix, add one teaspoon of baking powder per cup of gluten free flour to the recipe; the baking powder assists with leavening in gluten free recipes that occurs naturally with gluten flours.

The best trick for paleo baking is: Since all grains are off limits with the "Paleo" diet, finding a good replacement for flours can be tricky since you need multiple types of flours to achieve balance. Using only nut flours will result in baked goods that are too oily. I've recently discovered chestnut flour, which is naturally low in fat while also containing starch that allows for using less additional starch added to your grain-free flour mix. If you can't locate chestnut flour (I had to buy mine online), use a one to one ratio of nut flour to starch, while keeping in mind the gluten free baking tip above.

The best trick for vegan baking is: To replace butter, it's helpful to know when to use oil versus non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening. Oils (avocado, coconut, olive) work well in quick breads and cakes but stick to shortening when making pie crusts and cookies. Same with an egg replacer - flax meal mixed with warm water performs best in cookies and quick breads but stick to a starch-based egg replacer (like EnerG) in cakes and more delicately flavored pastries. The heartiness of cookies and quick breads can mask the nuttiness in the flax seed; that flavor is harder to disguise in a cake with a delicate crumb.


Lown scoops pieces of dough for chocolate chip cookies
Lown scoops pieces of dough for chocolate chip cookies
Evie Carpenter

Your favorite local ingredient to bake with and where to get it: Mesquite flour. It's naturally gluten free, flavorful, and adds a unique twist to pie crusts, cookies, and graham crackers. A little goes a long way so I suggest replacing just one to two tablespoons of flour in a recipe with mesquite flour. I've sourced mesquite flour at the Oldtown Scottsdale Farmers Market as well as the gift shop at the Desert Botanical Garden.

Three ingredients everyone should keep in their pantry/fridge: Canned coconut cream (which can be turned into an easy dairy free ganache or mousse, or infused with vanilla and a little maple syrup and whipped into fluffy pillows as a whipped cream replacement); high quality dark chocolate (to be used in said ganache or mousse as well as chopped into chunks for chocolate chip cookies or melted with equal parts coconut oil and poured over ice cream to create a chocolate "shell" topping); and, high quality finishing salts (such as smoked sel gris from Go Ib. Salt; place a small pinch atop any chocolate dessert for a unique flavor, or with caramel sauce over ice cream). At minimum, I recommend switching out your iodized table salt for kosher salt; kosher salt provides texture and eliminates possible residues from the iodized option.

Your favorite local spot for a healthy lunch: Luci's Healthy Marketplace. I can eat there without any flack for ordering a la Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally", and the ingredients are fresh, organic, and healthy. Added bonus? Picking up a few allergy-friendly ingredients for my pantry from their well-stocked larder.

Your favorite local spot for dessert: I love Green's vegan & gluten free "tSoynamis" (they remind me of a version of my favorite childhood treat - a Dairy Queen Blizzard); try the Clunky Monkey. When I'm in the mood to go "all out", I opt for one of Katherine Dwight's delicious updated yet classic creations at the Phoenix Public Market Café. The Café is also exceptional at designating allergens on their menu and mindfully attending to patrons with food allergies or restrictions.

One local chef you admire and why: Charleen Badman of FnB. The flavor profiles of her savory creations are unique and you can't beat the quality of the ingredients, especially since she cultivates their own restaurant garden. Her commitment to sourcing from local purveyors is a lead I believe all chefs should follow.

Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Brian Konefal -- Coppa Cafe Kelly Fletcher -- The Revival Bob Tam -- Bitter and Twisted BJ Hernandez -- Havana Patio Cafe Matt Taylor -- Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden Jennifer Russo-Fitzgerald -- The Market by Jennifer's Jared Lupin -- Umami Michael O'Dowd -- Urban Vine Dennis Delamater -- The Post Doc Brown -- Doc Brown's Artisan Ice Cream Josh Bracher -- Second Story Liquor Bar Chris McKinley -- The Local Chris Mayo -- Central Bistro James Fox -- Bootleggers Jay and Christine Wisniewski -- Caffe Boa Joe Absolor - Clever Koi Jason Grossmiller - Arizona Distilling Company Chris Collins - Grassroots Kitchen and Tap Perry Rea - Queen Creek Olive Mill Adam Brown - Noca Steve Kraus - Press Coffee Roastery Jason Raducha and Claudio Urciuoli - Noble Bread Sasha Raj - 24 Carrots Nick LaRosa - Nook Joey Maggiore - Cuttlefish Country Velador - Super Chunk Sweets and Treats James Porter - Petite Maison Cullen Campbell - Crudo Mel Mecinas - Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North Meagan Micozzi - Scarletta Bakes Tyson Holzheimer and Joe Strelnik - Snooze, an A.M. Eatery Paul McCabe - T. Cook's at the Royal Palms Eugenia Theodosopoulos - Essence Bakery Cafe Eddie Hantas - Hummus Xpress Jay Bogsinke - St. Francis Dustin Christofolo - Quiessence Blaise and DJ Aki - The Sushi Room Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay

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