Chef Aaron Flores may not be an everyday name in many gluten-free circles, but he should be. And it's surprising you don't hear more about him. Aaron's work has helped blaze many trails in the gluten-free world, and his energy and enthusiasm for helping people following gluten-free diets is unmatched -- especially given that he himself does not suffer from Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance.
Chef Aaron's crusade to help people on special diets began at least 10 years ago when he was approached by a little girl, while working as a sous chef at Disneyland's Grand Californian Hotel. She was on vacation with her grandmother and had run out of the "bag of food" she'd brought with her (we all know about that "bag of food," right?!). Her mom had told her that, if that happened, she should give her gluten-free restaurant card to a man with a big white hat...so that's how she ended up talking to Aaron.
At the time, he didn't know anything about gluten-free food preparation, but after reading the explanation of safe gluten-free practices on the card, he was able to prepare her a simple meal of grilled chicken, a baked potato, and vegetables. Boring, but safe. Later that night, his curiosity took hold, and he did an Internet search to learn whatever he could about the term "gluten free."
That began a journey for Aaron that continues to this day. In fact, he became an early advocate for people following special diets while at Disneyland and was instrumental in starting them down the track they're so well known for today (i.e. being the "gold standard" of accommodating special dietary needs). While there, the Disney corporation had decided that they wanted to become a "food destination," as Aaron refers to it, not just a theme park. So Aaron's push to make sure this included all guests -- even those with restrictive diets -- had corporate support.
After 12 years with Disney, Chef Aaron moved on to several interesting jobs in Chicago, including a stint as Executive Chef at the renowned Walnut Room in Marshall Field's flagship store, in the year leading up to the store's closing. While in Chicago, he also continued to work with the Celiac community through his former company Chef Aaron, Inc., helping hotel chefs cater to large groups of gluten-free guests.
Again, serendipity was at work here. In 2005, he arrived to speak at the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA) annual conference in Oklahoma, only to immediately learn that the event organizers desperately needed his help in the kitchen. The Executive Chef had left, and none of the other chefs had a good handle on how to prepare gluten-free fare for the hundreds of guests at this important annual conference. The day after the event concluded, he found himself with several new clients and continued to help both the CSA and the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) with their annual conferences at various hotels.
Chef Aaron is now with Hilton Hotels, the Executive Chef at their Embassy Suites Convention Center property in Washington, DC. Since arriving here in 2008, just before the Presidential Inauguration, he has done things no one has ever done at an Embassy Suites, and Hilton is beginning to see how the magic he works for guests on special diets is good for business. The hotel's restaurant, Finn and Porter (which also has three other locations), has a following among the gluten-free community -- and offers a Gluten Free Menu for both lunch and dinner. Depending on the staff he has working for him in the kitchen at any given time, he will offer what he has described as a Level 1 through Level 6 Gluten Free Menu. Level 1's basic preparations of GF fare keep things easy for the kitchen staff if they are just getting up to speed on GF food preparation. If he's working with more seasoned staff members who have been with him for a while, he'll offer a Gluten Free Menu incorporating more sophisticated techniques.
Chef Aaron wants all guests at Finn and Porter (named for "fish" and "steak") who are following special diets to feel welcome and to have virtually the exact same experience others have. He doesn't "settle" for the easiest solution, but rather blind taste-tests many products and recipes until he finds the best-tasting option. For example, to find the best hamburger bun, he blind tested numerous gluten-free buns on the market. He now keeps several different ones on hand, both because different ones complement different types of burgers or sandwiches -- and also because some brands are also casein-free or rice-free for guests that have other restrictions beyond just gluten.
Because opportunities to help the gluten-free community are always presenting themselves to Chef Aaron, in November 2010, he and business partner/protege Aleatra Jones launched I Eat What I Want! Hospitality. (Aleatra also owns I Heart Cupcakes, a wholesale bake shop located on K Street in Washington, DC and available for special orders.)
I Eat What I Want! Hospitality works with gluten-free companies to improve the taste and quality of their products or to help them get their products to market. Chef Aaron and Aleatra are also planning to open the Washington, DC area's first completely gluten-free restaurant -- in Penn Quarter -- in 2013. In addition to the full-scale restaurant, they will offer the cupcakes and baked goods out of the new location. Their approach to gluten-free food will be fairly sophisticated (Chef Aaron says the restaurant will offer what he calls a Level 7 Gluten-Free Menu, including a "Tasting Menu" option and special Chef Table), but he also wants the restaurant to be approachable and "family friendly."
For guests with other dietary restrictions beyond gluten, he will easily be able to accommodate their requests by nature of designing the kitchen with separate areas to avoid cross-contamination. (The restaurant will be completely tree nut free as well.) Chef Aaron is excited to create a new standard in gluten-free dining, as this restaurant will be the culmination of 18 years of experience for him. He feels that the "opportunity is ripe" for a restaurant of this nature at this particular time. They will channel their passion and focus -- and strive to live up to their company motto: "Be amazing every day."
In spite of all his success, Chef Aaron's humility is evident as he continually talks about making people happy. Having been trained in the "Disney way" as he calls it, you can see the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree. Disney should be proud to call Chef Aaron Flores one of its "alums"...and the gluten-free community should be proud to now call Chef Aaron one of its own.
If you've been fortunate enough to know Aaron or dine at one of his restaurants, please share your thoughts by clicking "Comments" below...