Why One North Shore Family Went Gluten-Free

Wilmette’s Carlyn Berghoff, CEO, president and “Chief Bottle Washer” of Berghoff Catering and Restaurant Group, is used to taking special requests.

Anticipating and fulfilling your clients’ needs is part and parcel of the hospitality industry.

But when her daughter, Sarah, now a junior at New Trier, first showed signs of illness in September 2009, Carlyn thought it was nerves brought on by the transition to middle school. Then Sarah started losing weight, complaining of stomachaches and nausea and dark circles appeared under her eyes.

At Christmas, Sarah came to her crying. “I thought I had cancer,” she says. “I thought I was dying.” So Carlyn sprang into high gear, insisting on an upper GI and then a scope, which proved conclusively that Sarah had celiac disease, a life-threatening allergy to gluten.

With that, Carlyn decided to make her entire household gluten-free. Concerned about cross contamination with three active, hungry kids, she totally transitioned the kitchen, replacing equipment and food products to make the house a safe haven for Sarah.

After a year of a strict gluten-free diet, Sarah’s health was much improved. But there were still challenges, most revolving around eating outside the house. “That’s the worst part for her: eating out,” Carlyn says.

Sarah chimes in: “You can’t share the fryer, or the pasta strainer, or certain kitchen tools. Those are the main three that people in restaurants aren’t educated about. You can’t just wash it and make it OK.”

The Berghoffs decided to be part of the solution. They’ve lectured for different groups, especially families of children living with celiac. “You have to teach your kids to stand up for themselves,” Carlyn says. “Fifty percent of celiac kids don’t make it through the first year of college, because there’s no safe place for them to eat. The trick becomes, how do you teach your kids to advocate for themselves? They have to learn how to shop, how to product source, how to navigate the kitchen … for the rest of their lives.”

Together, they developed gluten-free recipes for the foods that Sarah and other celiac kids missed most. They developed a substitute flour blend that can be used for the different breads, muffins and even pizza dough featured in their book, “Cooking for Your Gluten-Free Teen” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2013). Now, Sarah and other kids can happily enjoy doughnuts, coffee cake, brownies and mac & cheese with these safe recipes.

“Gluten-free stuff is so expensive! And a lot of what’s out there isn’t very good. That’s when we decided to do the cookbook,” Carlyn says. “We use the bread machine, and it’s so easy. It freezes beautifully, makes great stuffing, French toast, grilled cheese … ”

The gluten-free bread they made for me to sample—fresh from their trusty bread machine—smelled and tasted terrific. Unlike some gluten-free breads, it held up well to toasting and wasn’t grainy.

Munching happily on a slice of buttered toast, Sarah looked relaxed and healthy, but some anxiety remains. “It’s been so emotional,” she says. “People keep telling me I’m wrong. They don’t realize how serious it is. Celiac isn’t a choice.”

The Berghoff family has embraced this reinvention, and they are all the better for it. It was the right change, and the right choice, for them.

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