Talking with Toronto’s Gluten-Free Warriors

Talking with Toronto’s Gluten-Free Warriors

Originally published in Village Living Magazine

By Lisa Day

It’s a small community, yet three Toronto women are doing their part to make it mighty.

Rachael Hunt, Paula Cooper and Ronnilyn Pustil are key figures in Toronto’s gluten-free community.

Hunt, the founder of Gluten Freedom Inc., a dining and living guide; Cooper, the founder of Dine Aware, a program that teaches restaurant employees how to communicate with those who have food allergies; and Pustil, the founder of Gluten Free Garage, the only foodie show in Toronto safe for those with Celiac disease, are raising awareness about gluten sensitivities.

May is Celiac Awareness Month. Throughout May, people are encouraged to learn more about this autoimmune disease, so it’s the perfect time to hear from each of these gluten-free warriors.

Rachael Hunt, Gluten Freedom Inc.,

When Rachael Hunt was in her mid-20s, she knew something was wrong. Working at a high-stress job, she was experiencing vertigo, anxiety, joint pain and headaches so severe it felt like her “head was in a vice.”

These symptoms lasted for about six months. After visiting specialists, Hunt saw a naturopath, who suggested going gluten free. Within a couple of days, Hunt was feeling better. She gave up gluten, quit her job and, in the summer of 2013, started Gluten Freedom.

While restaurant reviews have always been the focus, Hunt recently launched a gluten-free directory, which labels restaurants as gluten aware, gluten-free friendly or Celiac friendly. This resource also offers information about a restaurant’s cross-contamination practices.

“I am trying to break down the barriers to make the overall dining experience less stressful, more enjoyable,” Hunt explains.

With the success of Gluten Freedom in Toronto, Hunt reveals that she plans to take her platform to other major Canadian cities.

In the meantime, she says she will plug away to ensure gluten-free eating is cool.

“Gluten-free can be hip. You can still eat at trendy, cool places. You can still maintain your quality of life, still have high expectations when it comes to food.”

And it’s certainly a good time to be gluten free, admits Hunt. She goes on to acknowledge that she has seen “way, way more options, way more acceptance and knowledge” at restaurants.

And as far as being a gluten-free warrior?

“I think it gives us power, makes us [Hunt, Cooper and Pustil] seem like we are making a difference, which I hope we are. I think it’s a small, but mighty community.”

Paula Cooper, Dine Aware,

In 2012, Paula Cooper, who has Celiac disease, spent a month in Miami’s Little Cuba where she spent the entire time being sick because she was constantly ingesting gluten.

She was being “gluttened” because she couldn’t communicate with restaurant staff — she didn’t speak their language nor did they understand the questions she was asking about their gluten-free practices.

“I thought, well, there’s got to be something out there that I am not finding, a resource I can use as a customer to find those people who can speak that language [about food allergies]. When I looked around, it didn’t exist.”

So Cooper created Dine Aware, a program she says she hopes will become the industry standard for restaurant staff to communicate with those who have food allergies.

By taking the Dine Aware certification program, staff can answer questions from people with food allergies, enabling guests to make informed choices.

“Not everyone [restaurant] can accommodate, I get that … but they can communicate with you because what I need, what food allergy guests need, is … information.”

And when everyone speaks the same language, everything changes.

“What I really like most about Dine Aware and teaching people this language is that social impact side effect. What that means is when you teach people to be more tolerant, they don’t just leave that at the door at the end of the day, they take that information back to the community.”

The desire to give a voice to those with food allergies is what makes Cooper a gluten-free warrior.

“I really would like to see industry-wide awareness where again people are able to communicate with food allergy guests in a way I envision it with the company.”

Ronnilyn Pustil, Gluten Free Garage,

Now in its sixth year, Gluten Free Garage is a foodie show for those who are gluten-free.

Pustil isn’t gluten-free by necessity, but her daughter Lily has Celiac disease and as such, the entire household eats a gluten-free diet.

“We wanted our house to be totally safe for [Lily]. Sometimes we had babysitters or caregivers, and we didn’t want there ever to be confusion and her to get sick. Also, we wanted our house to be a place of yes.”

Another place of yes is the Gluten Free Garage, which takes place May 28 at Wychwood Barns.

“It’s really a show that is totally safe for people with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance. (Lily) has to be able to eat everything at the show … that’s my requirement.”

The show features 60 vendors offering everything from baked goods to international foods.

Each vendor is curated for safety and taste. Pustil talks with every prospective vendor and visits their kitchens.

“[Daughters Lily and Franny] are my little taste testers. And I value Franny’s opinion just as much as I value Lily’s because she has eaten a gluten bagel, she’s had a cupcake. So when she gives the thumbs up … I know it’s good.”

The Gluten Free Garage also features fermented foods, beer, cider and vodka sampling, free samples and guest speakers including, for the first time, Lily, whose presentation will be followed by a cupcake decorating session.

Pustil has created a show that brings the gluten-free community together and allows people the opportunity to “discover new tasty foods that they never had before and that they kind of widened their repertoire of gluten-free eats.” This may make Pustil a gluten-free warrior, but she says that title belongs to Lily.

“I will be honest with you, it’s my daughter who is the real gluten-free warrior because she is living it every day.”