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Las Vegas pastry chefs work around their allergies to gluten

Tami Blinn is so allergic to wheat, all she has to do is reach into a flour bin with a scoop and presto: instant rash.

That may not be a problem for a large segment of the population, an inconvenience for others. For Blinn it’s a potential career-killer, because she’s a pastry chef, and co-owner of Craftkitchen in Henderson.

Blinn isn’t alone. Nicole Brisson, Las Vegas culinary director for the B&B Hospitality Group (B&B Ristorante at The Venetian, Otto Enoteca e Pizzeria at the Grand Canal Shoppes and Carnevino Italian Steakhouse at the Palazzo) has the autoimmune disorders Hashimoto’s disease and celiac disease, which limit the foods she can eat, including sugar, dairy, soy and gluten. For a chef, who’s constantly tasting food, that can present a monumental problem.

“Honestly, it was pretty devastating, because I started to realize how much (the disorders) intertwine with food,” she said.

More common diagnosis

Kathryn Spada, a clinical dietitian at University Medical Center, said such allergies and disorders are becoming more common — and that’s not counting the anti-gluten faddists. In fact, May has been designated Celiac Awareness Month.

“We’re seeing a lot more cases, especially diagnoses of celiac disease,” Spada said. “I believe it’s because we now have the criteria and the tools to accurately test for it.”

Changes in the food supply related to mass production also may be changing the way our bodies react to certain foods, but that’s not evidence-based, Spada said. She said studies continue on a link between various autoimmune diseases and gluten, but none has been published. Spada said she also has Hashimoto’s disease, and follows a gluten-free diet.

Spada said while Blinn’s and Brisson’s cases have the same career-ending potential, they have different causes.

“With wheat allergy, we see more of the normal allergy symptoms: anaphylaxis, swelling, shortness of breath, abdominal pain,” she said.

“Celiac is actually an autoimmune response. It’s not necessarily an allergy, but a disease that happens when the intestines have gluten in them. The gluten actually can burn into the lining of the intestines, and that causes immense pain.”

Blinn hasn’t always been allergic to wheat; her allergist suspects it was caused by her constant exposure to flour for 10 years. About five years ago, she started breaking out in hives; when her doctor medicated her, it became a full-body rash. Subsequent testing revealed an allergy to some food items, including gluten.

“For me, it was just a matter of eliminating it from my diet,” she said. “I immediately felt better. Just being gluten-free, I don’t have the reactions I did. If I inadvertently have wheat, my body tells me right away with the symptoms that I had.”

She’s learned to cope with the professional challenges.

“It is a struggle, but just from the years of being around pastries, for the most part I’m able to troubleshoot if something isn’t baked or doesn’t look like it has the right texture,” she said.

And she can rely on her husband and co-owner, Jaret Blinn.

“He has a sweet tooth,” she said. “It’s not too hard to ask him to have a taste.”

Brisson was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s about 12 years ago and celiac disease a few years later. At the time she was working at Otto, where the menu is heavy on wheat-centric items such as pizzas and pastas.

“It was nice being at Carnevino, because it’s a very protein-, vegetable-driven menu,” she said. “I was subconsciously making a lot of the food gluten-free.”

She started seeing a natural doctor about four years ago. “He just changed my life.”

‘Gluten hangover’

Still, one slip and Brisson pays for it.

“I’ll feel it the next day,” she said. “I call it a gluten hangover; I’m lethargic. It takes 90 days to leave your lower intestine. One fall off the gluten wagon and you’re taking awhile to recover.”

And she said she doesn’t always meet with support.

“It’s hard to make chefs understand,” she said. “They make fun of you — you and everybody else. This industry is trying on a daily basis, with normal hurdles, and then to throw those things on top of it makes it really difficult.”

There has been one plus, she said: “It’s really connected me to my customers a lot more.”

That’s the case for Blinn as well. When she and Jaret opened Craftkitchen in 2015, they knew about her allergy. Their daughter has a severe peanut allergy, so it was difficult to eat out.

“There weren’t too many options for us even five years ago,” she said. “We wanted to be that local place that said we would modify to meet any dietary restrictions.”

In the past few years, she said, she has seen guests become more vocal and open about their dietary restrictions.

“Our local guests come in and feel comfortable with us,” she said, “and just trust us.”

The Las Vegas Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian and the Palazzo.

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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