Gluten-free duo earns national acclaim

Daniel Ahern and Shauna James Ahern sample a recipe in their test kitchen. - Juli Goetz Morser/Staff Photo
Daniel Ahern and Shauna James Ahern sample a recipe in their test kitchen.
— image credit: Juli Goetz Morser/Staff Photo

When Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern first learned they had won the prestigious James Beard Award, they were on a ferry heading to Seattle. The announcement arrived via Twitter, and the couple squealed like little girls, Daniel said.

It’s hard to blame them. The Beard awards are the highest honors given to culinary professionals for excellence and achievement in the field. Think Pulitzer Prize, maybe even Nobel, for the food and beverage industry.

“It came as a marvelous surprise,” said Shauna, whose sparkling brown eyes and rosy cheeks look like the

epitome of health, a far cry from her death-like countenance back in 2005. In April of that year, shortly before the couple moved to Vashon, Shauna was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder set off by gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Little did she know that the diagnosis would lead to a blog, a romance and several books, including the one that recently garnered the prestigious award.

“It was very different then than it is now,” Shauna said in a recent interview at the couple’s home. “I was always low-level lousy sick all my life, always got the colds and flu going around. I’d sprain my wrists and nobody quite knew why. I had constant stomach issues.”

Then came a car accident in 2003. Shauna said she never recovered. Next up? Major surgery. Again, no recovery. So when the flu hit her in 2005, people thought she was dying.

“It was awful,” she recalled. “I can look back at the trajectory and it all makes sense, but at the time it didn’t.”

That’s because Shauna was eating the very foods that made her sick. Gluten produces inflammation that damages the lining of the small intestine in those with the disease, preventing absorption of nutrients. The malabsorption can cause weight loss, bloating and diarrhea, and eventually deprive the brain, nervous system, bones, liver and other organs of vital nourishment. Shauna learned that sudden-onset celiac can be triggered by bodily trauma — like a car accident or major surgery.

Diagnosis given and causes understood, Shauna then wondered, now what? In 2005, gluten free was not the buzzword it is today. The current plethora of gluten-free blogs and Internet sites didn’t exist. There were only outdated forums where people commiserated about the trials of going gluten free and a magazine called “Living Without,” the worst name possible, according to Shauna.

“It all felt like that,” she said. “Your life is over because you have celiac. You’ll never eat in a restaurant, but at least you’ll feel better, and we’re the only people who can help you. After being on that forum for a few weeks, I thought I have to start something else. I at least have to start talking to myself.”

So she started to blog, writing with no idea whether others might find it. But find it they did. Gluten Free Girl, as her blog was called, took off and landed in 2007 as her published memoir, “Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back … And How You Can Too.”

“It all arrived as a great surprise,” said Shauna, who had always dreamed of being a writer.

Meeting Daniel — whom she calls Danny — was also unexpected and a game changer.  A professional chef trained in French cuisine, Danny had worked in New York and Seattle. When he learned about Shauna’s celiac disease, Danny changed the menu at the Seattle bistro where he worked.

“Shauna asked me what I liked about cooking, and I said giving people joy in the belly. When I changed the restaurant to gluten free, Shauna blogged about it.”

Soon, Danny said, the restaurant became something of a destination for those searching for gluten-free fare.

“People started to plan their vacations just so they could eat there,” he said. “I met people who had not eaten out in 20 years, as it was too dangerous.”

Love swiftly deepened into true partnership, and the couple collaborated on their first book, “Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef: A Love Story with 100 Tempting Recipes.” Named one of the best cookbooks of 2010 by The New York Times, the book chronicled their romance, Danny’s life as a chef and how to cook food found on a gourmet menu, only gluten free.

Then came the birth of their daughter Lucy, now 5 years old. The couple said raising a daughter helped them learn that they needed to make different food. Those new recipes ended up in “Gluten-Free Girl Every Day,” the book that ultimately landed the James Beard Award.

“It’s how we eat, how we feed our family, which is what good cookbooks should be,” Shauna said. “It’s not an attempt to please everybody, but rather it is an offering. Here’s what works for us. See if they work for you.”

Speaking in their test kitchen last week, with the scrumptious aroma of roasted chicken and braised artichokes filling the room, Danny, who has dark-rimmed glasses and hair shorn short on the sides, elaborated on their intention for the cookbook.

“We wanted people to get dinner on the table without opening a box. It is meant to be beautiful food but simple. We called it a cookbook for busy people who still want to cook.”

Sitting next to her husband, who was bottle-feeding their infant son Desmond, Shauna added that the cookbook is also a product of their life on Vashon, where they strive to eat locally.

“There’s lots of local color in it,” she said, explaining that a photographer came out and shot all over the island. The book is filled with photographs of farm stands, KVI beach and the farmer’s market.

“It is very much an island book,” she said.

Taking their endeavor one step further, off the printed page and onto their 24-foot-long table made from island fir, Danny and Shauna plan to host bi-monthly Sunday suppers this summer. They’ll serve gluten-free meals created with the fresh produce and meat from Vashon farms.

In the meantime, the pair is also working to complete testing and recipe writing for their next cookbook, “American Classics Reinvented.” Using recipes they collected during two potluck road trips in New England and down the California coast, Danny and Shauna are taking classic comfort dishes and making them gluten free.

“This is the first book we’ve crowd-sourced,” Shauna said. “It’s the direct opposite of the last one. It’s what people wanted, so … they can go to a family potluck with a gluten-free tater tot-hotpot casserole.”

In the decade since Shauna received her diagnosis, gluten free has morphed from a relative unknown into a cultural fad. The Aherns say there are benefits and drawbacks to that evolution, but receiving the Beard award meant public validation for what they do.

“I know having Danny as our chef, and being an incredibly talented one, elevates the work we are doing,” Shauna said. “And I’m not just a blogger.”

But they both agree that helping others who suffer from celiac disease learn how to cook takes the gluten-free cake. They hear from those people often, and when they do, the culinary duo feels the exact same way.

“Awards are nice,” Shauna said, “but that’s even better.”

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