Why would a pastry chef — whose craft relies on the very grains and flours that some people cannot eat — want to specialize in gluten-free dishes? "So people can feel comfortable coming in here knowing that there is something for them to eat," according to Maria Elean Bustamante-Bernal, pastry chef and owner of Tree House Pastry Shop and Café.
Gluten-free options as well as traditional baked goods are available daily at Tree House, including muffins, scones and cupcakes, along with many breakfast and lunch offerings. On Tuesdays, all gluten-free breakfast, lunch and bakery items are offered on a "buy one, get the second for half-price" basis.
To some, the term "gluten-free" might seem like just another food fad and dietary-restriction advice. But celiac disease — an inability to digest gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and rye — is a condition that affects at least 3 million people today, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While mild cases of gluten intolerance cause frequent abdominal distress, celiac disease can lead to a wide range of chronic conditions because the intestines are not able to absorb nutrients. As gluten intolerance grows — the Mayo Clinic reports that the disease is four times as common today as it was 50 years ago — the need for dietary alternatives grows with it.
Bustamante-Bernal said she has had a small but consistently growing demand for gluten-free dishes since she opened her pastry shop and vegetarian cafe five years ago, and she has become one of the go-to bakers in Santa Fe for gluten-free wedding and birthday cakes.
A committed vegetarian and locavore, Bustamante-Bernal also offers vegan dishes, although when it comes to dessert, she's found that most vegans don't have much of a sweet tooth.
"I'm still working on vegan dessert ideas," she said. "Our chocolate tart is vegan and gluten-free, and it's delicious. I might be the only one in town doing gluten-free [and] vegan wedding cakes."
Bustamante-Bernal grew up near Mexico City in a gluten-free home; her older brother was diagnosed with celiac disease as a child. For the most part, her family's reliance on corn instead of wheat in southern Mexico meant that her brother's condition was not a problem, she said, but baked goods were still a tricky proposition.
Bustamante-Bernal said figuring out how to bake without it felt like a science project.
While most people are vegetarians or vegans by choice, Bustamante-Bernal said many of her customers have a range of food allergies and are grateful to have a restaurant that can offer them options. "Some people just can't eat anything, and we still manage to feed them. We create the whole menu from scratch and made-to-order," she added.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Bustamante-Bernal relocated to Santa Fe in 1999, choosing it because it's between her family home in Mexico City and her husband's family in Chicago.
"I also didn't want to be far culturally from Mexico," she said. She spent three years as the pastry sous chef at Santa Café before taking five years off to raise her son and develop a business plan.
Tree House originally opened in 2006 in Agua Fría village on the Plants of the Southwest grounds, but Bustamante-Bernal said she quickly outgrew the space. "We had a lot of neighborhood people and got a lot of community support, but it was just too small," she said. She began planning a new space with the builders of the Lena Street Lofts, a live-work compound off Second Street with strong environmental and community aspirations.
Unfortunately, shortly after the Tree House relocated to Lena Street, the recession rendered the once bustling neighborhood into a shadow of its former self. Bustamante-Bernal said she is still wrangling with the city over putting signs on Second Street to point the way to the loft compound and the spacious restaurant on Lena Street. "We're a little out of the way, and it's definitely a challenge to find us," she admitted.
Gluten-free Tuesdays are now a permanent fixture at Tree House, Bustamante-Bernal said, but she hopes to be more than a health-food haven. "We're all about community. Everything is locally sourced," she said, listing local farms as well as Aroma Coffee, organic local wheat, hormone-free dairy and local eggs — even the coat rack and the cake stands were made by local artists. "We know we're not going to change the world, but we believe in doing whatever we can do to have a positive impact."
IF YOU GO
Tree House Pastry Shop
1600 Lena St., A2
8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday
or call 474-5543
On the menu:
Breakfast (chilaquiles, pupusas, house-made
granola); lunch (deep-dish quiche,
birdhouse burger, tempeh wrap); gluten-free (muffins, scones, cupcakes)
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