Dining on a restricted diet

Faced with a health crisis, local chef now helps other navigate dietary challenges

Imagine you're an aspiring chef, learning how to cook in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris and regularly eating dishes like squid ink risotto and sliced baguette topped with bone marrow and shaved black truffles.

But you often suffer from bad health, chronic fatigue and get sick easily, which you chock up to working double shifts six days a week.

Eventually, a doctor tells you that you are gluten-, egg- and dairy-intolerant.

It would be an adjustment, to say the least. But it was actually a welcome one for Joan Pan, a 32-year-old Mountain View chef who left the world of professional cooking to learn the art of making espresso drinks. She went on to make her own line of gluten-and-egg-free ice cream and provide nutrition consulting for others with food intolerances or health goals.

Pan was born in San Jose and grew up in Saratoga, just 10 minutes from famed chef David Kinch's Manresa restaurant, where she would later spend a few days hanging out in what she said is the "most quiet" kitchen she's ever worked in.

Though she grew up watching cooking shows and cooking with her mother ("ever since I could touch a pan," she said), she studied computer science when she went to college at Santa Clara University. After graduating, she worked in corporate finance for seven years, which eventually lead her to return to school for a master's degree in business.

In the middle of her business school years, she took a pivotal trip to Europe.

"I was just visiting culinary schools for fun, just to see, what is it like to go to culinary school?" she recalled of the trip. "And it kind of triggered something, like, wait, I can actually make this happen."

She made a leap that many contemplate but never do. In 2007, after finishing business school, Pan sold everything she owned and went to the Ecole Superieure de Cuisine Française-- Ferrandi in Paris to study for nine months.

"It was like boot camp for cooking, but it was the best decision I made in my life," she said.

Pan's first "stage," or internship, in a professional French kitchen was at a Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant called Helene Darroze, after its chef-owner. She remembers a particularly severe, constantly critical cook who, as a "rookie American stagiaire," or intern, she had to win over -- and eventually did.

She also remembers a few favorite dishes, most of which she can no longer even think about eating. One was "riz carnaroli acquarello, chipirons aux chorizo et tomates confites," or risotto cooked in squid ink, finished with creme fraiche, topped with squid, chorizo and a tomato confit that was cooked in duck fat. ("Almost everything in this restaurant was cooked in duck fat," Pan explained. "Helene Darroze is from Landes, in the southwest, where duck fat is used a lot.")

At her second internship, Pan lived and worked at a restaurant in the south of France overlooking the Mediterranean. When she returned to the United States, she got a job as chef de cuisine at a private golf course in Morgan Hill, where she had an unlimited budget, "dabbled in molecular gastronomy" and created tasting menus that changed every week.

While her career sounds enviable, Pan, constantly suffering from health issues, had to leave professional cooking.

"I had really bad insomnia," she said. "I was always sick. If I walked by someone else (who was sick), I would get sick, so I was sick probably 10 times a year. And I would always get these random 24-hour fevers. Working in the kitchen with a fever is pretty rough."

After multiple doctors who couldn't pinpoint what was wrong with her, she saw a holistic physician who put her on a 30-day sugar-elimination diet. That meant no refined sugars (including fruit), dairy or grains for a food lover who was used to eating ice cream and pastries daily.

But after just two weeks she felt better, and blood tests confirmed her food intolerances as well as chronic rhinitis and fatigue.

So there's no more squid ink risotto or French pastries in Pan's life, but as she said, don't feel bad for her. She still eats well and feels much, much healthier.

Her personal health discovery also led to her current professional focus, which is helping other people to learn how to buy groceries and cook for gluten-free and/or paleo diets. Paleo is meant to mimic humans' Paleolithic-era diet, which excludes dairy, grains, processed sugars, legumes and starches.

She does one-on-one consulting as well as group classes through her website, chefjoanpan.com.

Disappointed with the non-dairy ice cream options at most grocery stores, she also recently started making her own ice cream. They're all coconut-milk based and egg-free. A sugar-free version uses xylitol, an all-natural, low-glycemic sugar alcohol that she claims "tastes just like sugar."

She's currently in the flavor-testing phase, trying out recipes for vanilla bean, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, salted butter caramel, butter rum pecan, maple walnut and persimmon ice cream.

Taking a break from being a professional chef also allowed Pan to nurture a food-related love she did not have to give up for her health: coffee.

"Espresso is very much science, and being a barista is very much like cooking," she said.

Pan has been through extensive barista training, including a two-year stint at Palo Alto's Café Venetia.

If she follows through on her plan to open her own brick-and-mortar place in the next few years, coffee will be an integral part, she said.

"I love coffee so much that I would probably want to do something with coffee, with ice cream and maybe with some paleo cakes and food," she said. "I'm debating between (opening) in Paris or California. I think it would work either way."

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