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In 2005, Erin McKenna opened up her first gluten-free bakery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with two rules: create a business free of harmful ingredients and wear cute uniforms. Today, gourmet treat–seekers on both coasts can enjoy her vegan and gluten-free goodies in three locations including Los Angeles and the most magical place on earth, Disney World. Erin’s become a rock star in the gluten-free world, making her success that much sweeter. With three cookbooks complete, her latest mission was to roll out allergen-free bread with Bread & Butter (Clarkson Potter, 2015), and she’s appealed to some of her toughest critics, including her three-year-old daughter, Halsey Valentine.
Where do your recipe ideas come from?
They almost always come from a place of yearning for what I used to eat before I knew of my intolerance to gluten. There are enough memories from my gluten-filled past to keep me busy recreating recipes for a few lifetimes! I am now able to throw together a quick veggie crostata on the days we seemingly have nothing in the fridge but some veggies. I use my all-purpose puff pastry dough from the book, which I like to keep on hand in my fridge for when I’m in a pinch, plus it’s a great way to sneak some extra vegetables onto my 3-year-old’s plate.
Which recipe are you most proud of?
It always changes, but the bagels are exciting to me right now. Honestly, I had no idea what a hit they’d be at the bakery, but customers are coming in just for the bagels. We make a variety every day – pesto, caramelized onion, cinnamon raisin and blueberry.
Mmm, pesto bagels! Do you offer a lot of savory foods at your bakeries?
We sell a lot of savory items: veggie biscuits, rosemary thyme focaccia, pizza and pesto bagels regularly. We always sell out of these items daily!
Have you ever had an epic kitchen fail?
Always! Too many to count, actually. Testing out ideas for the new cookbook was full of failures. I quickly learned the nature of the ingredients and how they work together for great-tasting recipes; once that was revealed to me through those baking fails, it became easy. The biggest fail was the brioche. I knew it had to be mainly the starchier ingredients, so I relied on those and ended up with something that resembled mochi balls, not a brioche. But I learned that increasing the starch in a recipe would give it a nice bounce, so I played around with that quite a bit and got great results.
Why do some people assume gluten-free and vegan means tasteless?
To be honest, sometimes they’re right. But I think I’d tell them to stay open to trying new things and they’ll see what’s possible. There are so many people doing incredibly creative things on the scene right now. James Beard Award–winning chefs like Mark Ladner and Brooks Headley are doing mind-blowing things. Mark has a gluten-free pasta concept that is amazing – you’d never know the difference. And Brooks has a veggie burger that draws a lineup around the block any time he opens a pop-up. The food game has changed for the good!
Gluten-free bakeries are popping up everywhere. Do you ever feel threatened by the competition?
Never. I knew when I opened the bakery 10 years ago, way before anyone was willing to take the risk, that eventually gluten-free would be the new normal. No one will ever do what we do, exactly the way we do it, and there’s room for everyone. We encourage our customers to try our best sellers, and once they do, they’re customers for life.
So what’s next for Erin McKenna?
I have no clue and I’m very delighted about that.