After ogling the goodies on display at Gracie Jones' Gluten Free Bake Shop, you might notice some charming drawings with "Thank you, Gracie" in unmistakable crayon kid-scrawl decorating the front register area. Sure, it's a widely-known fact that kids love baked treats, but how many bakers receive personal thank-you notes from them?
Maybe it's the ones who make treats for kids who otherwise wouldn't be able to enjoy the average chocolate chip cookie -- kids with celiac disease, an immune disease that prevents people from eating gluten because of the damage it causes to the small intestine.
It was such a kid who inadvertently brought celiac disease to chef Gracie Jones' attention, just under a decade ago when she was transitioning from working as a fine-dining chef to opening up the fast-casual Asian Box.
"When we started with the project of Asian Box ... (Asian Box) became gluten-free because of a family we met. That same year, they found out that their son, who was 4 at the time, had celiac," Jones said. While cooking at this family's home as part of the process of developing the Asian Box menu, Jones and the team decided to keep it gluten-free, especially since the change was straightforward. They eliminated just two ingredients from the menu, soy sauce and noodles. Asian Box's menu is still completely gluten-free, though it is not explicitly advertized.
Jones, who has devoted her life to "cooking nonstop" for 20 years, did not intentionally set out to open up a gluten-free bake shop. When she moved into the space at 2706 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto, she was in charge of opening up a commissary to produce sauces for Asian Box. (The space sparked some controversy in 2017, when the city's code enforcement officers received a complaint about it doubling as office space for Asian Box. Two partial cubicles with computers remain at the bakery today.)
Confused about the nature of the space when it opened, customers would come in, looking to eat at Asian Box, so Jones started to offer some dishes and used the space as a test kitchen.
Over time, she noticed people asking about desserts, and Jones, who has a passion for baking but had not had the chance to pursue it, began experimenting.
"I was keeping an eye on Asian Box, but on my free time, I would just bake certain little things to see what people thought," she said, adding that she enjoyed the challenge of gluten-free baking.
"My goal is, I want to make sure that people can't tell the difference," Jones said. "I won't serve it until it tastes exactly the way I want it."
Because Jones is not personally gluten-free, she knows what an item with gluten should taste like, so she starts from there. Jones refers to recipes with gluten and then, through trial and error, goes through many iterations of a single item before she is satisfied with the gluten-free result. And because gluten-free recipes call for many different ingredients to create the flour equivalent, she has created her own pre-mixed gluten-free flour made from brown and white rice flour, sorghum and potato and tapioca starch.
Jones' assortment of baked goods is subject to change depending on her latest experiment, but she does regularly stock customer favorites like chocolate chip cookies, sprinkle donuts and paleo bagels. The oatmeal cookie, sampled by this reporter, achieved the perfect combination of chewiness and crispiness. If she's working on a special request, customers might see a new item in the display case, such as lemon bars, pies or brownies. In addition to baked goods, she offers savory lunch items, including a banh mi sandwich -- a recipe she has been working on for years.
"I finally feel like I came up with a sandwich of bread that is comparable to a banh mi," she said of the Vietnamese sandwich traditionally made with a French-style baguette. "It wasn't easy. I was testing it for a long time."
You can also find Jones' sourdough and brioche bread locally at The Market at Edgewood, or her focaccia at Palo Alto Italian restaurant Vino Enoteca. She also provides gluten-free pizza flour to Pizzeria Delfina's five locations, including in Palo Alto. (You can also buy the dry dough mix at the bakery to make your own gluten-free pizza at home.) Her cookies and rice pudding are sold at Asian Box.
Jones was clear on one thing: She's not baking for the gluten-free skeptics.
"I would suggest for them not to try it; they're going to try it, but then they're always going to be negative about something," she said.
Instead, she's focused on making delicious food, in its own right.