Frustrated by gluten-free products, a father turns to walnuts

When La Cañada Flintridge resident Oliver Kolevski’s 11-year-old son, Max, was diagnosed with gluten and lactose intolerances a year ago, he had a hard time finding healthy foods for him to eat.

“I had to find a way to send my son to school, without bread, without macaroni, without all these things,” said Kolevski. “And I had to figure out how to keep him healthy and happy — and at the same time to enjoy his food — and that become pretty serious business.”

Kolevski said that he found some success with products like goat milk and corn pasta he found at markets like Sprouts and Trader Joe’s, but he wanted to give his son more nutrition and variety.

After attempts to make do with store-bought gluten-free flour mixes that tasted “like cardboard,” Kolevski says he looked to his childhood in Macedonia for inspiration. His memories led him to create a walnut-based flour substitute.

“Walnuts are basically used a lot, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and in my grandmother’s kitchen they were an everyday thing,” he said. “So I started experimenting [with them].”

Although he attended culinary school in Macedonia, receiving a degree in restaurant management, Kolevski said he drew more on his grandmother’s cooking.

“The school was good, but my grandmother was the best,” he said. “She would use walnuts in pancakes and crepes, she would use walnuts making cakes, she would use walnuts making tarts.”

Kolevski said that he had so much success using his walnut flour to make soufflés, muffins and cookies for his son that he decided to offer them to the greater public. He said that with gluten and lactose intolerance becoming so prevalent, he hopes his company, California Walnut Cookies, will offer an alternative.

“Everything you buy either has milk, milk powder or wheat,” he said. “And then you see all kinds of immune system reactions … many people have allergies and they’re suffering, and they don’t even know why.”

Kolevski said that his son missed six weeks of school at Paradise Canyon Elementary while doctors attempted to diagnose him. Ultimately he was prescribed a gluten- and lactose-free diet by Dr. Ardath Yamaga, gastroenterologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Dr. Michelle Pietzak, pediatric gastroenterologist at USC and Children's Hospital Los Angeles, said that gluten allergies are on the rise. The most serious form, celiac disease, in which the body’s own immune system attacks the stomach and intestines when gluten is consumed, affects around 1% of the U.S. population, said Pietzak. Other gluten intolerances and allergies affect around 4% of the population.

Pietzak said that while doctors are becoming better at diagnosing celiac disease and other gluten intolerances, the diseases themselves are also on the rise. She said that studies have shown that autoimmune diseases, like celiac and diabetes, and allergy diseases like asthma, are steadily growing in the population.

With special-needs diets becoming more prevalent, Kolevski hopes that his walnut flour mixture will take off, though for now he’s working on selling “honey-sweet walnut soufflés.” Partnering with a friend’s bakery in Beverly Hills, the name of which he declined to give, Kolevski plans to pitch his soufflés to hotels and restaurants, first in Beverly Hills, but eventually in La Cañada as well.

He said that he’d love to try and get his products into the new Sprouts Farmers Market on Foothill Boulevard, and one day dreams of opening a bakery in town.

“I would like to have a bakery in La Cañada so people can stop by and pick it up,” he said. “The key with this product is there’s no way you can enjoy this product frozen or cooked and sitting on the shelves.”

While he’s still working to get his business off the ground, having just registered, Kolevski has already become an enthusiastic booster of walnuts.

“You know, walnuts are used in cakes and stuff all the time, but because they are very expensive, they just use them to add flavor. What I did was, instead of adding flavor, let’s make everything out of it,” he said. “My son didn’t like walnuts, and he loves them now.”

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