Some ambitious young chefs show off their culinary chops by aiming for the top, or over-the-top: more foams, more sauces, more obscure ingredients with unpronounceable and vaguely unappetizing names (agnolotti infused with squid ink, anyone?). But not Orange, Conn., native John DePuma.
DePuma, who is the executive chef at the newly opened State Street dessert bar Dolci, would probably shy away from being called ambitious, too.
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Yet the modest, soft-spoken DePuma is already making a name for himself as the owner of a gluten-free pasta business and, most recently, a contestant on the Food Network’s popular “Iron Chef America” series. A longtime fan of the televised culinary competition, DePuma was asked to appear as a sous chef for challenger Chef Francois Kwaku-Dongo, whom he worked for at L’Escale in Greenwich until last year.
“How many people get to go on the Food Network?” DePuma asked with his customary reserved smile. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Leaning against Dolci’s dimly lit bar early Tuesday night, DePuma described a long, tiring day of filming at the show’s Kitchen Stadium in New York City this past fall, where he and Kwaku-Dongo had to prepare a five-course meal in just one hour, using a secret ingredient — artichoke. Although he would not say whether he and Kwaku-Dongo or the Iron Chef Michael Symon, a Cleveland native known for his Mediterranean cuisine, won the challenge, DePuma said he found the experience both exciting and nerve-racking.
“The biggest worry was having eight different cameras follow you around,” he said about his debut as a TV chef. “It was kind of hard to keep focused.”
Even if DePuma himself is not ambitious, his culinary agenda certainly is, though not in the way one might expect. DePuma’s menu at Dolci, while not entirely free of the fussy trappings requisite at classy eateries (read: poached apples, truffle essence and something called “soy foam”), is full of oldies but goodies, such as crème brûlée with white chocolate and raspberries, chocolate molten cake and cavatelli pasta.
The surprise lies not on the plate but in the kitchen. About half of the dishes at Dolci are prepared gluten-free, or without a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
DePuma said his restaurant is an anomaly because gluten shows up almost everywhere, not just in foods made from dough but also in imitation meats, ice cream, ketchup and more. And as a result of celiac disease, a genetic disorder, more than two million Americans cannot stomach the ingredient, according to the National Institutes of Health.
DePuma’s wife, Gina, who has the disease, cannot eat pasta — at least not without enduring cramps and an upset stomach. The couple met at Amity High School in Orange and started dating in college, a few years before Gina was diagnosed. So DePuma, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, began experimenting to spare his wife a pasta-free existence.
“She’s Italian,” DePuma said of Gina, “and she couldn’t eat any pasta! She’s the whole inspiration behind it.”
After a year, DePuma found a blend of corn starch, tapioca flour, potato flour and xanthan gum that could replace gluten without causing a difference in flavor or texture. Most gluten-free pastas, he explained, rely on rice flour, making for dishes that “aren’t really appealing,” he said with characteristic tact.
Within two years, despite being reluctant at first, DePuma had parlayed the handmade gluten-free pasta he made for Gina into a full-fledged business, DePuma’s Gluten Free Pasta.
He now sells three-cheese tortellini, wild-mushroom ravioli, spinach-and-ricotta ravioli and hand-rolled cavatelli on his Web site, spending up to seven hours a day in his North Haven pasta-making facility, which he moved into last year. Fifteen local grocers and Whole Foods locations throughout Connecticut carry his products.
At Dolci, the gluten-free cavatelli with mushroom ragout and truffle essence, along with the sesame-seared rock shrimp, are DePuma’s most popular creations, he said. As a self-professed veteran patron of restaurants such as Tribeca Grill and Union League Café, DePuma said his own restaurant is unique.
“There’s not many restaurants that offer gluten-free options,” the executive chef said, gesturing to Dolci’s dark nooks and leather barstools. “Here, I can make whatever menu I like and also direct it towards people with tolerance issues.”
As he spoke, manager Michael Doherty — who also doubles as the bartender — came over to chat with DePuma, just as they have done since elementary school. Along with their childhood friend Anthony Urbano, Dolci’s owner, the two opened the restaurant just over a month ago.
“I always knew John was a great chef, even in high school,” Doherty volunteered. “I just didn’t picture working with him as manager and chef.”
Nor did they anticipate opening an upscale dessert bar on State Street, far from what Urbano calls the “tourist trap” of downtown New Haven. Dolci certainly stands out from its eclectic neighbors; a tattoo parlor is two doors down and a small Chinese grocery occupies the corner. But the three friends defend their choice.
“I like State Street a little better than downtown,” Urbano said. “It has more potential, a different crowd.”
Urbano said he plans to introduce a weekly piano-and-saxophone night and patio dining, but he has one other event to organize first: a viewing party for DePuma’s “Iron Chef America” episode, which is set to air sometime this winter. Allez cuisine!