Lena Kwak: The Innovation Interview

Lena Kwak, President/Co-Founder of Cup4Cup shares her thoughts and insights on the gluten-free market, Cup4Cup and the next trend in the culinary world.

After graduating Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales Culinary Institute in 2007, Lena Kwak served as a private chef and director of her own catering company before pursuing an internship at The French Laundry to explore an interest in nutritional science. As Research & Development Chef there, Kwak was responsible for testing a wide range of edible innovations, ranging from foie gras to bon bons, seawater to sorbet. A single assignment to devise a gluten-free version of Keller’s famed Salmon Cornet led to a tearful response from a dinner guest and was the genesis for “Cup4Cup,” the proprietary, gluten-free flour blend she created with Chef Thomas Keller.

Debuting nationwide in Williams-Sonoma in August 2011, Kwak and Keller share a commitment to guiding Cup4Cup’s evolution and mission to provide healthy alternative cooking products for a conscious, new generation. Cup4Cup has built a solid reputation in both the culinary community and with consumers for its quality as a premiere flour brand—gluten-free or not. Less than two years after its inception, the brand has garnered national attention from consumers, noted chefs and tastemakers such as Martha Stewart.

Kwak was notably honored as one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” in December 2011 and in 2012, she was selected as one of ten honorees at Martha Stewart’s “American Made” Awards that recognizes rising stars in a new generation of small-business owners whose work shares the quality, beauty, inspiration, possibility, and creativity embodied by Martha. Kwak continues to develop new products under the Cup4Cup brand, launching a gluten-free pizza crust in November 2012 and she seeks to expand the brand with several product launches set for 2013.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

Innovation for our particular industry of consumer product goods is to creatively change, develop and evolve products to meet the needs of the ever changing market of different generations. For me this means taking the time to listen and paying attention to details of who your target audience is.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

With my background, I would only feel appropriate to make any comments within my specialty of food, wine and CPG industry. That being said, all three have made great strides to evolve with the consumer market. I will say that the fastest growing industry has been tech and in many ways with how involved one’s life is around it, it has very much shaped and influenced many other industries into adapting and evolving themselves. Ripple effect of growth.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

“What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail.” This is one of my favorite quotes that Chef Keller says when encouraging people to push themselves.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

I don’t believe I have experienced it yet, nor would I want to have at this point. What pushes me everyday is to believe there is no glass ceiling and continuing to strive for that moment.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

Both, now a days for the convenience and fast access I do tend to get much of my reading in digital form. However, I appreciate the beauty of the weight and feel of an actual book. Pulling an old favorite book from your bookshelves and depending on how often it was read, how it’s aged over time, where you creased the corners of the pages on your favorite parts, highlights of quotes that touched your heart, all make you relish the memories of why you enjoyed the literature so. It’s not quite the same digitally.

As a new chef at the French Laundry, what was it like when you first approached your mentor Thomas Keller about your Cup 4 Cup idea?

Nervous of course, Chef Keller is a world renowned culinary icon so naturally I sat there hoping that he look past my stumbling words and see the potential. My motto has always been, never hurts to ask, so there I was just hoping to be even considered.

When did you first spot the market demand for gluten-free products and did you think that gluten-free would evolve into such a large market?

I had done a great deal of researching statistics on the growth of the market over the years. It really all came to our attention because the reaction from the guests who had sampled out gluten free items, how they had never tasted any gluten free items like it. There wasn’t a plan on tapping into a lucrative market more or less seeing there was a need of better flavored, textured and performing options.

How did your background in nutritional science help you in formulating the recipe for Cup 4 Cup?

In many ways, cooking through a recipe is very much a series of chemical reactions. With the understanding of food science and nutrition, it helps me breakdown recipe formulation or ingredient composition making it easier to develop substitutions.

One of the best ways to expose a product to a consumer is through hotels and resorts. Are you actively working with any hotels and resorts to develop gluten-free menu items utilizing Cup 4 Cup flour?

Not yet, but would love to work with different properties who want to offer their guests options.

As a culinary researcher what is the next trend in food?

There is quite the interesting rise in innovative healthier options for babies/toddlers.