For Maureen Burke, "gluten-free" is not just the latest diet trend -- it's a way of life.
Since being diagnosed with celiac disease in the late 1980s, Burke has wrestled with her intolerance of gluten. And now, as chef and owner of One Dish Cuisine, in Ellicott City, she shares the fruits of her labor over the past two decades with others who suffer from food allergies and intolerances: a restaurant that serves food they can eat.
Burke, now 49, was diagnosed with celiac disease and lactose intolerance when she was 25. Back then, celiac disease was relatively unheard of and there weren't many options.
"I was just stunned," says Burke, who was later diagnosed with casein intolerance, which includes lactose, milk and dairy. "There was no Internet. No support group. I couldn't go to culinary school for it because there was no program. I had to figure it out on my own."
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition. If a person with celiac disease eats even a small amount of gluten, which is contained in all forms of wheat, it damages the villi in the small intestine that absorb nutrients from food. Symptoms include abdominal cramping, bloating and anemia. One out of 133 Americans is affected with the disease, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation website.
Developing a repertoire of meals that didn't interfere with her conditions was a necessity for Burke. And when her nephew was diagnosed with autism, Burke adapted some of her recipes to accommodate his gluten-free, casein-free and soy-free (GFCFSF) diet, which helped his condition.
Recognizing the value of sharing her experience, Burke left behind a career in real estate to focus on One Dish Cuisine, which she founded in 2009.
"We can send a man to the moon, but we can't create a place for people with food allergies to eat safely?" Burke asks. "So I came up with One Dish Cuisine."
Burke, who lives in Crofton, started out by supplying ready-made dishes to restaurants, health food stores and hospitals. She developed a color-coded system to keep everything straight: green for gluten-free and blue for GFCFSF. There's also red for strictly casein-free; yellow for corn-free; orange for egg-free; brown for nut-free; and purple for vegan.
"One of the biggest problems with food allergies is cross-contamination," Burke explains. "Our containers are BPA-free, microwavable, oven-safe and freezer-safe."
In September 2012, Burke took her venture one step further by opening a café in Ellicott City, which includes a deli and bakery. Like the prepared meals, the cafe menu is color-coded to make ordering easy.
"Our motto is 'Welcome back to the table,' " she says. "We don't leave anybody out. It's family-friendly, so no one feels like they're giving up anything."
One Dish Cuisine cafe serves up salads (dressing options include a homemade casein-free Caesar dressing), pizza, appetizers such as chicken tenders and chicken wings, cold sandwiches such as BLTs, Italian cold cuts and turkey clubs, as well as hot sandwiches, such as grilled cheese, cheeseburgers, steak and cheese subs and crab cake sandwiches.
"This is a safe place, and it tastes good," she says. "You don't have to sacrifice anything. Nobody wants to eat pizza that tastes like cardboard. We love making people happy."
Burke's restaurant -- decorated with inspirational quotes from the likes of Thomas Edison, President Ronald Reagan and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- seeks to be more than an eatery. There's a refrigerated and frozen section for people to grab meals on the go. And there's a lending library with books about autism, newsletters and magazines pertaining to food allergies and healthy lifestyles.
"Seeing my vision come to life has been great," says Burke. "We try to make this a place of hope and inspiration."
Burke has a staff of about a dozen employees, most of whom either have food allergies or have family members with food allergies.
"For us, it's about having a place where people know what it's like," she says.
Chef Ben Anderson, who has been with Burke since the cafe opened, is dedicated to the mission of One Dish Cuisine.
"Maureen's passionate about providing allergy-friendly good food," he says. "It's good for your soul. I don't have any food allergies, but learning what people who do have them have to deal with is incredible. We want to provide those people with high-end cuisine."
One Dish Cuisine, 8001 Hillsborough Road, Ellicott City, 443-759-6344, www.onedishcuisine.com.