In the midst of pots of quinoa and pans filled with organic, freshly roasted brussels sprouts and peppers, a monte cristo sandwich sizzled on the stovetop at The Greenery Cafe in Lihue.
Marie Cassel, owner and proprietor of Sweet Marie’s Hawaii, is currently taking over the cafe’s kitchen on the weekends, selling astries, breakfast and lunch items from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.
She said even though her version of the sandwich is a bit different than the regular deep-fried cuisine, her customers can’t get enough of it.
Besides skipping the deep fryer, Cassel’s other twist on the traditional monte cristo is making it gluten-free. In fact, nearly everything on the menu at Sweet Marie’s is safe for those who require a gluten-free diet. She always has a few vegan and dairy-free options as well.
She’s a whiz at whipping up delectable digs for those with alternative diets because she has celiac disease — also known as celiac sprue, which is a chronic disorder of the digestive tract that results in the inability to tolerate gluten.
“I understand how careful you have to be with cross-contamination and how sensitive people with celiac sprue are to gluten,” Cassel said. “I understand, because it is me, too. I have celiac.”
Cassel said she’s had a love affair with food a lot longer than she’s known about her allergy to gluten, so when she was diagnosed with celiac sprue, she began to experiment.
“I love food and I love cooking and, of course I had to change everything when I found out the gluten was what was making me sick,” Cassel said.
A decade ago, she established the first gluten-free bakery in Hawaii. This year she’s reached the 18-year mark in creating wholesale goods for Sweet Marie’s and 10 years in retail.
“What’s better than my 10-year anniversary, though is that it’s celiac sprue awareness month,” Cassel said. “I love that they have a month to raise awareness about celiac.”
Cassel said she doesn’t do anything special for celiac sprue month, that’s her jam year-round, but it seems to generate a few more conversations amongst her customers.
That always puts a spring in her step, because Cassel’s love for food and wine is overshadowed only by her adoration of people.
“For me, yeah, it’s about the food, but it’s about so much more, its about the people I get to meet,” Cassel said. “It’s about that feeling when you get to serve someone something they haven’t had in years, or ever.”
Many people with celiac and other severe food allergies, she explained, have to completely write off foods like muffins, or grilled cheese sandwiches because those foods are either too complicated to make, or their substitutes simply don’t exist.
“When I get to serve kids, or even adults, things they’ve never had before, I get to see that joy, and that’s what’s really special,” Cassel said. “And then they keep coming back for more.”
Cassel’s customers come from all corners of the world and frequently put in a phone call to Sweet Marie’s before they land on the island, just to make sure their meals are taken care of during their stay.
“I get the same people that call me every single time they come here,” Cassel said. “Just recently, I had a family whose kids had serious nut allergies. I cleared the kitchen of nuts for a week before they came in, so everything would be OK for the kids.”
Though she caters to those with specialty diets, Cassel said she likes to challenge people who don’t have food restrictions to give her dishes a try. She said many times it’s impossible to tell by the taste whether her food has gluten ingredients.
“There’s pretty much something for everyone here, and it’s fresh, quality ingredients,” Cassel said. “So come on by, I’m at The Greenery Café.”