Five years ago, Barbara McQuiston was in line for a top position in the U.S. Defense Department. Today, she’s happily selling gluten-free waffles and bread at The Curious Fork. Life, she says, has a wonderful way of working out.
McQuiston was a 30-year veteran of the defense and aerospace industries when President Obama nominated her in May 2011 to serve as the nation’s Assistant Director of Defense for Acquisition.
But a funny thing happened in her nearly two-year wait for confirmation, which was delayed by the threat of budget sequestration and an election year. The Leucadia resident turned 50 and decided she’d rather follow her dreams of going to culinary school and opening a gluten-free restaurant. So she retired.
“For two years I was a lady in waiting and I’m a terrible lady in waiting because I like to be busy,” McQuiston said. “A friend once told me if I wanted to start over, I’d better do it in my 50s while I still had the energy and the wherewithal. So I did.”
In 2013, she withdrew her nomination and enrolled at the San Diego Culinary Institute, and in June 2014, she opened The Curious Fork in Solana Beach. The gluten-free cafe serves breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch, and offers cooking classes two to three nights a week.
McQuiston recently launched a wholesale business selling gluten-free bakery goods and within the next few months she’ll open a retail bakery.
The name, Curious Fork, comes from McQuiston’s philosophy on cooking and trying new things. It’s something she was forced to do 20 years ago when she, and her now-33-year-old son, were diagnosed with Celiac disease.
The more she learned about preparing healthy and alternative foods, the more she fell in love with the idea of owning her own restaurant someday and offering cooking classes to spread that love.
The Curious Fork
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sundays. Plus select hours for evening cooking classes
Where: 512 Via de la Valle, Suite 102, Solana Beach.
Phone: (858) 876-6386
“People have lost that side of life, making good foods and experimenting with food at home. I want people to think about new food and healthy food and just stay curious,” she said.
McQuiston said gluten-free food has come a long way over the past decade. But when she opened The Curious Fork, she was so afraid of turning off potential customers, she didn’t advertise her business as gluten-free for a full year. As a result, most of her longtime customers aren’t gluten-intolerant.
The cafe serves coffee drinks, egg and waffle dishes, salads, wraps and sandwiches served with baguettes, English muffins, bagels, waffles, popovers, tortillas, challah bread and pastries baked in-house with a mix of non-wheat flours and ingredients.
Classes in gluten-free cooking are part of the mix of demonstration and hands-on classes offered on weekday evenings and weekend afternoons at The Curious Fork. The classes are taught by chef and education director Katherine Emmenegger and several other instructors who moved over from The Good News cooking school in Pacific Beach after it closed in June 2015. Classes range from $30 to $60 each and are designed for average, not advanced, cooks.
Every Friday morning, The Curious Fork serves as a pickup spot for a subscription farm box program. In keeping with McQuiston’s desire to encourage experimentation, she always tucks recipes inside the boxes for some of the more unusual items each week like eggplant, rutabagas or bok choy.
Because the restaurant’s baked goods - developed by in-house pastry chef Sonja Knowles - are so popular, McQuiston is now selling several Curious Fork-brand items to a growing number of wholesale customers including Cardiff Seaside Market, Harvest Ranch Market in Encinitas and Elixir Espresso Bar in Del Mar.
Next up is the Curious Fork bakery, which is in the final stages of construction in the space next door to the cafe. McQuiston is also waiting on a liquor license to begin selling wine and gluten-free beer.
To help fund the wholesale business and bakery, McQuiston brought in two investment partners: Jeffrey Strauss, who owns nearby Pamplemousse Grille restaurant, and Ken Baca. The rest she’s funding with her own savings and sweat equity.
“Everything costs money so I’m doing as much as I can as soon as I can,” she said, “but it’s all a labor of love.”