Going Gluten-Free Saved This NJ Chef’s Health—And Doubled His Restaurant’s Reservations

"Gluten freedom has turned my life around in every way," says Samba Montclair chef Ilson Gonçalves, who wrote an entire cookbook of gluten-free recipes.

Ilson Gonçalves

Chef Ilson Gonçalves runs Samba Montclair—”the only fully certified gluten-free restaurant in New Jersey.” Photo: Courtesy of Samba Montclair

Ilson Gonçalves has been a top Essex County chef since he opened Samba Montclair in 2010. The restaurant’s homey Brazilian dishes and cozy mood made it a hit from the start. Still, “life can get in the way,” says the chef. “I had a health crisis but came out a winner. And so has Samba Montclair. It’s now the only fully certified gluten-free restaurant in New Jersey.” Ilson’s story and intensely flavorful recipes are detailed in The Samba Montclair Gluten-Free Cookbook, which came out earlier this year. Here’s a sneak peek.

NJM: Are Brazilian food and gluten-free cooking a good match?
Ilson Gonçalves: The best! But a lot of people don’t know this. When Americans think of Brazilian food, they assume it’s heavy, full of gluten and incompatible with a healthy modern diet. Not true!

Cover of Ilson Gonçalves's cookbook, "The Samba Montclair Gluten-Free Cookbook"

Gonçalves’s cookbook is sold at Samba Montclair and at nearby Watchung Booksellers. Photo: Courtesy of Samba Montclair

One reason I wrote this cookbook was to put the word out that Brazilian cuisine is naturally very low in gluten. OK, you’re wondering how this is possible. Well, Brazilians don’t cook with wheat or grain flour. We use tapioca, which is gluten-free starch from yuca, a South American and Caribbean root vegetable. Samba Montclair is probably the biggest yuca customer in New Jersey!

So Samba Montclair diners get all the exotic Brazilian flavors and textures with no gluten?
That’s right. And today, so many people are looking for restaurants with zero percent gluten and 100 percent delicious food. They get that at Samba Montclair, and it’s easy. They don’t have to explain their dietary issues to their dining companions and their waiter. The meal is a normal, but great, dining-out experience.

What was your health crisis, Ilson?
After I published my first cookbook, in 2017, my health started to go downhill. I was just not myself. I was gaining weight without eating more. I felt lethargic. I had stomach and breathing problems, I slept badly, I got rashes, my eyes were swollen. Finally, as the pandemic made my life even more difficult, I was diagnosed with celiac disease. This meant I had a systemic allergy to gluten. I had to go gluten-free.

Croquetas at Samba Montclair

The croquetas at Samba Montclair are gluten-free. Photo: Courtesy of Samba Montclair

I take it your health improved?
My entire life improved! The depressing celiac symptoms all disappeared. I could sleep again and felt energetic and alert. I lost 25 pounds. And I found my husband, Yasar. [NJM contributor Tammy La Gorce wrote a “Vows” story in the New York Times about Ilson and Yasar’s wedding.]

Did your going gluten-free mean that Samba Montclair had to as well?
Yes. I am deeply connected to my restaurant and my diners, and I don’t serve anything I wouldn’t eat myself. I cut out every trace of gluten on the menu and in the kitchen so Samba Montclair could meet the highest standards of gluten-free.

Did you know at the time that going gluten-free would prove a smart business decision?
There was no way for me to predict the market for a strictly gluten-free Brazilian restaurant. And I also worried that since I’d doubled my space to comply with the separation of tables during the pandemic, I’d have twice as many seats to fill when it was over.

The interior of Samba Montclair

Samba Montclair’s reservations doubled after the restaurant went completely gluten-free. Photo: Courtesy of Samba Montclair

Another thing you couldn’t have known was that your own gluten intolerance would prove so prevalent in New Jersey.
It is a truly amazing thing that so many other New Jerseyans were figuring out that their bodies were allergic to gluten. Samba Montclair’s reservations doubled, and all our tables were filled, even when we were able to sit normal distances apart again. Around 90 percent of our diners have told me they have celiac disease or are gluten-intolerant.

How new are the recipes in your new cookbook?
Some of the recipes are gluten-free updates of my prior cookbook. And there are some new recipes, too. Some were inspired by the courses in plant-based cooking that I took at the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan. Now, even when I cook with ingredients like chicken, fish or dairy, those dishes are full of foods that grow in the fields. Often in New Jersey!

Ilson, how does a Brazilian kid end up as a chef in Montclair?
It’s been a journey! I come from a food-loving family in Blumenau in southern Brazil, which was settled by German immigrants in the 1800s. My parents owned a popular restaurant there, and my mom, Nilsa Hostins, was the chef. It was open only for lunch, the big meal of the day for Brazilians. I’d sit in the kitchen and peel yuca, potatoes and carrots, and watch my mom create dishes. I loved everything about being in the kitchen then and still do.

Shrimp cooked in garlic and olive oil at Samba Montclair

Shrimp cooked in garlic and olive oil at Samba Montclair. Photo: Courtesy of Samba Montclair

Did you go straight into culinary school or professional cooking?
No, I studied finance in college, even though I was still working in our restaurant, hosting diners and cooking. I was passionate about cooking with my mom, who taught me everything she knew. But when I graduated, I got a job in a bank.

Finance wasn’t for me. After a year I went on vacation to New York City and fell in love with it. I quit my job, gave up my apartment, got a work visa and moved to the city. My mom didn’t think I meant it.

But you did!
Yes, and 20 years later, she’s still waiting for me to come home. She was right about big-city life, though. NYC turned out to be too hectic for me. During my time there, I happened to visit Montclair. It reminded me of Blumenau, and I got this strong sense of home. I had to live there. Everything fell into place, and I opened Samba Montclair.

And the rest is gluten-free history.
Yes. Gluten freedom has turned my life around in every way and become sort of a personal mission. With Samba Montclair and The Samba Montclair Gluten-Free Cookbook, no one has to miss out on the amazing flavors of Brazilian food.

Samba Montclair, 7 Park Street, 973-744-6764; @sambamontclair.

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