Actress and Bensonhurt native Jennifer Esposito’s first apartment was in the East Village when she was 18. A little more than a year ago, the former Blue Bloods star, now 41, returned to the neighborhood to open Jennifer’s Way, a haven for those suffering from food allergies. The catalyst for the bakery was her 2009 diagnosis with Celiac Disease, an autoimmune illness that prevents sufferers from properly digesting gluten. Last month, the bakery (which she runs with new fiancé Louis Dowler) opened a 13,000 square-foot production facility in Queens, and Esposito took her activism a step further, authoring Jennifer’s Way: My Journey with Celiac Disease–What Doctors Don’t Tell You and How You Can Learn to Live Again. Before her appearance tonight at Barnes & Noble in Tribeca, she spoke with B+B.
How would you classify the book–memoir, health and wellness, self-help?
It’s definitely my journey with this disease. To me it’s not really a memoir even though we are going through a big portion of my life—I don’t want to lead people to believe it’s going to be anything to do with my acting or anything like that. I think it falls somewhere in the middle.
Celiac Disease is notoriously hard to diagnose, because the range of symptoms is huge and some people never experience symptoms. You struggled with your health for decades, beginning when you were a child. Describe your worst moment.
Basically gluten is what causes the villi [tissues in the small intestines] to absorb nutrients from food and give them to your body. Without the nutrients, your body starts to turn in on itself. So your bones is one of the biggest things that will start showing signs. Actually one of my first symptoms was my teeth were growing in—well, two didn’t even grow in—but it effects your teeth because they’re being formed and what happened with me was my tooth fell out because, like I said, my body was so depleted of nutrients. And the hair was falling out because, again, it needs nutrients to grow. So it’s basically like I was starving my body of everything.
How did you feel when you were finally diagnosed as a Celiac?
I was actually happy, because I was able to put an end to the questions that I had for years with my health.
Talk about your evolution from newly diagnosed person to Celiac disease advocate.
What the doctor was telling me was eat gluten free. That was it. And that’s really just the beginning of the undertaking; you have to transform your life. It’s very much an auto-immune disease and no one was really helping me deal with that and all the lack of nutrients that I had had and all the damage it did to my system and no one was telling me how to rebuild. I just found it to be actually just sinful almost, it was just not OK that the country we live in that I was having to ask these questions of myself because there was nobody telling me what to do.
How did you decide to open your own bakery?
First of all, the gluten-free products that were out there were not done in a gluten-free facility, which right off the bat, a Celiac can’t have. Second, they were loaded with starches and sugars and preservatives and things that I didn’t want.
How hands-on are you at the bakery?
Every recipe is mine. I bake there all the time, I’m there all the time, this isn’t—I put my name on it. This is my bakery, every single detail is from me.
This summer, you’ll be on the show Taxi Brooklyn on NBC. Is this your TV comeback?
No, not at the moment. That was something I did, it has a very limited schedule with which I was able to still run my bakery and finish the book, so that’s why that worked out. But no, I don’t have any plans to return any time soon—I have too much happening on the other end over here.
About a week ago, I saw signs for an untitled Jennifer Esposito project that was filming nearby. Did that have something to do with Celiac Disease?
Anything that I do with the bakery has to do with what the message I’m trying to get out, so yeah, we’ll see if that project comes to fruition—it’s in a very early stage right now but we’re always filming things at the bakery whether it be for my blog or someone else’s health-minded blog or something like that, so there’s always some good things going on.
What do you think about how the East Village looks today compared with when you first lived there?
Oh it’s so much different. I was scared to walk out of my house when I lived there years ago and now it’s insane, it’s crazy.
Oh absolutely. It’s great.
Jennifer’s Way, 263 E. 10th St. b/t Ave. A and 1st Ave., 646-682-9501, Tuesday and Wednesday 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 10: 30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.