Gluten-free baker makes Food Network debut

Lisa Altfest, a TPHS grad, appears on Food Network's Halloween Cookie Challenge.
(Olivia Norton Lance)

Gluten-free baker Lisa Altfest finally achieved her dream of being on The Food Network.

What once seemed far-fetched, the gluten-free cookie artist and cake designer with celiac disease landed on The Food Network’s “Halloween Cookie Challenge.”

“You’ve made it when you get on the Food Network,” said Altfest, a Torrey Pines High School alum.

Altfest’s episode aired on Oct. 3, the season premiere. The season includes six episodes with the last episode airing on Halloween; the show will be available streaming online on Discovery +.

Altfest is no stranger to TV baking competitions—last year she won Hulu’s “Baker’s Dozen” and, in 2019, she appeared on Netflix’s baking show “Sugar Rush” with Roanna Canete of San Diego’s Gluten Free Baking Company. In all three competitions, she baked completely gluten-free.

She admits she is a little bummed that she didn’t win the Food Network show like last time but knows that her cookies crushed it.

“I feel like I’m starting to establish myself in the gluten-free community and that’s my ultimate goal,” she said. She loves the idea that fellow celiacs and those who follow a gluten-free diet can watch the network, see her amazing creations and think: “I could actually eat that!”

Altfest grew up in Carmel Valley and graduated from Torrey Pines in 2007. Her husband, Eric, grew up in Del Mar and is a fellow Torrey Pines alum. The parents of two young children currently live in Newport Beach with plans to move to the area permanently— Eric is the general manager at the Hillstone Restaurant Group, which plans to open a new restaurant in the Del Mar village in the former Bully’s space.

Altfest had a career in marketing before she decided to pursue her true passion to be a cake designer. A month before starting pastry school at the Bonnie Gordon College of Confectionery Arts in 2015, she was diagnosed with celiac disease, an immune disease in which eating gluten damages the small intestine, She decided to learn everything there was to learn about her new lifestyle, to make the very best gluten-free treats and to prove gluten-free can be delicious.

Four contestants competed in Alfest’s episode of “Halloween Cookie Challenge”, filmed earlier this year. The first round tasked the contestants with making two cookie costumes—Altfest designed a flapper girl and a pirate. After the first round one contestant was eliminated by judges expert chef Jet Tila and “baking queen” Rosanna Pansino. The final three, including Altfest, moved onto the final round: a 3-D structural challenge to create a haunted building.

Like in all of her past competitions, Altfest was the only gluten-free contestant.

“I pride myself in working very fast,” Altfest said. She finished before the other contestants in the two-and-a-half-hour time period even though being gluten-free meant she first had to create her unique flour mixture from scratch.

Altfest wanted to create a building that would be easily identifiable by its shape so she picked a barn.

“My barn was alive,” she said—it had spooky eyes and the door was its mouth, dripping blood and eating candy. As she works so fast, she was able to add lots of meticulous and inventive details—inside one of the windows, she put a bloody handprint.

As part of the challenge, the contestants had to use a secret ingredient of a flavored liquor. Altfest was left with a choice of absinthe or melon—she wasn’t a fan of either’s taste but went with the melon even though it tasted a little like her kids’ cough syrup.

She initially overcooked the melon liquor so she smashed it into pieces and sprinkled them around like the barn had been binge-eating Halloween candy.

“I’m super, super proud of what I produced and I think I even exceeded what my own brain thought was possible in my head,” Altfest said.

Although currently booked through November, Altfest does custom cakes and cookie decorations through her website She also does the occasional pop-up shop at the Gluten Free Baking Company, which has locations in North Park and Claremont. Her gluten-free cookie baking 101 guide is available on her website and she has also recently, somewhat reluctantly, shared her gluten-free sugar cookie recipe: “It’s my baby.”

As Altfest said, there are so many people who want gluten-free goodies. While she can’t make cookies for everyone, she can make it easier for everyone to be able to enjoy a sweet treat.

Check out her creations on Instagram @ARealSweetThing