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Meet GF Joe, gluten-free baker and cookoff show participant

By Patti Ewald, Times Staff Writer
Photos by JIM DAMASKE | Times
Joseph Camerieri, a Clearwater-based baker of gluten-free products, including biscotti, has been in cooking contests, including ABC’s digital summer series Home Chef Showdown. He didn’t win, but he enjoyed it.

There's show biz in his blood and gluten-free biscotti in his oven.

And finally, Joseph Camerieri, a 50-year-old from Clearwater with a Brooklyn accent and the energy of a battery-run bunny, got a chance to marry the two.

He fought with the fury of a grilling wildebeest Sunday on the premiereof Home Chef Showdown, a summer cookoff series on ABC's digital Live Well Network. Camerieri was chosen over hundreds of home chefs because producers liked his energy and the gluten-free angle in the videos he submitted, said Cindy Connors, the show's co-executive producer.

He and two other contestants were given a twofold appetizer challenge — one cold, one grilled.

In the first, he made hummus from the six mystery ingredients he was given, including chickpeas, sun-dried tomatoes and mortadella. "It wasn't very good," Camerieri said.

He didn't win.

The grilled challenge seemed custom-made for an Italian from Long Island: pizza.

He rolled the ball of dough — gluten free, by the way — into a pie and put in on the grill, topped with artichoke and other items. Then he left it to help (help? in a cookoff?!) one of the other contestants who was struggling. (You probably know where this is going.) By the time he got back to his own pie, the bottom was burned. He didn't win.

The contestant he helped did.

"I'm happy I helped her. I had a great, great time. I went trying to win but I really just wanted to be on the show. I want to do more of those types of shows."

Shows, Camerieri said, such as Shark Tank, through which he would want to prove he's a budding entrepreneur worthy of financial backing, and Cupcake Wars, a show he could use to demonstrate he's an experienced baker worthy of accolades for creations such as his Coconut Cinnamon Swirl Cupcakes.

We caught up with the baker between batches of biscotti to ask him a few questions.

1 How did you get started baking?

My family had a bakery — Camerieri's Italian Bakery — on Main Street in Dunedin. My brother has the bakery now, but he moved it to Clearwater.

2 How did you get the show biz bug?

When I was 9 years old and living on Long Island, my uncle had a bit part in The Seven Ups, a gritty detective movie set in New York. It was exciting to see him in it. Years later, I talked him into getting me a bit part on 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage, a TV show being filmed in Miami. I played a mugger and had only two lines, but I got to shadow a director around the set.

After that, I went to Hollywood to take a three-month course on filming. The day before I was supposed to come home, I got a production assistant job at Stephen J. Cannell Studios (The Rockford Files, The A-Team). That job, along with a series of others, turned what was to be three months in California into eight years. It was like real-life film school. I walked Hollywood Boulevard every day and was on every film lot and studio, delivering scripts to stars' homes and seeing famous locations. I also was an extra in TV shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The Nanny and Frasier, and in movies such as Kiss The Girls, The Other Guys and The Bounty Hunter.

3 When you weren't feeling well, you figured out it was the gluten. How can the rest of us know we might be sensitive to wheat?

I had a rash on my hand for years. I woke up fatigued. I had headaches. When it got worse in 1997, I saw doctors, but they couldn't figure it out. It wasn't until friends who knew about food allergies gave me a book that listed all my symptoms under gluten intolerance — lack of focus, lethargy, headaches, fatigue, rash, stomach issues, cloudy thinking, indecisiveness — that I knew. I felt like I was drunk intellectually all the time. The book had a great cure: stop eating gluten. Not easy for a pasta-loving Italian, but after only four or five days, I felt a tremendous amount of energy and my thoughts were clearer. In the next couple years, I found out I was also allergic to dairy, rice and yeast.

4 What can you tell us about GF Joe and the GF Joe brand?

In 2011, after the economy went bad and I lost my job, I decided to create my own line of GF (gluten-free) Joe products. I baked in my kitchen at first, but now I rent the bakery from my brother. Someday, I hope to have my own retail bakery to sell my GF Joe gluten-free products.

I have six flavors of biscotti — coconut is my bestseller — sesame seed sticks, biscotti mixes and GF Joe Cookie Dough. I'm hoping to get funding to expand my brand.

5 What would your dream job be?

To be a player in the National Hockey League. Second would be to be Batman. He was a very successful businessman. I'd love to have 50 GF Joe bakeries and my brand in 5,000 stores.