Dining

The Grain Attraction

A heritage grain revolution is sweeping the country, one delicious bowl of pasta at a time
Chefs Are Starting a Grain Revolution
Photo: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

"The farm-to-table movement forgot our most basic food."

That's JD McLelland, director of Ingrained, a documentary on American grains that he will release later this year. "It's the last frontier," Chris Bianco, owner of the famed Pizzeria Bianco, chimes in.

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"Most people have never even tasted a shadow of what wheat should taste like," Kevin Fink of Austin's Emmer & Rye explains. But that's all starting to change. Across the country, there's a grain revolution afoot.

Heritage grain varieties and their milled flour cousins are starting to show up in dishes and on menus the way heirloom began proceeding every tomato on late-summer specials several years ago. At Emmer & Rye, which reinterprets modern American food through the lens of dim sum, Blue Beard Durum and White Sonora wheats are front and center in dishes like ricotta-stuffed cascarelli with yellow beets, fennel and chile. At Oliveto in Oakland, milled local wheat is kneaded into a dough with saffron and tossed with Manila clams, kale and Tuscan sausage (see the recipe).

With their depth of flavor and often-nutty quality, heritage varieties, which stretch back generations, transform pasta and bread from a vehicle for sauce or butter to the main event. Sherry Mandell of Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project in Southern California likens them to tomatoes. "When you say San Marzano tomatoes, you know what you're going to get. It has such a flavor memory." The same, she hopes, will soon spring to mind for diners eating local heritage grains.

"It's reawakening this giant," says Bob Klein, who co-owns Oliveto and owns Community Grains, which makes heritage wheat flours and pastas. "I know lots of pastry chefs who are milling their own grains, who weren't doing that even five years ago," Anson Mills' Glenn Roberts, arguably the grandfather of this movement, says.

Across the country, a grain revolution is taking place. | Photo: J.D. McLelland III, INGRAINED Film (ingrainedfilm.com)

Though the movement's been brewing for years or decades, depending upon which experts you ask, it's struggled to get off the ground in the face of the four companies responsible for 80 percent of the country's wheat supply. The economics of growing, milling and selling non-commodity grains (i.e., anything you don't see at the grocery store) are exceptionally difficult on a microscale; on a larger scale, it's just not quite there yet.

This is in part because the flours are challenging to work with. "It's always a headache when you get a new batch in," Greg Wade, who oversees the bread program for Publican Quality Bread, says. Each batch is likely to act differently. Though most come with a certificate of analysis, or "a blueprint for the flour," it requires time and a skilled hand to work through the quirks.

Speaking about his documentary, McLelland says, "The entire reason [for the film] was to get real answers and solutions, and not just problems."  

And, finally, those solutions are coming. You're seeing new varieties of grains that are easier for chefs to work with but still pack flavor and nutrition. You're also seeing more partnerships between chefs, grain growers and millers, many of which McLelland, Roberts and others are helping forage and organize, proving that community is key for this movement to keep growing. "When you talk about improving a tomato, you can do that by yourself in your yard," McLelland says. "Grain is such a complex thing . . . it needs to include community."

In Austin, Kevin Fink is using grains like Blue Beard Durum to make dishes like this play on the Roman classic cacio e pepe. | Photo: Courtesy of Emmer & Rye

In Southern California, the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project, which acts as a grain hub for the area, is doing just that. It's growing varieties like Abruzzi rye, hard red wheat and Red Fife on a small scale for restaurants and bakeries like Rose Café and Huckleberry's sister project, Milo & Olive. Evan Funke, who is preparing to open his much-anticipated Italian restaurant, Felix, hopes to bring back seeds of heritage wheat varieties from Italy to be grown by Tehachapi. 

In Northern California, Klein is hosting informal gatherings at his restaurants for members of the grain community. He also says he's "ramping up to 5 million pounds [of grain] per year in the next four years." And in Illinois, Wade is helping a team build a bread lab and a grain-testing center like the pioneering one at Washington State University. "We're trying to act as a middle man," Wade says, connecting growers with bakers and chefs.

These connections and the information they pass from grower to chef or baker are crucial for building momentum, and for keeping those killer pastas on menus across the country.

In Southern California, the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project is reinvigorating the grain economy and providing heritage grains to a growing group of restaurants. | Photo: Brita Potenza

There's still a lot of documentation and knowledge sharing to be done, Funke says. And McLelland's upcoming documentary, as well as its accompanying series of shorter documentaries, The Grain Divide (the original title for his fillm) that show the rise and challenges of the movement, are perfect cases in point.

So, too, is the upcoming project by icons Bianco and Chad Robertson, who are working on what promises to combine Tartine Manufactory with a restaurant, market and more. "We'll use all heritage grains either milled by us or grown by friends," Bianco says. "That's the spirit of the project"—and the entire revolution.

  • Across the country, a movement to grow heritage grains is afoot.

    Photo: Brita Potenza

  • Later this year, JD McLelland hopes to release his documentary, Ingrained, about the grain movement.

    Photo: Brita Potenza

  • At Emmer & Rye in Austin, chef Kevin Fink is building partnerships with local grain growers to fuel his pasta making.

    Photo: Courtesy of Emmer & Rye

  • Cacio e pepe is given a spin with Blue Beard Durum pasta at Emmer & Rye.

    Photo: Courtesy of Emmer & Rye

  • McLelland has spent the past five years on farms, in kitchens and with millers documenting the growing grain revolution around the U.S. for his documentary.

    Photo: J.D. McLelland III, INGRAINED Film (ingrainedfilm.com)

  • Working with heritage grains and whole wheat requires a skilled hand and knowledge from a community of farmers, millers and chefs.

    Photo: J.D. McLelland III, INGRAINED Film (ingrainedfilm.com)

  • In Chicago, baker Greg Wade, who works at The Publican, is part of a team working to build a grain-testing center and bread lab.

    Photo: Courtesy of Publican Quality Bread

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