It’s a grey Seattle morning, and sheets of rain beat down on a yellow building in the city’s Ravenna neighbourhood. Just a few miles north of the Amazon headquarters, this quiet residential area houses three restaurants owned by acclaimed chef Edouardo Jordan, including Lucinda Grain Bar.
I duck in from the rain and enter the tiny space that has just two dozen seats – it feels intimate and familiar, like someone’s home early in the morning. Wainscoting and cabinetry are painted dark blue, and glass bottles and jars line the walls, filled with dried beans and grains. But despite its diminutive size, one can expect great things to happen here, because Jordan runs the show.
Jordan, dressed in jeans, clogs and a black JuneBaby sweatshirt, welcomes me with his characteristic broad smile. JuneBaby, his outrageously popular Southern American restaurant next door, earned a prestigious James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2018, among countless other accolades, making it difficult to score a table. Facing a rain-streaked window, he explains the concept behind Lucinda and how it differs from his other two restaurants – JuneBaby and the Italian-inspired Salare. When the space next door to JuneBaby became available, he leapt at the chance to consolidate the functions of the three eateries. “We also thought, since we use ancient grains at the other restaurants, let’s do more of that,” Jordan reveals.
At Lucinda, Jordan’s focus is to celebrate these grains. “Commodity grains are stripped down and super processed,” he says, referring to the method by which grains such as wheat are mass-produced in an industrial system built for efficiency and consistency, not flavour or nutrition. According to him, it’s important that the grains remain whole. “I’m saying don’t strip it down,” he adds. “You’ve got to have those fibres and brans. That’s where the minerals and nutrients are and where different flavour profiles come from.” Jordan is also interested in incorporating the grains into unusual and inventive flavour combinations. That means diners at Lucinda might enjoy local einkorn ice cream with oats and red quinoa; local wheat berries with chicken and mushrooms; or bucatini made from locally grown and milled buckwheat, as well as a cocktail made of toasted local rye berries from Small’s Family Farm in Walla Walla.
Because of Lucinda’s smaller size, Jordan can experiment with limited quantities of unique ingredients, particularly when it comes to grains. “I always work with people who are doing interesting things,” he says. “If someone calls me and says, ‘Hey chef, I have 10 pounds of this heirloom grain,’ I’ll make magic with it, which I couldn’t do at an 80-table place.”
Indeed, a new wave of innovative Seattle chefs such as Jordan are working with farmers, millers and scientists across Washington State to reinvent a local grain market. Though Washington State is a major producer of wheat, nearly all of it is exported. But a shift is underway to grow, mill, sell and consume grains all in the same place – the way it used to be.
A century ago, farmers in the United States would take their grain to a local mill to be ground into flour and sold to bakers and homeowners. While it brought efficiencies in food production, the industrialisation of agriculture led to the demise of many small farms and mills, and almost all of the flour sold in the US today is fluffy white powder that’s mass-produced by large operations and lacks vitamins and minerals.
“You’ve got to have those fibres and brans…where different flavour profiles come from”
“The current food system is making people sick,” says Niels Brisbane, the culinary director at The Bread Lab/Canlis Research Kitchen, just over an hour north of Seattle in Skagit Valley. “People need to eat food shortly after it comes out of the ground.” Last year, Brisbane left Seattle’s iconic fine-dining Canlis Restaurant to forge a partnership with The Bread Lab.
In this bucolic corner of the country, scientists, chefs, farmers and bakers are making strides to reinvent the local food system. The 1,100m2 lab includes a baking kitchen, a baking school and a milling laboratory. Soft, sweeping fields nearby are filled with thousands of varieties of wheat, barley, buckwheat and other small grains, which researchers select based on flavour, nutrition, yield and other factors. Brisbane then tests those varieties in different culinary applications – a grain that, say, does not do well in bread might make great pasta. As new markets are emerging for those varieties, he acts as a liaison between farmers and chefs.
Until recently, farmers in Skagit Valley either sold wheat on the commodity market and lost money or grew it solely as a cover crop to provide organic matter for their more lucrative crops. But when The Bread Lab opened in 2011, director Stephen Jones started working with nearby farmers to grow grains bred for the maritime climate and for local consumption. Putting those grains to good use, breweries, distilleries and maltsters started popping up.
When Cairnspring Mills opened in 2017, next to The Bread Lab, it was a game changer. Now, Western Washingtonians have greater access to freshly milled high-quality flour, made in their own backyard. Farmers earn a premium for their wheat and can process it nearby, and the critical connection between farm, mill, baker and customer has been re-established. As a result, the Skagit Valley is becoming known as a local hub for choice grains.
One of the bakeries that partners with Cairnspring is Grand Central Bakery, a mid- sized operation in Seattle. Helmed by head baker Mel Darbyshire, the 2,500m2 production facility south of downtown turns out baked goods for the five Grand Central cafés and the almost 500 restaurants and stores it supplies in the region. About 7,000 loaves of bread and 12,000 buns and rolls are made here daily, requiring over three tons of flour. Given this volume, the production floor seems surprisingly calm and organised: ovens rotate neat loaves of bread, silky dough waits in white bins, people knead quietly.
“This is my favourite room,” says Darbyshire leaning against a pile of 50-pound flour bags. Wearing a baseball cap and flour-dusted blue pants, she’s grinning like a kid in a candy store. We’re standing in a storage room, where wooden pallets are stacked with bags of flour and white nylon silos – holding 85,000 pounds of flour each – float above us like giant balloons. Bags of Yecora Rojo wheat flour from Cairnspring are labelled “Trail Blazer” – an apt name for both the flour and for Darbyshire herself.
Darbyshire has worked hard over the last decade to switch to local sources for many of her ingredients. When she started working at Grand Central Bakery 20 years ago, everything was made from commodity flour. Today, more than half of her flours and grains comes from Washington State and neighbouring Oregon. “My dream is to have one silo filled with flour from Cairnspring and one silo with flour from Small’s,” Darbyshire says, adding that her goal is to get to 100% local grains as soon as possible.
Besides Jordan and Darbyshire, other Seattle chefs are also showcasing the huge potential of local grains. At Lark in Seattle’s hip Capitol Hill, chef John Sundstrom churns out loaves made from wheat grown in Washington State and milled by either Cairnspring or Small’s. Round loaves sit on a wicker tray ready for dinner service, and Sundstrom looks around the kitchen for a bread knife before cutting me a thick slice. The crust is crunchy and golden. Inside it’s chewy and yeasty, with smoked fermented farro grains lending a satisfying crunch and nutty flavour.
Embracing local ingredients is nothing new for Sundstrom. When Lark opened in 2003, he was committed to the careful sourcing of local and seasonal ingredients. Like Lark, many Seattle restaurants have been committed to deriving their meat and produce from Northwest farmers and ranchers, and we’re now seeing that ethos extend specifically to grains and flours.
Sundstrom’s favourite farro comes from Bluebird Grain Farms, a family operation in the small town of Winthrop, nestled in the grassy foothills of the North Cascades. It’s also where Jordan gets the emmer and einkorn that ends up in dishes at Lucinda. When Bluebird Grain Farms started selling its organic emmer farro in 2004, Sundstrom was an early and enthusiastic buyer.
“It’s so delicious and has a better texture,” Sundstrom says, comparing it to the semi- pearled farro from Italy that he used previously. Bluebird farro is still on the menu at Lark, usually prepared with mascarpone cheese. And at his other spot Southpaw, the pizza dough is made with a proprietary blend that he and the team at Small’s came up with using Small’s bread flour and Bluebird’s hard red wheat.
Brooke and Sam Lucy are the couple behind Bluebird Grain Farms. In 2004, the Lucys planted these ancient grains because they couldn’t find any grown in the US. Because there was no facility to process these ancient grains in-state, the Lucys built an on-site processing facility when they started the farm, making Bluebird, to their best knowledge, the only producer-processor in the country. It doesn’t get more local than that.
With 93 hectares under cultivation, the Lucys also grow winter rye, hard white wheat and red spring wheat for local bakeries. Their yields have been just as good as any modern wheat, Brooke claims, largely due to the healthy soil. Still, ancient grains are more expensive to grow than conventional grains, according to Brooke – subsidised conventional wheat costs about US$0.20 per pound to grow, whereas Bluebird’s minimum cost to grow ancient grains organically is US$0.60 per pound. “We hoped there would be a market here,” Brooke says, adding that the grains are so versatile and are excellent in soups, salads and pilafs. “We can’t compete with conventional grains, but the nutritional value is not there in a subsidised loaf of bread, and our goal is to grow optimally nutritious grains.”
The Lucys are right: there certainly is a market here. The big challenge now, according to Brisbane at The Bread Lab, is to make this sort of good, healthy and locally produced food accessible to more people as it continues to be adopted on a larger scale throughout Seattle and the rest of the country. “Fifteen-dollar loaves of bread caters to a food elite,” he says. “Ultimately we want every school lunch to have local rolls.”
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This article was originally published in the March 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine