Chris and Nicole Wilkins of Root Baking Co.
I don't know about you, but when I launch into "America, the Beautiful's" "for amber waves of grain," I don't picture South Carolina. The Palouse mountains of Eastern Washington and its 2.2 million acres of wheat, sure. Kansas, Iowa, any of the Bread Basket states, of course. But not Charleston.
Glenn Roberts, owner of Anson Mills and preeminent grain guru of the Carolinas, tells a different story however, one that traces heirloom wheats to the Lowcountry. Now, after years of working to resurrect touchstone varieties like red may, turkey wheat, and abruzzi rye, he's found a like-minded baker in Chris Wilkins, who, together with his wife Nicole, run Root Baking Co. and are baking some of the best breads in the Lowcountry.
First, let's back up. How does an heirloom crop, like red may or, my personal favorite, Rouge de Bordeaux, vanish from our agricultural history? If you ask Glenn Roberts, you better be ready because the man can spin a yarn. What started out as a call for a few quotes, evolved into a Hunter S. Thompson-esque adventure, only instead of quaaludes, Roberts was all hopped up on seeds. Lots and lots of seeds.
"When I first came to Charleston in late 1970s, no one was growing wheat," says Roberts. "But a lot of people that staffed East Bay Dry Cleaners, all their relatives had heard about kitchen plot wheat on Yonges Island. And they were missing their wheat."
As Roberts' conversations with the dry cleaning staff continued, he kept hearing a common term: graham wheat. "It turns out, this simple, unrefined, live biscuit flour was an entire cannon of foodways here," he says.
South Carolina had once grown plenty of wheat — varieties that had arrived in the colony with the first settlers — but as commercial agriculture began to favor uniformity over flavor, eventually those varieties were lost.
Eager to learn more, Roberts went looking, and that's how he found Peter Hatch, the chief groundsman at Monticello.
"Peter had archives from Jefferson on everything — well, except of course Sally Hemmings," says Roberts. "We were on the phone for 10 minutes, then I just got up and drove there."
"To Virginia?" I ask.
"Yea, to Charlottesville."
Nine hours later, Roberts was standing in front of Hatch at Monticello. Hatch explained that red may was the most persistent of the post-Colonial era wheat cultivars of the South. "Hatch said, 'Go out in the country and plow around and see if you can find any. I would guess a very rural and old black family might be growing this stuff,'" says Roberts. But before he should do that, Hatch told him he needed to talk to Wayne Randolph, the agricultural specialist at Colonial Williamsburg.
"So I went to see Wayne, and totally freaked him out too," says Roberts.
Suffice it to say, after realizing heirloom grains were still around and could be grown, Roberts decided he had to try it himself. Randolph gave him some seeds, and he enlisted Wadmalaw farmers George and Celeste Albers, who agreed to plant 10 acres of the red may and teach him a few things about farming in the process. Lesson one: Don't read.
"George and I had long talks," says Roberts. "He said, 'You can read your ass off. It's called book farming, friend. Enjoy those books, but you'll get awful hungry.'"
Lesson two: You can't just throw wheat in the ground and expect flour a few months later. Wheat harvesting requires equipment. They'd need a grain drill, combine, and mill, all of which George didn't have.
But tools were procured and the red may began to grow, slowly. At least too slow for Roberts. He'd visit the Albers' farm weekly checking in on his crop and inevitably drove Celeste mad. "She told me to stop coming," says Roberts.
Of course he didn't. Instead, on one of his next visits he accidentally ran his Lexus into one of George's ditches.
Fed up, George told Roberts he could only continue to come out to the farm if he started working with them. Suffice it to say, Roberts quickly learned how to shovel chicken shit.
But just as spring becomes summer and winter turns to fall, eventually his red may was ready for harvest. The eager grain rookie used a hand mill to grind it into biscuit flour and raced it downtown to Hominy Grill's chef Robert Stehling.
"I told Robert he had to make biscuits right now," says Roberts. As Roberts tells it, Chef Stehling, who was prepping lunch, begrudgingly took the flour and after much cajoling, gave in, whipped up some biscuit dough, and popped them in the oven.
"This aroma filled the kitchen and was all the way out in the street," remembers Roberts. Stehling was impressed. "Suddenly lunch wasn't so important," says Roberts. Vindicated, that's when the grain freak knew his project could rise.
And it did. Today Roberts' Anson Mills company sells over 40 Old and New World artisan wheat, rye, and oat products.
Enter, the Wilkins. The couple — a pharmacist and an Italian-film-grad-turned-bread-aficionado, are the folks behind Savannah Highway's Root Baking Co. the place bringing Roberts' heritage bread dreams to life. And, I'll be damned, they're not even Southern.
"We met in Rochester, N.Y.," Nicole says. We're in their cozy headquarters just kitty-corner to Dodge's Chicken on Highway 17. Inside, Root Baking Co. is filled with paper loaf molds, cooling racks, a walk-in, and huge grain and flour sacks, one of which Chris is sitting on.
The couple met tutoring inner-city school children in Albany, then "Yada yada yada," says Chris blushing, "here we are."
Come to find out that George Costanza-line is actually the real bulk of the story. It includes four major baking gigs Chris held before he and Nicole set up shop in the Lowcountry. In chronological order: Chris worked at Middlesex, Vt.'s Red Hen Baking Co. under bread mensch Randy George. Next, he did a stint with esteemed French baker Gérard Rubaud in Westford, Vt. He then was recruited by seed-to-loaf evangelist Thom Leonard and helped him open Athens, Ga.'s Independent Baking Co. And finally Chris got hooked up with celebuchef Hugh Acheson just in time to launch the bread program at Savannah's The Florence restaurant in 2014. All this and he's not even 30-years-old.
That might be why the millennial baker is so chill in his sales approach.
"We don't advertise the milling and organic stuff," says Chris. A true sustainability believer, he's wary of spouting off organic dogma.
"I tend to think that kind of thing can sometimes veer into the bells and whistles. If your product's not great, it doesn't matter," he says. That's why he's fashioned his sales approach after Parks & Recreation's Ron Swanson. "I'm like, 'It's a good bread. It will last a good long time. It will be delicious with a sandwich and with your meals or by itself.'"
Of course, said bread will also be chock full of heirloom grains the likes of which — as Nicole can attest — Chris can nerd out about at length. Keep in mind this is a man who attended the Northern Grain Growers Association's annual Grain Growers Conference for fun.
Perhaps that's why chefs like Edmund's Oast's Reid Henninger and The Lot's RJ Dye love the Wilkins loaves so much. They're all on the same wavelength.
"I like Root's bread because it's the best I've had in my life," says Henninger without the slightest hint of sarcasm. At Edmund's, the executive chef uses three Root Baking Co. breads on his menu. His pickled shrimp plate includes the Wilkins' rye, while his beef tartare with black olives, egg yolk, and Asher Blue cheese sits on the Root's spelt bread.
"It's just a thousand times better than bulk commodity bread," says Henninger. His staff are such fans that when Nicole drops off a delivery, which often includes still warm baguettes for the restaurant's charcuterie boards, Edmund's kitchen crew will stop what they're doing, rip off chunks from a fresh-from-the-oven loaf, and dredge it through stove-top melted butter.
"Rarely do you take a baguette and just savor it," Henninger says. "But it's that good."
The Lot's Chef Dye agrees. He's become a big fan of Root's porridge bread which is exactly what it sounds like. "He takes seven grains like rye, wheat berries, millet, oats, spelt, and makes a porridge out of it, then folds that in. It makes this dense, crunchy bread," he says. A loaf that makes the perfect seasonal appetizer — porridge bread topped with homemade whipped ricotta, various citrus, herbs, and sunflower seeds. "It's the most beautiful piece of toast you've ever seen," says Dye.
While Root's breads may look great, both chefs will tell you it's the flavor that counts. A flavor that's the result of a the serendipitous joining of an uber-talented young baker with grain varieties older than this nation. And to think it all started with a trip to the dry cleaner.