Photo by Jeff Fierberg

Chef-Activist Kelly Whitaker Wants To Change How We View Flour

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When was the last time you really looked closely at the flour in your kitchen? If you’re like most people, probably not recently — or, more likely, maybe never.

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that bag of all-purpose flour on the shelf of your pantry. But according to Kelly Whitaker, the James Beard Award-nominated chef-activist with restaurants in Boulder and Denver, flour can — and should — be so much more than just an afterthought.

Whitaker, the restaurateur behind Basta in Boulder and The Wolf’s Tailor, Brutø and BØH in Denver, is on a mission to change how home bakers and professional chefs feel about flour. More specifically, he hopes to change their minds about the grains used to make flour.

To that end, he founded Noble Grain Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the use of domestic, milled-to-order grains by educating farmers and chefs. He also opened Dry Storage, an artisan grain mill and bakery in Boulder specializing in heirloom flours and baked goods.

We sat down with Whitaker to learn more about his grain-based endeavors in Colorado.

Photo by Jeff Fierberg

How did you first become interested in heirloom grains?  

Since the beginning of my journey as a chef and restaurateur, I have been interested in how food affects the people and planet. I have never stopped learning, and my commitment to sustainability helped shape me as a chef-activist.

I started Basta in 2010 and, at the same time, there was a surge in Italian-style, wood-fired pizza in the U.S. American chefs thought they had to use Italian flour if they wanted “true” Italian wood-fired pizza. This seemed to run counter to what I had learned about local and regional food from the chefs I had trained under and the journey I had been on. I worked in Naples, Italy, and I knew the chefs there would never fly their flour in from somewhere else; they believed in local foods. I started testing domestic flours milled fresh and immediately knew that I was right. The flour had a freshness and a performance that created a much better product compared to the flown-in Italian flours. I took this mentality to all of our kitchens and started looking beyond pizza and wanted to know everything about grains. Corn, rice, wheat — all grains found their place and it became the center point for our restaurant group.

After educating myself, I started Noble Grain Alliance. I wanted to help promote this movement and share what I had learned about local grains. I saw an opportunity for me to have a direct impact on this movement by taking a leap to start a mill that would provide flour for chefs and create a direct-to-consumer product. I was tired of hearing “someone should do this and we need to act now,” so I decided to be that person.

Photo courtesy of Dry Storage

Why are you so passionate about heirloom grains?

Grains are a high-impact crop. They make up more than 50 percent of the caloric intake of humans and, in other countries, that percentage is much higher. Bad grains cause really bad things for people and the planet, and the smallest positive shifts in this movement can have tremendous outcomes for all of us. It’s personal in that grains affect our individual health but, on a large scale, they also impact climate change. Industrial wheat has a small root structure that causes soil erosion, and many large-scale grain crops are sprayed with chemicals. Heirloom varieties have a much larger root structure that helps the soil; grain grown in a regenerative way through crop rotation gives back to the planet.  Also, commercial grains tend to be a race to the bottom — how much can we produce, how much can we extract from the soil. It’s a take-all mentality.

What role do growers play in this work?  

We started our work with farmers first. It’s important that we prove the model and understand the supply chain rather than just buy grains. If we could do this, then it would encourage other farmers to think about regenerative farming. It has not been easy. We found a farmer who was already rotating crops and using regenerative agriculture practices. I asked that farm to take out their cover drop and plant our heirloom wheat varieties. They took a huge chance on us and we were at the mercy of the weather and the idea that these varieties would work. I offered to pay them much more than traditional organic grains and significantly more than commodity wheat.  We are in our third season and I love the framework we have built. They grow our wheat, and we commit to buying it all.

What are the goals of Dry Storage?  

Our goal is to change the way that everyone looks at flour. We often compare it to coffee — 15 years ago, there was Folgers’ pre-ground coffee in the middle of the grocery aisle. Now, thanks to Starbucks and several other coffee companies, people buy beans and grind them at home. We want to change every home in America, and we are starting with chefs. And we want to make sure all people in the supply chain are taken care of. Chefs have still not fully taken on local flour or regional grains in their restaurants, but they are starting. It’s fun to be on the wave and watch it happening.

Photo by Jeff Fierberg

How does milling work? How is flour made?

Flour is made by grinding whole wheat berries into a fine powder. There are multiple ways to do this, but we stone-mill our grain. It is very simple, where you feed the wheat berries in between two large, circular stones, one of which is spinning and set to spin very close to the other stone. This grinds the entire wheat berry very finely, which keeps more of the whole grain intact in the final flour while still performing well because of its fine particle size. The flour will then be bagged as whole wheat flour, which contains 100 percent of the grain in the final flour, or sent through our sifter, which will take out the largest 10 percent of the flour. This allows chefs to have versatility with whole grain flour and/or slightly sifted.

Photo courtesy of Dry Storage

What else do you wish more people knew?

These grains and flours are not just for professional bakers. Look around your pantry and understand that grains make up a huge amount of our diets. Choose better grains, don’t rely on over-processed grains to deliver what your body needs and what your mouth craves. Better grains equal more delicious and more nutritious foods. As a chef, it has impacted our food more than any item in our kitchen. When you see these flours as a base for gravy, chocolate chip cookies or a pie crust, you will understand what I am saying.

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