Baking With Ancient Grains at Friends & Family in Los Angeles

At the bright and airy Friends & Family restaurant in Los Angeles, its impressive display is thoughtfully arranged with over two dozen baked goods. A mountain of shatteringly crispy croissants, a round of crumble-topped almond coffee cake, and a nearly teetering stack of canelé stand out in pastry chef Roxana Jullapat’s repertoire of baked goods. Carefully scored loaves of organic bread are proudly showcased high up on the wall behind the case. The accompanying descriptions only offer a glimpse into what locally grown, heirloom and ancient grains are being utilized. Here, her plain croissant is made with Sonora wheat, the blueberry scone with blue corn, and chocolate chip cookies with the malty flavor of rye.

Jullapat’s roster of whole grains are clearly ones that an artisanal baker uses: Yecora Rojo wheat, Bloody Butcher cornmeal, heirloom Japanese rice, and purple barley, to name a few. Most of her grains are sourced domestically, like from California’s Central Milling or South Carolina’s Anson Mills, though she’ll procure corn from Mexico and wheat from Canada at times. She says it only makes sense to her as a baker to incorporate as many seasonal and locally grown ingredients in her products, and finding unique grains in California’s bounty of crops isn’t too difficult. Jullapat, who owns Friends & Family with her husband and chef Daniel Mattern, has had a long history working at lauded restaurants that value these tenets; between the two, they’ve cooked and baked in kitchens of A.O.C., Lucques, and the now-closed Campanile.

For bakers like Jullapat, it helps that grain is in the midst of a renaissance. Over the last decade, the movement towards utilizing locally grown heritage and ancient grains over commodity crops has gained lots of ground. As the interests of artisanal bakers, small farmers and millers, and consumers have intersected, the food systems in bringing these specialized crops to the forefront have become stronger. Freshly milled flour made with whole grains have become a reality through small-scale grain farms and millers who are passionate about bringing more diverse and vibrant flavors to the culinary world.

“The way that grain production has evolved is that it’s becoming a little more local,” Jullapat says. “You can actually find grains grown closer to you. Also, we have a larger possibility of tracing the grain back to where it came from.”

Jullapat likens using high-quality grain and getting robust flavor out of it to purchasing prized cuts of meat for cooking. “Farmers that have great husbandry practices have really delicious, special and expensive beef,” Jullapat says. “It’s the same for grain, for sure.”

There are environmental benefits as well. Followers of the locally grown movement believe that by removing the need to transport crops across the country, they make less of a carbon footprint. As scientists are studying the effects of climate change, they’re looking towards heirloom crops as a way to mitigate the effects. National Geographic reports, “In heirlooms, their fans see treasuries of biodiversity and resilience, protection against heat, drought, diseases, and pests that will be needed as a changing climate makes current crops and animals—which have been reduced to a narrow genetic range—harder to grow.”

While the uninitiated may be intimidated by how to use these special grains, Jullapat is nonchalant about them. She doesn’t consider baking with these ingredients as something out of the ordinary or as its own discipline, but rather a means to expand her lineup of flours to enhance her creations. “[Using these grains is] woven throughout your daily production without having to make a distinction [that you’re doing it],” Jullapat says. “It’s integral to the way we [as bakers] perform.”

Jullapat believes the aspirational goal of a baker is to make more honest and wholesome products—and part of that is employing the use of whole grains. Studies have found that whole grains have a host of nutritional benefits over refined flours, such as lowering the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. However, Jullapat is cognizant that she is still a baker and does use sugar. “From a baker’s perspective, my intention is not to give you healthy baking, but to give you a wholesome one, one that really reflects the ingredients in them,” she says.

Jullapat remembers 10 years ago, bakers were able to work with just a few of many varieties of grains available today, like cornmeal, spelt, and buckwheat. Her portfolio of flours has grown over the years, thanks in part to baking bread. “Bread lets you experiment a lot because you have one basic recipe and you get to taste a lot of grains and [discover] what they do to your bread,” Jullapat says.

She doesn’t feel that her usage of heirloom and ancient flours are unique to L.A. bakeries. In fact, Jullapat sometimes gets inspiration for her own baking from other shops at times. “You end up doing things that you tasted along the way,” she says. “In a way, it’s not an isolated experience.”

This shared experience has created a community for bakers like Jullapat and like-minded grain advocates, one that has formed organically. In 2018, Jullapat helped host the event, “Bread Winners: A Conversation with Women in Bread,” with the California Grain Campaign at Friends & Family. They had speakers like farmer and activist Mai Nguyen, miller and baker Nan Kohler of L.A.’s Grist & Toll, and baker Kate Pepper open up conversations about regional heritage grains and the roles they’ve played in the movement.

Jullapat buys flour from Kohler, a leader in the local grain movement. “I’m very lucky to work with Nan Kohler because she develops recipes [with her flours]. Not only is she a miller, she’s also a really talented baker, so she does R&D and shares that welcome information with her customers.”

While Jullapat is part of this grain community, she still does live the busy life of a baker, which is waking up at 2 a.m. and going to bed at 6 p.m. She says it’s hard to have free time to chat with everyone all the time, but there’s a common bond that links them all together whenever they do see each other.

“What is true is once you’re in the community, once you run into each other, there’s definitely a common language, a tacit understanding,” Jullapat says. “And you can easily embark in a conversation about what you’re doing, what you need, and what you like—and it’s doesn’t feel forced. . . . There is a common language and that is really how you build on your knowledge. You learn as you go.”

 

Friends & Family

5150 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027

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