WHEAT RISING—One lab's search for truth in the spotlight #longreads

WHEAT RISING—One lab's search for truth in the spotlight #longreads

Behind the Gluten Curtain.

July 3, 2015
● 11 min read
WHEAT RISING—One lab's search for truth in the spotlight #longreads

WHEAT RISING—One lab's search for truth in the spotlight #longreads

Behind the Gluten Curtain.

July 3, 2015
● 11 min read

If there’s one thing to say about Western Washington’s Skagit Valley, home to that little Bread Lab that’s smashing everyone’s ideas about wheat into sad little pathetic pieces, it’s that these people are jacked on farming. The drive up to Mount Vernon is a straight shot from Seattle, and once you’ve entered the Valley’s hallowed ground, the signs begin in earnest.

Tune in to 1630 AM for crop reports and farm history on “InFARMation,” a program put on by Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland and the Skagit Valley College radio station. State Route 536 is not just the scenic route, it’s the agricultural scenic route. When I approach the address I’ve been given for Dr. Stephen Jones’s now-renowned lab, I half-expect to just drive up to the edge of a wheat field and wade through it until I run into someone. What I actually encounter is a stolid little building right off the main drag, a few cars parked in the lot, with greenhouses and fields visible in the distance.

This lab looks unassuming, sure, but it has established itself as the anchor of a massive sea change in the food industry. Since being given the star treatment in Dan Barber’s The Third Plate, they’re often brought on as a sort of expert witness in the larger conversation around our food systems; their existence proof that something good is happening, that it’s not all completely fucked. Or that it is, but at least there’s hope.

As a result of this sudden exposure, the story of ringmaster Stephen Jones is well-known to most by now. His love affair with wheat that began as a Chico State student in 1977 with five acres to cultivate a crop of his choice (“I had a ‘48 Ford pickup, and I’d go out in the afternoons and have a beer and sit on the roof of that truck, just looking at my wheat. Just staring at it, for months and months,” he says, a little dreamily) his passion for baking handed down from his Polish grandmother, his hatred of the commodity game and eventual rejection of it, his fierce loyalty to farmers. He indulges, and encourages, every facet of a curious mind. 

“Besides being scientists, we’re poets and musicians. I think that’s really important. We talk about art, not in a stupid way, about how it intersects with how we go about our jobs, as opposed to just sitting at the bench and cranking through stuff, looking through a microscope,” he says. “We try to not be reductionist, which is tough to do...we have to make a conscious effort to not fall into the comfort of just being scientists.”

He is a true believer in the political and philosophical ideal through whatever means possible, and his unwavering conviction has brought together a group of people that in any other circumstance might seem destined to fracture—a deeply spiritual baker alongside matter-of-fact geneticists—if not for the fact that they are all completely captivated by the same crop, and by Jones himself. 

Jonathan Bethony in his lab | all photos by Cassandra Landry.

Did they have a book club?
run into each other
at the salad bar at WF? 

Fries with kale sandwich
a coffee and beer diet
Gluten free me please 

Rode the Peugeot in
Haikus written when baking
whose wall is it on 

—Bread Lab chalkboard poems, January 12, 2015

There is a print-out illustration of a brain taped at the exact center of the Bread Lab’s test kitchen. To the left, there are traditional scientific accoutrements; scales, microscopes, beakers. To the right, there’s a huge custom-made stone mill, a multi-story oven, and stacks of wicker baskets lined with cloth for resting loaves. It is a perfect, literal meeting of the minds, and it was designed that way intentionally.

Two years ago, when the work began to attract attention from big deal chefs like Barber and Tartine’s Chad Robertson, it became obvious that there was a need for a full-time baker to field questions. But it couldn’t just be anyone. It would have to be someone who had the balls to not only use 100% whole wheat, all the time, no cheating, they’d have to be able to perfect new techniques for doing so. “What I was looking for in a chef was somebody who would not be afraid to fail,” Jones says. Jonathan Bethony, a musician and theologian who had worked under whole grains guru Craig Ponsford, was floated as a possibility. “We flew him up, and he was just such a goofball. He gets super deep into it when he talks, and it’s so real. He talks about the love in his bread, and there’s no bullshit there. He’s an absolute perfect fit.”

He and Jones share the same pious mindset towards baking, and they’re both a little eccentric when it comes to this stuff, Bethony says. There is a reason one is constantly quoted as being “haunted” by wheat, and the other can get so deep into the idea of bread-making as restoring a grain’s sense of true self that you forget where you are and what time it is. He's constantly humming with so many metaphors and psychic connections that when you walk out of there, you're blinking like you've just emerged from Plato's Cave. Whole grains are not just whole grains here. They require devotional attention, and under Jones, the science—along with the allegories and poetry—is seen as such.  

As resident baker, Bethony is charged with fusing the two fields, and translating it in such a way that the quality of the bread represents the work on both sides of the proverbial, and literal, room. He says there’s no real roadmap to the process when chefs come to rewire their brains, and this is where the intersection of the art and science becomes crucial. “It depends on the chemistry. Sometimes I just let bakers ‘play’ in the lab, but more often we are collaborating. In that way, it is like a jam session,” he says. The parallels to music are unavoidable: some like to improvise, and some are classicists. “We feel each other out until we sink into a groove, and that’s when the magic happens.”

The magic, to Bethony and to chefs who will admit it, is actual magic: the way the dough surrenders to the will of the baker, he explains, locking each other into a dance. That's something chefs can relate to, that intimacy. The allure of whole grain comes without pretense, challenging as it is, partly because Bethony learned his craft on shitty flour too. “It’s just grains, but it brings up issues,” he says. He leans back against a counter, plastic tubs full of grains with funky names rising up behind him. Druchamp, Bobtail. “The whole gluten-free thing isn’t just about gluten, right. It’s about health and transparency and wondering where our food comes from. If I’m going to find the silver lining there, I think in the end it helps artisan bakers. Artisan bakers were not the problem. We’re being vindicated.”

The road to vindication, as anyone who's ever had to fight for it, is never smooth. What we’re experiencing now, this embracing of the Bread Lab’s ideals at the upper levels of cuisine, is the result of years of pure, unforgiving work out of the spotlight done by Jones and his peers. Bread, real bread, that tastes like pure food, is a language we all speak. “I’ve spent 25 years of my career with people disagreeing with me. Whether it’s Monsanto or big ag or whatever, I can take it. I find energy in it,” Jones admits. “But it’s fulfilling to know that we’re on the right track.”

This April, as a part of an expansion that will include testing facilities for milling, brewing and distilling, Blaine Wetzel, the chef of The Willows Inn on nearby Lummi Island, is set to head up a culinary lab on site. When they first met, he and Jones realized that they had each been working on the same thing, from different angles, within 100 miles of each other. “My real expectation is to discover ingredients that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and offer them in a way that exemplifies their uniqueness,” he says, hoping to deepen our understanding of grains the way Bethony has with bread. “The point is to dive into the food and get to know it better.”

“Nobody is asking why we do things the way they are, really. There are a lot of questions to be answered, and that's what [the Bread Lab] stands for to me. Digging into it,” he adds. “There’s only like six types of wheat available on the West Coast. Why in the hell is that? They’re the ones looking into why we do what we’re doing, and what we could or should be doing, and they’re doing it to fix real-time issues in a farming area. The conversation needs to happen, and we’ve already seen that it moves everyone forward in more interesting ways.”

He pauses for a moment before echoing a sentiment nearly everyone in the lab said some version of. “It’s always exciting to learn that you know nothing. It makes you question everything.”

Graduate student Colin Curwen-McAdams. | all photos by Cassandra Landry.

Colin Curwen-McAdams is a guy who speaks quickly, like every thought in his head is fighting for their chance to hit the air, but had no idea their mouthpiece would be a tall, soft-spoken, fleece-wearing graduate student. He’s been on Jones’s Perennial Wheat Project for about a year and a half, and also spends his time on developing novel seed colors in wheat. Blues, purples, blacks. If Wetzel spends his time extrapolating the possibilities within six strains of wheat, Curwen-McAdams is looking at thousands.

“All these grains for our farmers are grown in rotation with something that makes a lot more money. What we’re trying to figure out is how to make this crop do more for them,” he explains, boots crunching along the gravel edges of the fields. “One way to do that is differentiating it and taking it out of the normal market. So that’s what I’m working on, first just the breeding side of it, and then we’ll move into what people want from it. The lag time in breeding is around ten years, so we have to start before we can get anywhere.”

He and Bethany Econopouly (another grad student currently dehulling buckwheat by hand back in the warmth of the lab), don’t seem particularly ruffled by the intense scrutiny their work is suddenly under by the chef community. “A lot of us got into this because we had worked on farms, but we also love to eat and cook. We got into it for the broad public scale of it, and I think it’s great that people like [Barber] have been able to bring attention to it in this way,” he says, crouching to examine a few already visible differences between rows of just-sprouted wheat rows. “But how do we keep this something that everyone is involved in? If you go to a really nice restaurant, they’re very aware of different varieties and properties, but your normal person can still be eating your average plastic-wrapped white sandwich loaf, with no conception of what that means.”

Jones tells me later that he’s always mentioning how out-of-the-ordinary this attention is to his students. It’s not normal to rub elbows with famous chefs, or field reporters a few times a week. It’s one of the striking things about the people currently moving the global conversation forward: they are used to creating a faceless, nameless thing that goes off and makes someone—who isn’t them or the farmers they work with—a little money. Now that there is such a thing as celebrity wheat, this new generation of breeders is redefining the entire field. It’s stating the obvious to these students, but it’s a revelation for everyone else, and it allows them to see the attention for what it is.

“It’s a really good way for us to have this other kind of interaction with the public. It keeps us on our toes, and it keeps us relevant in the community,” Econopouly says, perched at a table, buckwheat scattered before her. The late afternoon sun electrifies a few spiky wheat stalks laying around the room. “People immediately latch on to the breadmaking and the excitement about some of the chefs we work with, but then it allows us to highlight what the farmers and breeders are doing.” 

What sets The Bread Lab (and its upcoming extension) apart from almost all other chef-driven labs chipping away at what is possible in the realm of food—the Nordic Food Lab, the Momofuku Culinary Lab—is that they exist, first and foremost, for the farmers, not for culinary advancement. It may appear, based on their passion for bread, that it’s all about reclaiming flavor, but it has to work in terms of yield, in terms of cost, and ability to sell. Nutrition, flavor, everything else gets wrapped up into that package. It was the farmers, when they sensed that their Valley was in trouble, who rallied together to fund a place where their problems could be solved and brought this center into existence. For Jones, the benefits of the Bread Lab are threefold: it proves the possibility of whole wheat breads redolent with profound layers of flavor and nutrition; it supports the farmers and land he cares so vehemently for; and it reignites the idea that there are jobs for his students when they are done.“What’s very satisfying for me is ten years ago, I didn’t want any more students. That’s my job, to train people, but it got to the point where it was just like, Are we just training people for Monsanto? What are we doing?” he says. “The lab is driven by these PhD students. There’s a lot of good to be done in not fighting, but doing the work. It’s tremendous. Going into work and being surrounded by these people is amazing.”

Back in the greenhouse, Curwen-McAdams is surrounded by waist-high shoots of winter wheat, all propped up on elevated carts which can be wheeled around for easy crosses all year. The air is damp and warm, and buckwheat towers overhead, flowering. A few plastic sleeves are draped over various couplings. Over the whir of the fans, he contemplates the future of the collaborations like the Bread Lab. “There are these local grain economies popping up, which is great to see, but then what you need next are local malting facilities or mills and the ability to process the grain for people who are interested,” he says, mentioning a few places in Arizona, North Carolina, and Vermont, where these kinds of projects are popping up. “So we’re not unique in that regard, but in terms of breeding and pushing all that stuff forward, that’s where we hit our stride.

“At least it’s fun, you know? Bread is something we all have a relationship with,” he adds, grinning. “The genetic stuff is fun on its own, but if you don’t like the crop...you don’t want to be taste-testing a bunch of okra all day in the field. Slimy! Less slimy! Fibrous! Less fibrous!”

“When people like Marc Vetri call us from Italy saying they want to stop by and figure out wheat for his pasta that’s not a faceless, nameless thing,” Jones says, “That’s so cool. Knowing what our food is...it’s done with a sense of what’s right, and people all over the place are helping us figure that out.”

Vetri, the James Beard Award-winning chef who maintains that Barber Jedi-mindtricked him into attending the conference at Stone Barns all those months ago, credits the Bread Lab with restructuring his entire mindset. He did call from Italy, he says, when he couldn't get Jones's voice out of his head as he watched nonnas fresh milling their pasta flour. He’s since become an outspoken supporter of the grain revolution, penning op-eds on The Huffington Post and wants to set up a Bread Lab outpost on the East Coast.

“Those guys literally changed my life. We built a whole new kitchen around this theory of milling, and the lab has been the incubator for all of this,” he says from his kitchen at Philadelphia’s Vetri. “He hit on something very unique, something that was thought about, but no one was doing anything about it.

"That’s what innovators do," he continues. "They have the foresight and the imagination to move far beyond the general thinking, and make something amazing.”

Vetri's right: the Bread Lab is something amazing. And it's not just because they make whole wheat baguettes that would buckle any Parisian's knees, and not because they've already been able to come up with game-changing strains of wheat that check off all of the boxes. It's because they have figured out how to exist at this junction of artful creation and scientific method, and know that if you've got a hunk of fresh, mind-blowing bread in your hand, you're more likely to look into the microscope and figure out why. 

“We don’t wave our hands and say ‘Local! Sustainable!’ We just do it. It’s matured to a point where we don’t have to wave our hands much,” Jones says. “If we can create something that makes sense, then at least people will have a choice. That’s what keeps us going.”

By Cassandra Landry | Originally published by MISE magazine