Keeping Up with the Millers

by Sean Kenniff
Megan Swann
June 2015

Bakers

Dave and Megan Miller
Baker Miller | Chicago, IL
@bakermillerchi

Art and Chelsea Jackson
Pleasant House Bakery | Chicago, IL
@PHBakery

Sandra Holl
Floriole | Chicago, IL
@floriole

Greg Wade
Publican Quality Bread | Chicago, IL
@gregwadebakes

Distiller

Tremaine Atkinson
CH Distillery | Chicago, IL
@CHDistillery

Chicago is a great grain city. And it’s almost always been that way. Incorporated in 1837, the city was known world wide as a mill town by the 1840s, even before meatpacking became a dominant economic force. Chicago was in a national sweet spot as a transportation hub that happened to be located in the country’s bread basket. There’s a reason we call money, “bread.” The business of grains and milling was taking off at a time during the Industrial Revolution when innovations in technology (and lots of money) were being made, such as steam-powered railways, ships, and the grain elevator, which made it vastly easier to move massive amounts of loose grain (the previous technology was...bags). 

As citizens of the post-industrial developed world, we know how the story goes from there. During the next century or so, the small, independent Second City mills and bakeries eventually became General Mills, Quaker Oats, Keebler, Nabisco, and Sara Lee—all using commercial flours milled from grains bred in monocultures that are heavily reliant on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and stripped of nutrients and flavor. Smaller-scale autonomous milling in Chicago went from widespread to nearly wiped out. But 21st century chefs, bakers, and distillers are writing the next chapter in Chicago milling. They’ re resurrecting the urban mill and reclaiming individuality from industry, making milling a subversive act of which beautiful breads and pastries are the byproduct.

“We’re in the process of building a mill in the city, a chefs mill,” says aptly named new miller Dave Miller of Baker Miller—a restaurant, experimental bakery, and stone mill with wholesale and retail sides. “We’ll do small batches of things, custom milled for chefs, giving them more control.” There’s already a small milling operation on-site at Baker Miller, and Miller (the man) is obsessive about quality control when it comes to the flour being produced. “We’re checking thousands of pounds of flour right now, all day long, 60- to 50-pound bags [not elevators!] of whole wheat bread flour.”

Miller and his business partner (and wife) Megan, were cooks and restaurant owners before getting into baking and milling. The milling arm of their business is called Baker Miller Flour & Grain and it’s Chicago’s first modern artisan flour company. In addition to the Lincoln Square location, their products are for sale at 14 markets and shops around Chicago and will be available soon at 22 Whole Foods and Eataly Chicago. “We’re in talks with Boka Group and One Off Hospitality, as well,” Miller says. “We want to offer something they don’t have access to. Greg [Wade] from Publican Quality Bread wants a certain texture of rye. Lula Cafe likes a fine cornmeal. We want to custom mill to these specifications. That’s my favorite part, and it’s growing.” To accommodate such demand, the Millers will take over distribution and milling operations from Breslin Farms, an organic farm a couple hours drive outside Chicago known for grains and dry beans.

Baker Miller isn’t the only small scale milling operation in Chicago. There are at least four, and it’s not the only one excited about the growing market for locally milled grains. “Customers are realizing that flavor comes from a whole grain grown fewer than a few hours away and not from super-sifted, modified wheat,” says Wesley Ervin, a miller and baker at Pleasant House Bakery. “As the public gains knowledge of what real food is, they support local farmers. Then the farmers can supply their grains at a cheaper price, and more people can experience it. The potential for growth in Chicago is mind blowing.” 

Rising Star alum Chef Jared Van Camp was the first Chicago chef to develop an in-house milling program when he opened Nellcôte in 2011, complete with the installation of a small grain mill made by Meadow Mills, a manufacturer out of North Carolina. Art and Chelsea Jackson, this year’s Rising Star Sustainability winners, have the same brand of mill for their grains at Pleasant House Bakery. The Jacksons own and operate the completely self-sufficient and holistic Pleasant House consortium, which, in addition to the bakery, includes restaurant Pleasant House Three Oaks, Pleasant House Brewing Company, Pleasant Farms, and their brand of Royal Pies—the savory, British-style pies that built Pleasant House and spurred these chefs to become innovative entrepreneurs and models for sustainability. Pleasant Farms are a series of urban farms within the city (and some just outside) that supply the other arms of their business. “From our inception, growing has always been inherent to our vision,” Art says. “We actually opened one of our farm spaces before we opened our restaurant.”

As with Baker Miller, Pleasant House isn’t just milling for themselves. “We’re also milling grains wholesale for a few local bakeries and restaurants: Cellar Door Provisions, Sauce and Bread Kitchen, Crumb, and Floriole,” says Ervin. “They’re all making amazing bread, and we’d like to continue to support them in any way possible with our milling services.”

Baker Sandra Holl of Floriole attributes most of the interest and expansion in this area to one particular source. “A lot of the growth in grains can be traced back to Green City Market. They’ve pushed bakers to use locally milled grains. Green City has gotten the word out to local farms that there’s a market for grains and flours, and options have increased over the past few years,” says Holl. One such farm is Three Sisters in Kankakee, which was founded by former restaurant industry professionals in 2000. Holl sources white cornmeal and rolled oats, among other non-grain products, from Three Sisters. She uses the oats to make a nutty, moist, oat-y porridge bread with an open crumb. “Chicago’s bread scene has exploded in the past few years,” says Holl. For the future, she has hopes not unlike many Chicago bakers. Holl wants to have a farmer growing grains specifically for Floriole and to be milling on-site daily. “I would love to work with more heirloom wheats and grains!” 

Rising Star Baker Greg Wade has been working with Spence Farms in Fairbury for five years to source heirloom grains for his long fermented doughs at Publican Quality Bread. “We’re moving forward by going backward,” he says, “going back to traditional methods of baking. [Since collaborating with] Spence Farms, their grain cultivation has grown leaps and bounds, so have the different ways I’ve learned to implement the grains.” Wade is also working with Bill Davison, a local foods and farms educator at the University of Illinois Extension, on a study about growing wheat in Illinois. Spence Farms is involved as well: “They’re growing 10 to 15 types of heirloom wheat, organically. Davison will document their growth, disease resistance, yields, etc. My role is to do the bake test,” says Wade. “I’ll take each wheat and record what it takes for me to make bread out of it: water absorption, the flavor profiles, dough strength, loaf volume, crust and crumb characteristics. The main goal is to show that heirloom wheats can be grown organically, in spring, in Illinois.”

It’s not just the farmers, millers, bakers, and chefs instigating the wheat revolution in Illinois. Distiller Tremaine Atkinson of CH Distilling started milling 25 years ago, using a hand-crank to mill grains for his home-brew. He could mill 10 pounds at a time. Today, Atkinson can mill 2,000-pound batches of grain at his West Loop distillery. “Think of the difference between making soup with stock you made yourself, versus a can of stock off the shelf. You get the idea,” says Atkinson. “For our vodka, we use soft red winter wheat and rye grown and sourced from Kaneville Seed and Feed. Our vodka has a small but distinct amount of character from the grains. The wheat is high in starch, which contributes a beautiful, soft, slightly fruity sweetness. The rye has less starch but contributes a peppery note on the finish.”

The wheat revolution in Chicago is at its beginning. Just as CH Distillery has done, the relatively low real estate prices in Illinois make it possible for food and beverage professionals and farmers to set aside space for growing and milling. There are milling operations similar to Chicago's in other parts of the country—Farm & Sparrow in North Carolina, Sub Rosa in Virginia, and of course Tartine in San Francisco—but the scale, shear numbers, and milling culture that is taking hold in the Windy City is unprecedented. It’s a movement that’s connects many other trends: whole grains, health, artisanship, preservation, environmentalism, and sustainability. “It all starts with the farmer and the soil. This movement could grow to be something commonplace in every city. But there is huge potential for growth here,” says Wade. “Big picture: We’ll eventually be a city known for grain, and with any luck Publican Quality Bread will be known as a leader in this movement, spearheaded in Chicago,” where the antiquated has become cutting edge, and the Second City is the First City for grains.