Grains of Truth

You’d think it would be every pastry chef’s dream—and it was. But for Alex Grunert, the Austrian-born pastry chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, grinding and baking with local, heirloom grains also meant throwing out everything he knew.

“Can I tell you something?” Alex admitted recently. “That day I was handed the bags of whole wheat—the spelt, the emmer, all the different kinds—I did not know what these are. I said, ‘Ya, sure, I make something with this here,’ but I had no idea.”

Alex decided to start simply, reimagining a classic brioche loaf with whole emmer wheat flour. “The more we ground the emmer, the more the kitchen started to smell like dirt— really aromatic, earthy. It smelled like nature. Like going on vacation with my parents in the summertime when I was a kid, in the field when the wind blows through the wheat.”

But the baking turned out to be not so simple. “It was a learning process,” says Alex. “The first loaves—this was a disaster.”

A week (and many discarded loaves) later, Alex appeared in the kitchen just before dinner service, holding the results of his efforts. He cut thick slices of warm, whole-wheat brioche for the cooks, who gathered around. It was delicious—comforting in the way soft bread should be, but also exciting, with the flavor of toasted nuts and wet grass. It reminded us—because we needed to be reminded—of the flavor of wheat.

He may have mastered brioche with emmer wheat, but for Alex, the learning process continues with each new harvest. “The commercial flours that we get, they are very consistent. But with these local flours, they change every year,” says Alex. “It’s like a good bottle of wine. Everything is different. Every year you have to relearn it. But that’s the nice thing about these flours, these heirloom grains. You just have to follow basically nature’s instructions.