A handful of chefs are taking the farm-to-table movement a step beyond gardening and sourcing locally. Now, restaurants are milling their own flour—for more reasons than you might expect.
Marco Canora, owner and executive chef of Hearth in New York City, is at the forefront of this practice and started producing his own flour to provide nutrient-dense food with unbeatable flavor.
He began by purchasing a $6,000 flour mill, about the size of a home oven. It was, he says, a good investment—though not necessarily one to be measured by traditional ROI. “There’s value beyond the numbers,” Chef Canora says. “It’s a great story to tell, and I think storytelling is important today. It has helped position this restaurant and it says we really care about quality and freshness.”
Canora mills non-GMO grains daily and uses the flour—all of it from New York state—mostly for pasta, but also for some baked items like muffins and cakes. He’s also a perpetual experimenter, and plays around with corn (to make polenta), chickpea flour (for panisse), and even rye and freekeh.
Similarly, Nellcôte in Chicago has made its own wholegrain flour since it opened in 2012. The house-milled flour is used for its pizza dough, pasta (a blend with commercial durum flour), and select breads (one uses house flour and the other two are a blend). “I discovered flour [to be] lacking in many regards—both in nutrients and flavor—and from there it took a lot of research to be able to mill our own flour,” says Jared Van Camp, executive chef of the European eatery.
Milling’s not cheap: Nellcôte’s custom mill cost $15,000 and the flour costs around $1.50 per pound versus closer to 20 cents for commercial products. The restaurant doesn’t charge more for house-milled products, Chef Van Camp says, “but we wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t make a difference in the final product.”
Van Camp gets a 75 percent yield on the grain—an Illinois red winter wheat—and uses the runoff to make polenta. About 500 pounds of grain passes weekly through the mill, which sits downstairs in its own little room, and is often a destination point for diners.
As for the difference in flavor, Chef Canora says you can smell it as it comes out of the mill’s extruder. “There’s a potency and an aroma that comes off these pastas that’s extraordinary,” he says, though he admits the flavor can get somewhat lost in pasta sauce. The polenta’s a different story since it has less to mask its flavor. “The presence of fat in freshly milled corn when you make polenta is undeniable,” he explains.
And as a marketing tool, house-milled flour can be very effective, says Justin Braly, culinary developer with Synergy Restaurant Consultants in Newport Beach, California. “If you are the type of restaurant whose clients appreciate this, it will be fully embraced. Millennials are interested in their food and, for older people, it’s maybe more about the health benefits.”
For Canora, it’s more than that: “I’m not sure the [enhanced flavor] resonates with the common diner. I think the story resonates much more.”