Jun 18th, 2019
Nan Kohler is the owner of Grist & Toll, an urban flour mill in Pasadena, California. After spending years in the wine industry, Nan turned back to her first love, baking, and was inspired to become a pioneer of the local whole grain movement.
Read more about Grist and Toll.
Read more about The Passionistas Project.
Hear more from Nan in these bonus clips:
Passionistas: Hi and welcome to The Passionistas Project Podcast. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington. And today we're talking to Nan Kohler the owner of Grist and Toll, an urban flour mill in Pasadena, California. After spending years in the wine industry Nan started selling her baked goods at the Studio City Farmer's Market and working at the Sweet Butter Kitchen. But after seeing a video about a mill in Bath, England, Nan was inspired to open Grist and Toll and become a pioneer of the local grain movement. So please welcome to the show Nan Kohler.
Nan: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Passionistas: Our pleasure. Thank you for being here. So, what are you most passionate about?
Nan: There are many things, so it's hard to narrow that down to something singular but they do all revolve around whole grain. And so I am definitely very, very passionate about changing everyone's perceptions of whole grain and what that means for baking. And on all different levels from an artisan sour dough loaf of bread to the fanciest type of French pastries.
Passionistas: So how does that translate into what you do for a living?
Nan: Well I am creating flour so it is just like making wine, roasting coffee beans, teas, everything hinges on the quality of that sourcing of ingredients. So it's really critical that I continue establishing long term relationships and collaborations with farmers and that we have a continuing dialogue on the types of grain and the diversity of grain that is being planted and how it's being grown. Because we're not used to thinking about flour as a flavorful ingredient. We're thinking of it as the body of what you're making. But all the different grains really do have dramatically different flavor, aroma, color, character, textures. So it's really quite complex. What you can do when you keep the integrity of that grain intact that's what gives you all of those different choices but everything depends on the quality of the grain to begin with.
Passionistas: So how did we become a country or a world where flour just became this bland ingredient?
Nan: Well we decided we wanted white bread. So that really everything about what is grown, how it is grown, how it is milled and processed and handled is all in service to basically creating that white sandwich loaf of bread at the grocery store at a very, very cheap price. So older grains, the stone milling process that I use, those are disadvantages to creating the white bread so they had to go away. And things had to radically change in order to give that to us.
Passionistas: So how did you get interested in all of this?
Nan: I don't know that there's an easy answer for that. I've been a lifelong baker, so looking at my ingredients and what I'm using to create cakes or cookies or pies that's always been very interesting to me. But we really have been trained not to think about flour. Right? Someone else tells you this is your bread flour. This is what pastry flour is about. But I'm a curious baker. And so when I was baking that Sweet Butter and even just at home I was integrating oat flour, rye flour, whole grain pastry flour, all sorts of different things. So I'm naturally kind of curious and inquisitive that way. And I really believe that my time in the wine industry is what brought a lot of this... It may not have brought it into focus as in 'Nan you're going to open a flour mill someday' but it definitely affected my palate and my awareness of flavors and textures which one hundred percent affected what I create as a baker. And so it was kind of being in the place thinking about creating something of my own, wanting it to definitely still engage all of those things that I love — restaurants, chefs, bakeries, pastries and cooking. And that's definitely what led me on the path, or at least made me open, to when I watched that television show thinking whoa the flour and they go to see the local mill. And here I am in Los Angeles with access to everything and the best of everything. And I have no idea what it means to put my hands in fresh flour.
Passionistas: How did you actually go about building your own company and building the mill?
Nan: That is still a work in progress. I've officially been open for five years and on the one hand as a sole entrepreneur and someone working the business every single day, five years feels like a significant amount of time. I definitely energy-wise feel I've put the work in but there's still so much of a learning curve that it literally still feels like five weeks to me because it never ends. All the things that I have to know about and educate myself on. It's just a constantly moving target. So it's very interesting. I've had these moments from time to time because if you read a lot of books and biographies of people who've started their own business, successful entrepreneurs, everything seems to happen in a very linear way and there are these big celebrated moments. And I thought well I'll have that too on the day that the mill shows up it's gonna be a party with champagne and this big thing. And in the end it really is just one day after the next kind of problem solving.
So the day the mill arrived from the port we were in the middle of troubleshooting things for the health department and permitting things. And it was really a moment of great. It's here. I hope it's not completely destroyed inside that box. Once we push past this problem we'll take a look at what's inside. There weren't these big, significant pauses or celebratory resting places along the way. So for me what is the most exciting about this is I don't think it will ever be static. That's also incredibly challenging because you don't ever get to just kind of rest on your laurels and take a beat. But it definitely keeps keeps me engaged.
So the beginning it was a hunt for equipment. If you want to mill on a smaller scale you can't go to the yellow pages and find 500 resources for that. Most of that equipment is made overseas. Because smaller or larger scale bakeries in Europe, it's still a pretty general practice that they buy grain and they mill for themselves. They do a lot more wholegrain baking so the stone milling component makes sense. So in the beginning it is sourcing.
Next it is OK you're going to do something definitely considered outside the box in the Los Angeles food world. Who is going to allow you to do it in their city? So the hunt for where to land the business took about a year and a half.
And then there's a lot of just fine tuning and tweaking and relentless education. And again I made comparisons earlier to the wine industry and the coffee industry. Any time you want to take something that is big and industrial and make it very small and personal you just fight the economies of scale all the time. So micro distillers, micro beer brewers, we all also have to become mechanics and repair people and source creatively for things that make sense for our process and our equipment. But is not a mill in a box or from that one place that helps all of the local regional stone millers put everything together. So you're building it kind of out of thin air.
Passionistas: We all have been taught for years that if you're going to eat healthy gluten products get whole grain. But what does that really mean and what is the nutritional value of these whole grains you are talking about?
Nan: Well it's significant. And we really have lost a lot of fiber in our diets by walking away from whole grain. I'm going to be really honest. One of the most frustrating things that I find in the marketplace right now is there's a lot of excitement about heirloom wheat, stone milling, whole grains, artisan bread baking, sour dough bread baking as Instagram is exploding right. But there's not a lot of transparency with those names and terms. I remember hearing from the baking community that whole wheat if you wanted to make a whole wheat bread it had to be 51 percent whole wheat. The term whole grain is not really regulated. And actually that expectation on whole wheat is not correct. But it took me almost two years to be connected with the right people at the whole grains council to actually look at the FDA rules and regulations so whole wheat means whole — whole wheat. There can't be any refined white flour in a product that wants to carry the label whole wheat.
Nan: So for us in the real world it just is obvious that they don't have the ability to enforce that on the street at all levels. They do with Sara Lee and Eggo waffles. If you go, because I did the experiment I said OK. Whole wheat means whole 100% whole wheat and I just started flipping over loaves of bread and boxes in the freezer section and sure enough they say whole wheat. If it says wheat flour that's sifted white flour. So there's a lot of smoke and mirrors out there and now whole grain is kind of being corrupted because it doesn't have that written policy attached to it. Consumers who are definitely interested in health now and transparency in the food system can find it very frustrating out there. And a lot of home bakers who come to see me will say I'm using your flour, I'm using your formula and my bread doesn't look like the Instagram photo. Except that the Instagram photo that says spelt bread is only 10 percent spelt.
So there's nothing kind of regulating our community right now. So that we're all on the same page with how we're being transparent and educating the marketplace. And it's a huge problem because we're already diluting a lot of the work that some of us in these regional movements are really busting our tails to do. So if it's an iron corn loaf of bread I expect it to be iron corn. And I've had a lot of conversations with bakers well what percentages and I said well my answer is if you're buying a cabernet sauvignon how much riesling do you want in that bottle? You don't. You're buying cabernet sauvignon. If you're buying Bordeaux. You understand it's a blend of the approved red grapes and things like that. So I think that ultimately we're going to have to get to some sort of real regulations on labelling. It's just a question of how. How long will it take to get there? But for me I'm the girl who started the #WholeMeansWhole. So if it says whole grain that means it's whole wheat but it might not be wheat. It might be spelt and therefore it's grain.
Passionistas: How do people learn to adjust recipes to do that... To go a hundred percent?
Nan: Well that is the million dollar question because there isn't a simple answer. There are definitely grains like spelt that I just mentioned that make it easier to do a one to one sub for all purpose flour. But they don't behave exactly the same. And so you can either look at that as an immovable obstacle for you as a baker or you can look at it as I do which is this is what makes it incredibly inspiring and fun. And at the end of the day it's a chocolate chip cookie, if I need to take out a little bit of flour in the next round because I felt it was a little thick or heavy. It's not the end of the world. So my best answer for you is they are different. It's not a one to one sub certainly not with bread flour and in bread recipes. That's where it can be the most challenging but for most home baking and for most all purpose recipes — cookie, scones, quick breads, muffins, waffles – we're pretty fearless here. And we do kind of our ripped from the headlines experiments where we'll just pull a recipe from a current issue of Food and Wine magazine or Bon Appetit, something that looks interesting. And we just pick our grain and we go all in one to one. And literally 95% of the time we don't have to change anything.
Nan: So you just have to go for it. And then, we do give advice for how to kind of tweak things. And normally what I tell people for all purpose baking is I use the flour as my control element. Meaning if a recipe calls for three cups of flour and I know that stone milled wholegrain flowers are thirstier, so they interact with being hydrated differently than a white all purpose flour does. That's the thing that's the most dramatic, color because they won't look as white but then also in application. And so it's pretty difficult to say you're going to need to bump up your hydration 10 to 12 percent. I can say that to a bread baker because that's a certain number of grams of water only. I can't tell that to someone who's going to make a blueberry muffin. Because the liquid is the sugar, the butter, the eggs, the sour cream or butter milk. And how do you adjust 12 percent on an egg? And something else is ridiculous.
But what I have found through practice is if the recipe calls for three cups of flour and I want to use heirloom sonora wheat, I simply the first time I make it will withhold about three tablespoons of flour. And leave all of my liquid ingredients the same. And usually that's all I need to do. If I look at that batter and it's just soup it is so much easier to sprinkle in a little more flour and fold it in again than to try to do the math calculations and adjust everything else.
Passionistas: How many people in the country are there like you that are doing this?
Nan: Well there is a lot of smaller scale regional stone milling happening. And it's happening on many different levels. Bakers are starting to mill for themselves. Farmers that are reintroducing wheat as part of their crop rotation. Some farmers are putting mills on their land and introduce flour there. As far as I know there is no other urban flour mill. So no one has really taken the soul craft of milling and dropped it in the middle of a big city.
Most of them are attached to farms or associated with one of their growers or are out in more rural environments, which I get. Because it's definitely, some of the difficulties can be removed. You can have you know, pay much less rent, have a much bigger space. But I still think the biggest obstacle to changing how we grow wheat and how we create flour is the public has to have access to it or they're not going to demand it. We have to create the marketplace and everything is a bit backwards. And we're actually very behind what the market wants right now. Customers would love it if I was open seven days a week. They'd love it if I had a second location in Santa Monica. Los Angeles is big and it's tough to get around. So it's a big deal that that many people drive out here and have found me It's pretty incredible and that says that the market is out there to support this even though there's a lot of projected what I call kind of extremist ideas that say we can never do this because the cost it's just too extreme. Between what we're used to and what we actually have to get to in order to create something sustainable.
Passionistas: What is your dream scenario for what this company is 10 years from now?
Nan: Well that's a great question because it is not the same as it was when I opened. I will tell you this I outgrew this space two years ago easily. So in ten years I won't be here. I can't be here. Because I can't sustain the growth in this space. I will absolutely be having very regular educational baking classes. I hope that at that time I also have a nice network of farmers. And we are planting seed diversity and saving seed and providing seed. And information for other regional hubs that want to develop. I hope that in 10 years I'm more of a tangible resource also for other people who would like to do this. I hope that I'd be able to collaborate on a larger baking scale with higher volume companies that want to integrate local wheat. So how do you find it? How do you put the pieces together for someone to mill it? And how do you then reformulate higher volume production needs to accommodate local wheat? Those are the things that have to have happen. I hope that won't all be on me but we'll see.
Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and you're listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Nan Kohler. To take your baking skills to the next level. Visit GristAndToll.com and shop their incredible line of wholegrain freshly milk products. Now here's more of our interview with Nan.
You're part of this local grain movement and you've really become a conduit between farmers and bakers and share information back and forth. So what changes have you seen on both ends of the process in the five years you've been doing this?
Nan: I've seen the noise level increasing. And so it's not as difficult to grab someone's attention and have a conversation either with a farmer or with a baker. I'm gonna be honest though and say I haven't felt great movement in action on the ground. So I feel tremendous excitement and movement and support from the home bakers. On the industrial side, on larger scale bakeries, it's much more difficult. It's going to take a long, long time for them to wrap their heads around the difference in price point, having to change formulas and practices on a higher scale. So obviously I get that. I understand that. But at the same time at a certain point, more people have to have to also jump and take that leap of faith or we don't get that change. Or we need more urban mills who can simply put it in a higher percentage of the home baking community because they are in. And they are looking for more people more collaborators. They would love it if they could come here and I could give them 20 bakeries that they could go to that are primarily using local wheat. They're ready to spend their money there. It's just really slow going getting those people on board and the difficulty with seeing big change in smaller regional farms is another topic that has come up a lot when I have conversations with other collaborators. And that is this idea of shared risk. We cannot continue to expect smaller farmers to bear all of the financial burden of putting all of this back into place.
Secure the organic land. Buy the really, really rare hard to get heirloom seed. Grow it out. Buy a new combine so that you can harvest yourself because you have a smaller plot of land and the big guys only do you know thousands of acres at a time, not tens, or hundreds of acres. Buy new seed cleaning equipment for tens of thousands of dollars. So there is still a tremendous disconnect between someone wanting a reasonably affordable bag of local flour in their hand versus the actual backbreaking costs of what it takes to get there.
And so I've begun having very real conversations with others saying we all have to pony up. Because it's also difficult for me. If I want more seed diversity I can go buy seed and I can pay a farmer to grow it for me. But when that harvest comes it's mine. And in this tiny facility I can't store all of it. So even for me the burden of the cost of cold storing that grain or having a satellite location where I will have to hold it for — depending on how big the harvest is — six months to a year. I don't really get that expense back when I charge even a very expensive price for one bag of flour. So bakers have to start committing to the volume right. We all have to contribute some funds upfront to take some of that burden off of the farmers so that we can really start seeing increases in volumes. Because my worst fear is that this will just perpetually be a cool little niche sort of a thing. And those of us who are in the trenches. That's the last thing we want. The farmers want to feed their communities. I want to feed my community. I want to feed creativity. And I don't want it to be for an elite circle of people who have X number of dollars a year in disposable income. I want everyone to have real food. And the flour and the process that is out there right now is not real. It's artificially stimulated and it's not good for us and it's got to change.
Passionistas: You've mentioned home bakers. How do you go about educating them so they know that they have choices beyond going to the supermarket and picking out the baking flour versus the all-purpose flour?
Nan: Well we just do it here as much as we can. So every person who works with me is a baker. And so we all take turns going out there and helping customers and answering questions. To the best of my ability we also are testing every week here at least a little bit. So that we can create recipe cards. So that when someone buys that Ronan the French wheat that I had grown. We have at least two or three things that we know works. And we have our own hands-on experience with it, to be able to tell them any little minor tweaks or adjustments we think they're going to make. The educational component is daunting not because it's difficult to talk about the grains but just one person amassing all of that information and trying to get it out into the marketplace is ridiculous. I can't do it on my own. So we still need more people working with this product. Also putting that information out there.
It's funny how as a small business owner, the challenges they just move as your business grows. In the beginning, it was that just that battle to get open and to put everything in place. And then it is, am I even going to find local wheat? And what does that look like and how do I pay for it and get things going? Will anyone show up at the front door when I put the open sign out? Now even though many of those challenges still exist I'm going to honestly say my number one challenge is that I really need to just be baking all day every day and creating that content. I should have videos on my website. Every weekend you should be able to come in here and taste a new fabulous baked good and walk out with that recipe card. I should be blogging. It doesn't end but that need is very clearly there and the interest is there. So it's really frustrating for me that I can't deliver in spades on all of that every single day. But the production volume is high enough now that I'm really I'm tied to the mill every single day.
Passionistas: So you said you feel like you don't have enough time in the day to do everything but what about those days when you just don't want to do anything? Like how do you keep yourself motivated?
Nan: Yeah those are tough. I'm not going to lie. They happen pretty regularly because I really haven't had a vacation and it's been intense in five years. And I will just tell you it's like everything else. There were, there have been moments where I thought it's just not gonna work. I'm never gonna be able to open the doors. That certain city people are not going to sign off. They just don't get it and are too afraid. I've had tremendous problems with grain arriving and being all over the bed of the truck instead of in the bags and things that have made it incredibly difficult. And honestly it is just that work ethic. You get up and you show up. And once I'm here it may be that I'm not in such a great mood and I have a lot of drama to deal with. But I just put my head down and one thing at a time. I try to attack what I can. I gave up on checking off the to do list at about week number two because every day my to do list grows by 10 pages and maybe I cross off three or four from the top. So it's, it's intense but I just had to start to be okay with showing up and doing what I can. And I still get stuff done even on those bad days. And also inevitably on one of those day, one retail customer comes in and says wow thank you for being here you changed my life, and that list of 10 pages is irrelevant.
Passionistas: So is there one lesson you've learned during your journey so far that really sticks with you?
Nan: I think it was just so worth it taking that leap of faith. If something horrible happened. If I found out I just can't do this anymore. If I did get to that point where things were just it was too hard to source the wheat and not enough income coming in for the business. I would have no regrets. Because taking that leap and just showing up and trying to do the work has taught me that really anything is possible. And even if you don't get your best outcome, it is magical along the way. Because there's so much more that empowers you and reaffirms why you believe what you do. Why we need to have courage. Why it's good to fight for change. And I never would have had that confidence in at least those resources within myself if I hadn't.
Passionistas: What's been your biggest professional challenge and how do you overcome it?
Nan: I don't think I've overcome my biggest professional challenge. My biggest professional challenge is this is much bigger than me and I don't think that's going to end anytime soon. So instead of just opening a flour mill I decided I wanted to change flour and changing flour is so much bigger than Nan Kohler. And it involves a lot of other people and a lot of other things that I have zero control of. Also putting out their best work and the chances of me getting that all day every day. In addition to my own tasks are pretty slim. So my biggest challenge is coping with the things that I have no control over and knowing that they're never gonna go away and I'm not super great at that. I am a person who is pretty self-sufficient and if I'm interested and I'm trying and engaged I can make things happen. But there is so much about changing wheat and flour that I absolutely have no chance of making happen on my own. That's the biggest challenge.
Passionistas: So what's the most rewarding part of your caree?
Nan: Every day I turn that mill on and the flour comes out. Every time I have the luxury of baking with it. It is never boring and it is never negative or intimidating even when there are failures. It simply opens up another perspective so I feel much more confident and much more in control. As a baker and you'd think it would be the opposite because my ingredient is shifting. But I find that empowering. And so again I wish I had more time to just bake. It's very therapeutic and every time I bake something with spelt I have ten more ideas of what I want to do with that or what I can and will hopefully try to do with it. And then the next harvest will come in and I'll be slightly different which is also cool and exciting.
Passionistas: So on your journey so far is there one decision you've made that you felt was like the most courageous and really changed the trajectory of your path?
Nan: I will say there are two, but one is definitely more important. The one decision to be in the city was critical and absolutely right. The second was I completely changed my perspective from the flour that I thought I was going to be milling and making. So my background as a baker is the same as everyone else's. The white all-purpose flour, the bread flour, the pastry flour. And so my business plan is full of notes and numbers calculated on sifting and creating refined flour but I was gonna be super fancy. I was gonna do like the type eighty five so I could have something like they have in France and that the pylon on bakery uses. And it didn't take me long to start milling that flour and baking with the single pass flour on the steel mills to know that I was going to completely reject that and go all in with whole grain.
So on many levels that has made my work much more difficult because I'm not only asking you to pay a higher price point for more transparency and for more diversity, but I'm basically telling you let's just forget the past two to three hundred years of the world's worst, unappealing wholegrain flour just conveniently forget that that's our history and fall madly in love with whole grain flour again. And that is a very substantial wall that I break down with every new baker who walks in because of course they come through the doors or I get inquiries from professional bakers hi can you provide us with Double O flour we'd like to start buying pallets of your locally milled Double O flour. So that first... I hate that most of the time my first conversation is starts with no I don't make that and that has changed everything. There's no turning back for me. I will not bake with refined flour again whether or not Grist and Toll exists 10 to 20 years from now. It is lifeless to me and my palate has changed. Everything about how I taste and eat and bake is radically different.
Passionistas: So when you were a little girl what lessons did your mother teach you about women's role in society?
Nan: Well my mother always worked. And she was a very big contributor to the household income. She was the household manager. And an incredible cook and baker. So her example was we work and we contribute. And we do really great stuff. And she just always instilled a lot of confidence and a lot of emotional support for me is hey you're a smart girl. You have a lot of talents and you need to feel good about that. And you need to do something with it. So there was a lot of pressure that I put on myself as a business owner I will hear those voices from home like you did return that email really. I expected more of you, that sort of thing. Responsibility and paying it forward. So those were definitely parts of my home education in a good way.
Passionistas: What's your secret to a rewarding life?
Nan: My secret is it's just always been understanding who I am. Trying to understand the limits of what I am and am not capable of on any given day. I just want to be able to go home and know that even if things didn't go my way, I gave it my best shot. And even on a bad day my best shot is pretty good. I know I'm going to try. I know I'm going to deliver my best work. I don't always win but I can live with that. As long as I'm still in the game.
Passionistas: Do you have a mantra that you live by?
Nan: Show up and care about what you're doing. And be curious. The biggest red flag for me, bakers, farmers, people from other parts, who come here and they don't have a question for me. They're not curious about what I'm doing or how I'm connecting with farmers or how I'm baking with my flours. I have no interest in people with a lack of curiosity. Asking those questions and not being afraid of being challenged is really, really important.
Passionistas: What's your definition of success?
Nan: I think it's along those same lines. Because even if I had to close Grist and Toll I would still consider this undeniably successful. I think the success is that I jumped and I went for it and it's still a work in progress but it's working. There's still so much more to do. So I don't feel successful except that I know that I'm having success because I haven't closed. It's still working. I don't think of it in terms like that. Again, it's just for now I'm showing up and I'm doing the work and things are still moving forward.
Passionistas: What advice would you give to a young woman that wants to start some kind of specialty business like this?
Nan: I say, always feel like you should go for it. But also you cannot walk into it being afraid of the work — physically and emotionally. The more you can do kind of centering yourself and thinking about, I'd like to think about the bigger picture goals more. It makes the smaller losses more bearable. If I find that still my overarching work is still moving to something that has purpose and meaning you know it's very interesting. I've always wanted to have my own business and I think people in my life always naturally assumed I would have my own business. But coming up with that one idea that's going to be the one I've seen many people who tried and had failures before they had kind of the money maker or the really successful one. I was just kind of simmering and not really putting everything together.
I think the advice I would say is listen to yourself. Grist and Toll was the idea where I literally said to myself if I don't do this, me personally, Nan Kohler. If I'm not the one to do this and five years from now I read an article in Food and Wine magazine about someone in San Francisco or someone and someone else I will be beside myself. I won't be able to live with myself. And so it was not a lightning strike. This is it. You know and the chorus is singing "Ahhh" in the background on the big speakers but I just knew it. And so listening to that inside yourself I think is really important because that is that point, when there are some people who will say that's just a crazy idea that you have to be able to ignore. And again just trying it is the win. So I'm in favor of going for it. We need more courage and we need more people taking leaps of faith. Otherwise we're just simmering like I was.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Nan Kohler. To take your baking skills to the next level, visit Grist and Toll.com and shop their incredible line of whole grain freshly milled products. And be sure to subscribe to the Passionistas Project Podcast so you don't miss any of our upcoming inspiring guests.