At Friends & Family, a new all-day eatery in East Hollywood, celebrated pastry chef Roxana Jullapat is introducing L.A. to a wider diversity of locally-grown, heirloom grains with her sweet and savory baked goods.
While California cuisine has long been known for celebrating the abundance of locally-sourced ingredients — from produce to meats and cheeses — grains have largely been left out of the recent locavore conversation. For chefs, bakers, beer brewers, and home cooks alike, finding a diverse selection of high-quality, heirloom grains in Southern California can be a challenge — especially at an affordable price. Grains such as rye, oats and barley were once common crops grown in the region until production was largely outsourced to large-scale farms in the Midwest during the mid-20th century. Many farmers instead moved to focus on high-value specialty crops, such as grapes, almonds, fruits and vegetables. While some grains, especially wheat, are still grown throughout California, they tend to be treated more as commodity crops and the lack variety small-scale production can offer.
In recent years, however, efforts to revitalize locally-grown heritage grains have gradually gained momentum. That’s thanks in large part to growing movement of discerning chefs and bakers like Jullapat, consumers, and farmers and millers, including the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project, Roan Mills, Grist & Toll, and Restoration Grains. Not only do these local grains provide greater variety and flavor -- not to mention more options for gluten-free diets — but they can also be more regionally adaptive, as many are drought-tolerant, and minimize the environmental impact of transportation.
“If you're a seasonal restaurant and you follow what the small farm industry is doing, you're going to run into grain because that's an area people are exploring,” explains Jullapat. “And to me it makes sense. Even though grains are the staple of life, this new small-batch, small farm heirloom seed and grain movement is very recent. But to this day, it's very incipient — even if you wanted more out of it, you can only get so much.”
Together with chef Daniel Mattern, Jullapat opened Friends & Family earlier this summer, along with partners Ash and Niroupa of Trejo’s Tacos -- who became friends when Mattern consulted on the taco shop. On the menu, you’ll find a wide selection of Jullapat’s incredible preserves and baked goods, many of which incorporate heritage grains in subtle ways such as a blue corn-blueberry scone, a Sonora wheat croissant, a baked buckwheat pancake, and an einkorn wheat cookie. Open for both breakfast and lunch, and offering easy grab-and-go options, you’ll also find Mattern serving up a variety of creative egg dishes, sandwiches, salads and more. Previously Jullapat and Mattern ran the popular but shuttered Cook’s County on Beverly Boulevard. Prior to that they cooked together at Ammo in Hollywood, and met while working at now-closed Campanile. Jullapat had also worked at Lucques, A.O.C. and Bastide.
Jullapat credits her focus on utilizing locally-sourced grains to her past restaurant experiences, all of which had a strong emphasis on seasonality and California produce. Though, looking back, she notes that grains tended to be the ingredient that often came from far way. “Even as little as ten years ago it was a big deal that if you went to Italy, you would buy a bag of polenta,” she says. “Nevermind that this is the land of the corn and you're buying a corn cereal from Italy.”
She also points out that as much as we love corn in Southern California -- especially the form of tortillas -- the majority of the corn we consume is an industrial commodity crop from thousands of miles away, despite our preference for local eats. “Most likely, everybody having tortillas here in L.A., or making tortillas by hand, is using shitty masa from some enormous field, with super large scale production in Mexico or Central America,” Jullapat explains. “So we're here speaking all romantically about these homemade tortillas that some old lady makes in Boyle Heights, and it's out of a bag from something with a big brand name.”
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Born in Orange County to a Costa Rican father and Thai mother, Jullapat moved to Costa Rica with her father and brother at the age of two after their mother passed away from cancer. It was there where she recalls developing an early appreciation for cooking and desserts in particular. She also points out that growing up in Costa Rica exposed her to a wide diversity of grains, as well as culinary influences that were more European than most people usually expect from a Central American country.
“When I first thought of food I was very young, and I have fond, lovely memories of going to my grandparents' house,” Jullapat says of her step-grandparents after her father remarried. “You think of Costa Rica, and it's a very tropical place, and you would probably think that people eat tropical fruits, bananas and things like that. But actually, there's a huge European influence, especially Spanish people, because Costa Rica is a lot like Los Angeles or the US. It's made up by a huge population that has immigrant backgrounds. I remember my grandmother would make delicious cookies that she sold in the neighborhood.”
Jullapat says her grandmother’s baking was given a boost thanks to the exceptional butter in Costa Rica, which derives its rich flavor and particular smell as the milk comes from grass-fed cows. “That's what she would use to make a lot of desserts that were somewhat European in technique,” she explains. “Now that I know, I realize, "Oh, she was making puff pastry." Which is really incredible to think that a lady in her little hut kitchen in Costa Rica would make puff pastry because it's really hard to make. She wasn't formally trained; she did it as a hobby and for some extra cash. Somebody would drop off a casserole dish and say, "Fill it up with something for my party on Sunday.”
Although Jullapat’s grandmother passed away just before her sixth birthday, she credits her with having a lasting impression and recalls vivid details about her. One particular memory is of her grandmother’s Torta Chilena, an elaborately comprised dessert popular in Costa Rica. “It's multiple layers of really, really thin buttery dough, baked very thinly in little plates. And then you add dulce de leche in between them, and you would stack them up 16 layers high, and you frost it with meringue. And of course, that's ridiculously amazing, and daunting to prepare. I've only made it a couple times in my life. Costa Ricans and Latin Americans in general, we're big on sweets. So it doesn't surprise me that I end up working with desserts.”
Jullapat admits to being a particularly dedicated student in school — not to mention young for her class — and anticipated going for a masters degree after college. But instead, she decided to take a break from academia where she felt burnt out, and pursue her long-standing interest in cooking, at least for a year. She initially moved to San Francisco to attend culinary school, but an unpleasant living situation combined with the Bay Area’s chilly weather and rain -- compared to the tropics of Costa Rica -- redirected her to Los Angeles, where her father had since moved.
Back in Southern California, Jullapat attended culinary school in Pasadena at what would eventually become Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts — set to close later this year. Understanding the financial challenges that can come with a career in the culinary world, however, Jullapat maintained her well-paid day job as a freelance translator for major movie studios. But soon realized that she couldn’t simply dabble in her passion for cooking. “With food, you can't do it halfway. If you want to get good at it, you have to commit to the craft,” she says. “It took me like two or three years to be able to just solely cook for a living and not depend on other sources of income.”
As Jullapat made honed her skills in many of L.A.’s highly-regarded kitchens, she began to feel the pull to expand her knowledge of grains -- both out of curiosity and flexibility for dietary restrictions. “As a cook, you do see cereals all the time. You see rice all the time. You'll see farro all the time. So, okay, what's next? Where can I see more? Like, are we still talking about wild rice like it's the 1960s? So that's a flavor component for sure,” she explains. “But also, I think one of the reasons why a lot of us eventually branched out into other grains was because like all of a sudden everybody was gluten-free, or had a wheat intolerance of some kind. So how do we mix it up? How do we incorporate other things? I don't want to use potato starch, and I don't want to use tapioca starch from China. What's out there?”
Once Jullapat began to search for a wider selection of grains, she admits they weren’t particularly hard to track down, once you connect with the right people. Glenn Roberts of the legendary heirloom grain company Anson Mills in South Carolina, was one of those people. Roberts, who grew up in San Diego, is considered by many — including Jullapat — to be a grain guru. Jullapat was familiar with the grains of Anson Mills as she and Mattern utilized them at Cook’s County, but it wasn’t until her good friend Sonoko Sakai, a food writer and grain activist, introduced her to Roberts directly that she began to really appreciate the potential of their grains. It was Robert’s buckwheat flour that particularly caught the attention of the two women — and ultimately led to their friendship and culinary collaborations — Sakai making soba noodles by hand and Jullapat experimenting with buckwheat bread and pancakes.
Jullapat explains that Sakai also helped get a seed grant from Anson Mills that connected farmers in Southern California to the South Carolina company, enabling them to grow more heirloom grains locally. That connection ultimately paved the way for the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project, a partnership between Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, Kimmie Durham, and Jon Hammond of Linda Vista Ranch. The project aims to revitalize grain growing in California with drought-resistant, low-gluten and GMO-free heritage grains.
And while Jullapat is exciting about the increasing efforts to grow heirloom grains locally, she admits that the resurgence is not without its challenges. Because there are still so few farms growing heirloom grains -- and that grain requires resources to clean, mill, store and transport -- local choices are still limited and costly. “It’s enchanting but also heartbreaking, because there's this sort of a promise that doesn't deliver,” she says. “They couldn’t possibly supply me alone, right? Let alone all these restaurants and bakeries. It's a precious little amount. And then you're paying $3 compared to like, 35 cents for a commodity grain. But I think there's definitely a turning point in knowing exactly where you're grain comes from. We work so much with generic white flour, that to actually have the opportunity to say, ‘Oh, man, I saw it in the ground." Right? It's a different story. It makes you appreciate that freaking loaf of bread so much more. Like, you will eat until the last crumb, even if it's like really expensive and costly in many other ways than just financially.”
Looking to the future, Jullapat hopes to see an even wider diversity of locally-grown heirloom grains, in particular, corn and einkorn, an ancient wheat. Though she acknowledges certain grains may not be well-suited for Tehachapi area, but she hopes more farms in the region will begin to experiment with growing grains. She also points out that an important link in bringing more heirloom options to kitchens like her own are the millers who grind the crops to make flour, and recommends that chefs get to know local millers, “The millers need to make money also, and it's a really hard job.”
Jullapat says the key to the growth of a more localized system will be finding ways to fairly compensate both millers and farmers — as the cost of investing in experimental crops can be high — and educating chefs and consumers on ancient grains to create demand. “I think it's gonna be like a critical mass thing,” she says. “If there's so much demand, then people are going to have a financial incentive to grow it, and if there will be a good amount of output then the price comes down so that you can afford it. Nobody seems to be clear on the fact that the problem with heirloom grains is that nobody can afford them. That's why nobody uses them, and nobody wants to grow them, and nobody wants to mill them.”
“You have chefs or bakers that might be hyper-educated in grain, but how do you tell someone that is so upset that they should pay more for their bread?” she adds. “We charge a $8 for a loaf here, and people are like, ‘Hmmm, that's a nice loaf of bread, but...’ It's the same argument you would tell to someone when you say, ‘Why should someone buy organic strawberries?’ Because that means that some worker didn't inhale pesticides, that the fields are not getting super trashed with chemicals. Or that the underground waters are not getting hammered with all kinds of synthetic bullshit. It's always the social costs more than anything.”
There’s also value in saving heirloom seeds that have been passed down through generations and offer genetic diversity, not only for a variety of flavors but for adaptability. Jullapat explains, “Every grain, every kernel is a seed. Just like you want to save the DNA, you want to promote its growth. Also for those people that are actually using native varietals, there's an intense value in terms of those that are more drought-resistant, you're fostering good practices in every culture.”
Building an appetite for heritage grains among the public and educating consumers on the diversity of flavor profiles is also a challenge that requires patience and perseverance, according to Jullapat. “Many items that we make that are 100% whole grain, for example, the chocolate chip cookies 100% whole grain rye,” she says. “But the croissant — it's great, it's awesome — it has 20% Sonora wheat. You would be amazed how many people criticize me for not going 100 percent, right? But it's really hard to pull it off, technically and financially. But that for me is the biggest step. Let's take the step. Let's have you take something that is typically a white flour item into something that is different, is it still satisfying? Is that still worth your $3, or your extra calories, your cheat day.”
Though Jullapat is also wary of efforts to use and promote heritage grains coming across as elitist. “You want to make sure that you're not talking about the high-level grain and like, people don't get it at all. But you also want to make sure that there's some integrity to it.” She adds that part of the equation is gradually introducing people to heritage grains, without being preachy about it. “Ultimately most people are like, ‘Buckwheat. Oh, I have had something with buckwheat.’ There's tons of buckwheat in our pancake; we sell like 20 of those a day. And that's 20 people that didn't know buckwheat before or they don't eat it much, and today they sat and had a big-ass pancake full of buckwheat, you know? Like, that's a win.”
Building Southern California’s heirloom grain movement, and maintaining that integrity, will require getting more people on board — including farmers, millers, chefs, and consumers — according to Jullapat. “Across the board, I think it would be really interesting to see more farmers going into growing grain. I would like to see more millers. I love my miller, but I wish there were another one. Also, I would like to see more people baking with it.”
Having taught several classes on baking herself, Jullapat also finds that discussions around heritage grains often revolve around grains from across the world, rather than exploring more local options. “If you say ‘grain’ it's such a generic term, people think of quinoa, amaranth, and these funky things like teff,” she says. “I think those are great heritage grains from across the world. But if we're really talking about sustainable agriculture, and if we're talking about seasonality, we have to talk about American grain and the stuff that grows well here, and sustainably, and that it's an investment in the long haul. That it’s a seed worth preserving because in generations Californians will be able to grow sustainably.”
Top Image: The pastry case at Friends & Family | Jules Exum