Adam Leonti is obsessed with grain, and he hopes to “infect the whole city” with the taste of his freshly milled flour.
“Eating whole wheat isn’t weird,” he tells the Voice. “I want it to be normal.” The chef recently opened Brooklyn Bread Lab (201 Moore Street, Brooklyn), which is outfitted with a three-and-a-half-ton Meadows Mills granite mill and a gigantic sifter. And even though it’s in a large Bushwick warehouse, the space somehow manages to be warm and inviting — maybe it’s the amazing smell of fresh bread.
On a recent visit, an overhead projector trumpeted the day’s offerings, made from Turkey wheat from Kansas: Roman-style pizza with olive oil and fresh anchovies, grilled cheese with fresh mozzarella, lasagna with taleggio and hazelnuts, and palla pane (round loaves of bread).
The goods are stacked behind glass at the front counter, where Leonti and sous-chef Jeff Kozlowski are ready to welcome customers — if they’re not working the mill or ovens or chatting about grain with another patron (who is likely to be a fellow chef). Order one of everything the Lab has available on its daily menu and you’ll have the makings of a pretty epic meal.
Leonti, who grew up in Maine and moved to Philadelphia when he was twenty, was most recently the chef at the acclaimed Vetri in Philly. He moved to Brooklyn in 2014 to take on the role of executive chef at the forthcoming Williamsburg Hotel. So how’d he end up inside a warehouse on a desolate block down the street from the vaunted Roberta’s?
Leonti says that when he signed on with the hotel, installing a mill to supply its eighty-seat restaurant, rooftop restaurant, and ballroom was part of the deal. “It was important to me — and the reason to even move here — because it was a bigger venue, where I could get more traction on milling and show it’s not just this little geek niche.”
The mill was supposed to go into the subcellar of the hotel, but when construction was delayed, owners Toby Moskovits and Michael Lichtenstein offered up their warehouse on Moore Street as a place to develop ideas in the meantime. Leonti knew just what to do with it: Build a bread lab.
Leonti modeled it after Washington State University’s Bread Lab, where he’d spent time with Jonathan Bethony-McDowell and Dr. Stephen Jones exploring new ways of using grains. With that experience, Leonti decided he wanted an East Coast lab focused on locally grown grain. More a workshop than a traditional bakery, the Lab is a place where Leonti can perfect the craft of milling with various heirloom strains.
“We make lots of different preparations and then we report all the recipes and variables. That way, it’s open to anybody to see. So if somebody was like, ‘Hey, how’d you like that Warthog [grain] from Doylestown?’ I could say, ‘Here’s the deal: This is what the protein was at, here’s where the falling number of starch content was, and here’s how we used it,’ ” Leonti explains.
The space is open to any fellow grain-obsessive who wants to experiment with the mill and fresh flour. For example, a friend from Harlem is coming next week to make bagels. “And if they’re good, we’ll sell them here with his recipe,” says Leonti. “Because it’s not just about our recipes — it’s a lab versus a bakery, which is unique.”
So far, Leonti and Kozlowski have experimented with that Warthog wheat, which grows in New York and Pennsylvania; Blue Beard, from the Sonoran Desert, which Leonti discovered is great for pasta and terrible for bread; and that Turkey wheat from Kansas, which he’ll compare to the same variety he’s getting from North Carolina. As for New York–grown grains, “We’re going to hit up Farmer Ground and try to get some of their wheat berries soon,” he says. “Cayuga Pure Organics is the next one after that we’re going to try to use.”
“Getting into” fresh-milled flour, by the way, is becoming more and more popular. Bakers across the country, like David Bauer of Farm & Sparrow, in Asheville, North Carolina; Fulton Forde of Boulted Bread in Raleigh; and Josey Baker of the Mill, in San Francisco, are changing the way people think about their daily bread.
Stone milling has been around for thousands of years — it’s how the process of making flour began. Grain is pulverized between one stationary stone and a rotating one, a process that preserves all the nutrients in the flour. Once high-speed roller mills were invented, stone milling fell out of fashion. Industrial mills blast the grain apart, allowing the bran, germ, and endosperm to be separated out, thus increasing the shelf life (the germ tends to turn rancid in about two weeks). The flour we buy at the grocery store is essentially just starch and maybe a little bran.
“While the stones are almost touching and crushing [the] grain,” Leonti notes, “they’re emulsifying it so that the bran, germ, and endosperm all get stuck together in a way that can’t be separated. It has to stay together, even after you put it through a sifter.”
Still, for Leonti and other bakers, taste is the priority — all those nutrients are just an added bonus. “It’s just like coffee: When you take a coffee bean and grind it, that’s when all the flavor’s there. For me, first is flavor.”
Bread Lab plans to feature different items each week, sometimes with a theme. Laminated dough was the star a couple of weeks ago, and as a result croissants, puff pastry, and danishes were available. Once the hotel is up and running this spring, the Lab will deliver fresh flour there daily.
The Lab offers classes for home bakers on milling and making bread, pasta, and pizza; it also offers a course for professionals, which Leonti says is open “to folks in the industry that already know how to bake, that already know how to run their own shop, but want to learn how to handle this [fresh milled] flour and make a decision on whether they want their own mill and what kind of mill it would be.”
Leonti is already fielding requests from local bakers for his flour. He envisions a future wherein it becomes the norm for bakeries in New York City to use freshly milled flour — and, eventually, to invest in mills of their own.
“We hope to get our flour into other bakeries so that you can start to taste it everywhere. Hopefully, we get copied. That’s the whole idea. And then they do it and then a lot of people are doing it,” he says. “We should have four hundred mills just in New York.”
Brooklyn Bread Lab is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Find out more at brooklynbreadlab.com.