Tradition + innovation = future of good food

By Alyssa Patrick, Economic Development

pastaMOUNT VERNON, Wash. – Bringing tradition and innovation together to highlight natural flavors is the future of good food, said award-winning chef Marc Vetri at a lecture in Mount Vernon last week.

Flavorful wheat varieties that are gaining new life at Washington State University’s Bread Lab have been bringing the Philadelphia-based chef to the small western Washington city for the past two years.

Chef Vetri signs a book last week at WSU Mount Vernon.

“What I do is very simple cooking,” Vetri said. “There’s the noodles and the sauce, and traditionally we think of the flavors living in the sauce. But if the noodle has flavor, that opens up a whole new world.”

While Vetri spent the formative years of his cooking career in Italy, and has since opened seven restaurants and won several awards, he did not much consider the flour in his pasta until he tasted the bread Stephen Jones’ WSU Bread Lab was making with wheat varieties that couldn’t be found in a store.

Rediscovery, breeding, processing

Jones has worked in Washington for decades coming up with new wheat varieties and, more recently, researching and collaborating on new discoveries relating to food at the Bread Lab in Mount Vernon.

Pasta made by Vetri at WSU Mount Vernon.

His work also flirts with the line between tradition and innovation – both calling attention to the benefits and viability of using existing wheat varieties that are overlooked by mass-production industries and breeding for new varieties that highlight different flavor profiles while still working for farmers.

The process, how the grain is milled into flour and utilized by chefs and bakers once it leaves the farmers’ fields, is also integral to this exploration of flavor and nutrition.

The intricate, diverse flavors of Jones’ bread got Vetri’s wheels spinning about the possibilities for pasta. He went back to Italy after Jones’ lecture to investigate the one ingredient he’d never given much thought – flour. Again and again he found that the pasta makers were using fresh, stone-milled wheat that retains flavorful parts of the grain that are lost in mass production.

Authentic flavor featured in books, restaurants, film

Returning to the U.S. with this knowledge, Vetri went to the Bread Lab, which has become an unofficial headquarters for millers, bakers, brewers, maltsters and chefs who are trying to bring back the authentic flavors and nutrition that some of our favorite foods and drinks have lost.

Wheat-enthusiasts flocking to Jones’ lab include award-winning chefs like Dan Barber, who prominently featured Jones’ work in his recent book, local brewers and maltsters who want to revolutionize craft beverages and even restaurants like Chipotle, which wants to explore options for a better whole-wheat tortilla.

Vetri recently published a book – Mastering Pasta – a beautiful compilation of what he has learned by bringing discoveries from experiments in Jones’ lab to the kitchen. He did a book signing and lecture as part of this trip to Mount Vernon to wrap up some work on a documentary –The Grain Divide – that features both Vetri and Jones and will be released this spring.

Sharing bread and conversation

Two other James Beard Award-winning chefs visited Mount Vernon with Vetri, including Chris Bianco from Phoenix, Ariz. – best pizza chef in the U.S. according to Bon Appétit. Here, he bakes in the Bread Lab using Cougar Gold cheese. (Photo by Kim Binczewski, WSU Mount Vernon)

As good food and conversation often does, last week’s lecture brought together bakers, chefs, community members and even local government officials who filled the center with a warm hum of conversation and the happy sounds produced by delicious samples of pasta and bread.

“It is great that ordinary people can come here and have access to something so unique,” said Paula Erickson, Redmond resident and avid home baker.

Jones, his graduate student Bethany Econopouly and Vetri kept that warm buzz going through the lecture, which was really more of a conversation between colleagues who obviously value each other’s work. Collaboration was at the heart of the conversation – ranging from the benefit of bringing together scientists and chefs, to the benefit of bringing together good food and communities.

Experiencing healthy eating, living

One of the ways Vetri does the latter is with the Vetri Foundation for Children that started an initiative called Eatiquette, a school lunch program that allows children to experience the connection between healthy eating and healthy living. In just four years, the program serves 12 schools over 250,000 lunches.

Jones and Econopouly got to partake in one of these lunches on a recent visit to Philadelphia with the aim of bringing back what they learned in western Washington.

“We ate Moroccan chicken around tables that had been set by the students we enjoyed the meal with,” Jones said. “It was a really beautiful experience.”

Jones’ program is bridging the gap between science that happens in the lab and applications for that science in people’s lives.

The WSU Mount Vernon Northwest Research and Extension Center (NWREC) that hosts the Bread Lab is one of four centers spread across the state. Established in 1947, the Mount Vernon NWREC’s mission is to serve the agricultural, horticultural and natural resource science needs and interests of the region.