A Conversation with Roxana Jullapat
Talking to the 'Mother Grains' author about growing up in Costa Rica, artisan grain accessibility, and more.
I’ve been thinking a lot about waves of interest in biodiversity and decolonization of various ingredients, and so it was the perfect time to talk to baker and co-owner of L.A. restaurant Friends & Family Roxana Jullapat about her book Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution. Because who is really experiencing the grain revolution? And when will we revolutionize and decolonize global food systems, instead of just providing more artisanal choice to those with money?
Jullapat, who came up in some of the most influential farm-to-table restaurants on the West Coast, understands these issues better than most. We discussed how she came to bake with artisan grains, how we can think about flour differently, and how she managed to write a cookbook while still working in the bakery. Listen above, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Roxana. Thank you so much for taking the time today to chat.
Roxana: Hi, Alicia. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Roxana: So I was born here in the States, in California, to be more precise. But I actually moved to Costa Rica, where my dad was from, when I was just two. So my foods were just the foods of any typical Latin American kid, starting with tons of tortillas made with nixtamalized corn, of course. Tamales, tropical fruits like the ones you probably eat every day. And we actually start drinking coffee at an early age also.
And then, of course, normal kids stuff, like, a spaghetti with tomato sauce and rotisserie chicken and all the things that kids like. But for sure, there were a lot more vegetables than you would imagine because there's just that access to produce everywhere year round.
Alicia: And what was it about bread and pastry that drew you into working with them?
Roxana: When I decided to take a break from schooling, after I got my bachelor's degree, and before I commit—I was supposed to go to grad school. I was like, ‘Ok, let's do something manual. I need to use my hands and not study all day.’
And I went to cooking school, and I thought I was just gonna cook like any normal cook. At the time, I was vegetarian. And I had a real hard time in cooking school working with animal products. Really, really tough. I'm like, ‘Wow, this is so much blood.’
I remember having my first bite of steak that I had in a long, long time, like years probably, in cooking school. And so, bread and pastries seem so natural, right? These are ingredients that I’m not defensive about, ingredients that I use all the time even though there's a lot of dairy. But I was a vegetarian.
And also my family, starting with my great-grandmother and my mom even, there's a lot of baking. So it didn't sound foreign. There were a lot of terms in Spanish and in French, which I was familiar with. So it seemed very approachable.
Plus, by the time I graduated cooking school, having gone through the entire program, including all the savory food and all kinds of butchery and charcuterie, I was getting all these jobs in small restaurants. And I had been sent to the pastry station to plate desserts or make garnishes, etc. So I was like, ‘Ok, I guess this is it.’
And if once you know you like it, and you're kind of good at it. I found a really good job, which was working under Nancy Silverton. I was like, ‘Ok, let's go work at a great place that does this really well.’
Alicia: Well, what made you vegetarian and what made you stop being vegetarian?
Roxana: I was always not very—as a child, I was not super into meat. I thought it was really chewy and really hard and you needed a knife. And the flavors were really, really strong. Also I'm sure you're familiar outside of the United States, beef tends to be grass-fed rather than grain-fed, and it's not always confined so the texture and the flavor of the meat is very different. It's very forward, very meaty, very beefy. Almost barnyard. So I felt that was a—really hard for me as a child.
I don't know what my parents were thinking. There were instances when we were very young. And in September we'd go pick the pig that we would sacrifice for Christmas. So, we’d go to a farm outside of San José, the capitol, and go visit the pig farmer and say, ‘Ok, this is ours.’ I mean, that's so cruel. Come Christmas, you don't want to touch that ham. So, I definitely felt like I couldn't separate the face of that animal with the meat on my plate.
When I was allowed to say what I wanted to eat, in a family of five kids, you're—there's no menu to choose from. You eat what's in front of you. Once I had more freedom to say ‘I would rather eat this,’ I was a vegetarian.
Alicia: And are you still vegetarian or no?
Roxana: I am very vegetarian-heavy in my house. I mean, we seldom purchase meat or fish. I mean, I think we have a can of tuna in the house, maybe in the pantry. So even though my husband is a chef, and we work in a restaurant that serves an omnivore diet, and we go to restaurants where we might enjoy the gamut of foods available to us, we eat very vegetarian, if not vegan-ish in my house.
Alicia: Oh, nice. Awesome.
And I wanted to ask also how you developed your specific style of baking. You mentioned working under Nancy Silverton. You went to one of these—this really grand dame of baking. And how did you emerge from that and develop yourself?
Roxana: I think that the one thing that I felt very attracted to working in California, but also having come from a seasonal place, [where you] use what's available in front of you; there's not a huge amount of imports. I always found it very compelling and appealing to just go with that flow. Follow that seasonal rhythm. And that's what Campanile did so great, and why it was so important to me to work at a place like that.
I'm very tomboyish in my baking, so I'm not into very intricate or meticulous technique. I want things to feel handmade and small batch–y. And that the ingredients are identifiable, that they didn't come in a jar or that they were in vacuum seal. I just want to feel that the process is more organic. It just unfolds unto itself, and you coax the ingredients just to do their thing rather than impose on them your vision of the world.
Alicia: Yeah. [Laughs.]
Well, you just had a book come out called Mother Grains. What was the process like—because I'm struggling to write a book right now—of being in a bakery and writing a book? What was your process for writing it, and how did you find that time?
Roxana: It’s really funny, interesting, and dramatic, you know? And I'm sure you feel all of those things, because when we—by the time my agent and I sat down and said, ‘Ok, this is a book proposal,’ I had a table of contents with a vast number of recipes.
Now, these recipes are probably—were in a large format. This is for a bakery that makes more than a couple dozen at a time. So the first and the most challenging thing, when to just to downscale all those things. And then you think that you're explaining things very well until people say like, ‘What is ‘Add water to wet sand?’’ That doesn't sound that clear after all.
So, I would say that it took me a while to figure it out. And if I were to write another cookbook, I would do this process, which is we work—I work every day. I'm on the schedule; I work a station. I managed one of the ovens, or today, for example, I'm doing all the lamination for tomorrow.
And I don't want to stop doing that.
So I want to come in, do my work at three in the morning, whenever it is, and then spend one to two hours testing recipes or looking at them, getting familiarized with them. If it's downscaling, do that. Which is what I did last year, only I was disorganized about it. And then you take one day to write, and that's the day that you're in your house with your cat, pot of coffee, and just go for it.
Impossible. Impossible. And I've seen I work with people that have done this, and I have no idea how they do it, but it’s impossible to just go, ‘Ok, I have an hour left. Let's go write.’ Ah-ah, that's not gonna happen. That’s not how it works. But I remember when Suzanne Goin was writing the Lucques cookbook. That's how she did it. She would be in between orders, go punch in a recipe.
But yeah, it's incredibly challenging. Your entire staff is involved in the process. I was lucky enough to have journalists and English majors among my staff. I even have a—had a biologist. So I had a lot of resources. And then eventually, you're gonna have to—I don't know if this is for you also, but I did have to look for help. Look to those professional recipe testers and copy editors and have them help you out, because it takes a village.
Alicia: Right, right.
And so in the book, you write about how you came up in these very formative farm-to-table restaurants on the west coast, like Campanile. But it was local farmers getting into grains. There were new mills out there in Los Angeles that you visited. The Washington State University bread lab, that was what really got you interested in grain as a seasonal ingredient. Why do you think grain hadn't been more deeply considered by chefs, even the ones who were actively interested in sustainable and local sourcing?
Roxana: That is such an important question, and really the gist of why Mother Grains came to be. Because at some point, somewhere in our recent history—where we were pushing forward towards food security and industrializing processes to ensure that we could all eat—at some point we lost connection with the fact that this flour comes from a plant. It actually grows in the ground, literally in the ground. And there's several steps that can be mechanized and sort of divorce us from that connection to the land where the actual seed comes from.
Even for a person like myself. I'm a baker, I know stuff. We all know, chocolate grows in a tree, but we see it in a bar pretty much always. So to actually really slow down and say, ‘Wait a minute. This is important. This was alive. It isn't anymore. Why isn't it anymore full of all these things, just like the fruit that I purchased at the farmers’ market?’
So for us farm-to-table people, which is a lot of us, right? And we kind of have a chip on our shoulder about how we work with our farmers, and we have a personal relationships with them and how we are really pushing for sustainability in an industry that is not known for it. We're making no effort to connect this important, humongous food group under that umbrella. Why are we not looking at it with that lens? And I think I think it was just part of a conversation that happened among many of us.
But it really is kind of you have to see it with your own eyes to believe it and really, really feel the—that sort of fire in your belly, that ‘Oh, god, what have we done? What did we do to ourselves? How did we forget this? Why did we neglect all of this biodiversity?’
Alicia: No, I mean, talking about biodiversity is so important. And I feel that this is why your book is important and this conversation is important, because, it—We seem to be getting back to biodiversity ingredient by ingredient rather than—it hasn't been kind of a wholesale revolution of our food system. It's been a few people realizing, ‘Hey, we actually could have a lot of different types of grain and work with them,’ and that sort of thing.
And I was talking to a bread baker friend, because I'm writing about sugar right now, and we were talking about how grain has had this moment. Of course, it hasn't had this moment necessarily for everybody or everywhere, but it's had this moment, and like sugar hasn't had this moment.
And so here in Puerto Rico, which used to be—sugar carries a significant—You see the abandoned sugar mills everywhere. And now, I was talking to a farmer at the market, and she had some sugarcane. And she's like, ‘Oh, yeah, we have two varieties. But for us, it's a weed.’ One person is cultivating it to make rum here now, recultivating it, but for the most part it's either made for pitorro, which is a kind of a crude rum that people make in the mountains. And then there's just farmers with sugar who just are like, ‘Oh, sometimes we cut it up and eat it. But it's not for sale. But we were talking about, when is the moment going to come for sugar?
And it’s fascinating. It’s amazing. I'm sure that you're looking at ‘Ok, well now brown sugar? And turbinados and muscovados.’ And it is so incredibly flavorful, right? And it's hard for us to say like, ‘It's flavorful. It's not just sweetness, right?’
Alicia: No, I can't wait for more sugar.
In your baking, how do you bring your commitment to artisan grains to the rest of what you cook? Obviously, you come from farm-to-table restaurants. But how does the commitment to grains influence the rest of the restaurant?
Roxana: To be a seasonal baker with fruits could not be easier. You go to a farmers’ market, you visit a farm. It's very obvious when the fruit is organic or even when it's not certified. You know when a farmer is following sustainable practices. It’s obvious in the fruit; it’s obvious in their orchards. So easy to understand. I know how to work with this fruit. I know it needs very little sugar. I can do it in my sleep. Not to be arrogant, but it's been 20 years of this. So, it comes easily.
But the thing about grain is that you really have to do your homework, because we don't—can we tell from a bag of flour that it is good or not? No. We can smell it. I mean, it takes a little bit of getting accustomed to the feeling, the feel of it and the smell of it, to really just know at first sight. And also you will find yourself picking your battles, because it's a huge battlefield. So how are we going to win this war?
And for sure, there's a lot of confusion too, right? Because there's a sustainable aspect, but then there's also the health aspect. So the health folks, health advocates are pushing for quinoa, right? But we're like, ‘Hold on a minute. Quinoa comes from way far over there. And can we guarantee that those farmers are getting a fair share? I don't know. And why are we adding all this eco-footprint to this grain?’ And it's also not ours in a sense. We appropriated and became the food of white chicks from Santa Monica here in LA. It’s so multifaceted that you really have to just be like, ‘Ok, let's slow down and pick up our battles.’
So my first goal, which was relatively easy to achieve and is the reason I like to say that it’s easy because I want to see other people commit to it, is my first goal when we open the bakery, which was only four years ago, was every single thing we make has to have an amount of whole grain flour in it. We even committed to a percentage, which was 20%. And that was sort of imitating a policy that the California Weed Commission was trying to set up for local farmers markets here in California.
So once you have that wind in your arsenal, you get more ballsy. And you want to do more. So now you see a lot of recipes that are increasing their percentages of whole grain flour. And now we're getting so good at it. Now, we understand like, ‘Ok, no, you really have to add a little fat if you want that effect. Or you really have to hydrate more if you want to produce this other thing, or build acidity, etc.’
So, it really is sort of a process. And I want to call it a journey or an adventure so that people are incentivized to jump in, because it really is sort of a road that will take many, many different directions depending on how you choose—what do you choose to down the road.
And it’s interesting because the—because grain is so regional. We all have different experiences. No two bakers have the same journey. And I feel like that's fun. Here in California, we all buy sonora wheat because it's so drug resistant and so multi-purpose.
But I really hope everybody finds their thing, you know?
Alicia: Yeah, yeah.
And I mean, that's so important and something that really has to—I'm really obsessed with people who write recipes and still maintain their originality and specificity. And I think there is still a point where you can still learn from a recipe even if you don't necessarily have those ingredients. You think about how you can approach this with what you have.
And I think that we need more of that. We need more very specific, hyper-local and flexibility and originality and seeing originality as a good thing, because it promotes biodiversity and we definitely really need biodiversity.
But at the same time, local grains, when you don't have that access—when I lived in New York, I would go to the farmers’ market and they would have the New York grain. Yeah, beautiful, and it's great. Lots of people are just going to the supermarket or just their—their local market hasn't caught up with that. So what do you think would be great steps toward making artisan grains more available and accessible to all bakers?
Roxana: Thank you so much for asking this question, ’cause this is totally true. At the end of the day, I don't want to sound elitist and be like, ‘Go to your specialty mill, and buy a variety of wheat that has been rescued by this awesome woman.’ This is all true, by the way. This does happen. And those are conversations that I do have with people.
But we do have to meet each other where we're at, right? And at the end of the day, is it more important that you bake with the one bag of spelt that you can find in your local grocery store or is it more important for you to go and spend an outrageous amount in shipping flour from, say, Arizona or Pasadena, California, all the way to you?
So I think that we just have to kind of keep being realistic, and know that the market does—is a pushing force. And the more we ask for these products, the more we are telling the market, ‘This is what we want. We want to see more of this flour in the world and in our cooking. And this is the stuff we want to put in our body.’
I was just very recently in Costa Rica, visiting a baker friend who I met recently, actually, through social media. And I'm talking to him about the challenges of not—he does not work in a country that produces wheat. So he is actually having a completely different conversation. He is actually reaching out to the bread lab and saying, ‘Which wheat will thrive in the tropicals, tropicals region? What should we be doing to make this feasible?’ And he finds himself getting a bag of khorasan all the way from Oregon to Costa Rica. Just let me see what this is and what can we do?
So the thing about grains is that they are grains. And another friend that wants me to use the pejibaye flour, which is a fruit from a palm that grows in many Costa Rica—in Central American countries. Probably grows around you, and they all have different names depending on the country, right?
But then we are changing the composition. A grain’s a grain and a root vegetable’s a root vegetable and fruit from a palm tree is fruit from a palm tree. Which means that at the end of the day, there's a lot to learn. And how do we build equivalences and become more adept at changing flour that comes from grain to be—how do we use those principles with flour that comes from our root vegetables like yuca, for example?
Yeah, no, that's the thing. Here in Puerto Rico, it's—we're not growing wheat, and we probably should be. That moment has to come where we have someone here who is interested and ask the folks like, ‘What is the grain that—’
I mean, we have seven different microclimates here. There's somewhere that grain could grow, and we could mill it and everything. But there is someone here at least who is getting wheat and milling it themselves. So we're getting closer, I think, to that.
Roxana: Let’s not forget that wheat is an enormous multi-billion dollar business, right? There are forces at play here that are not interested in smaller groups making, adapting their own microsphere to their microclimate. It’s not important to them, it’s not—there's no revenue to be had.
But this happened once before. We came from Europe only 500 years ago. And it adapted to the Americas, and now we're the top producers in the world between Canada and the United States. So this can happen. These are now heritage varietals that we consider precious.
No, and it's just a mind-set change. Wheat is one of those things where there are big agribusiness lobbies behind the choices there. And I think it's kind of taken for granted. People are like, ‘Well, yeah, corn, there's a big lobby. Soy, there's a big lobby. Meat, dairy, big lobbies.’ But wheat is also one of those things. And yeah, we use it so much in everything we do. We should definitely be thinking more about that.
Roxana: When you mention corn, it's like, ‘We are the children of the corn.’ Yes, we are. Yeah. Let's not forget, it is literally our lineage, my very ancestors who tamed corn and actually made a flour out of it—a mush out of it. Now we can dehydrate and make, use almost as a flour. But there's also cornmeal, which is just that same kernel just dried up.
So I mean, seriously, Mother Grains could have been Mother Corn. Corn is another mega-grain, another—is another juggernaut that is everything.
Alicia: No, I'm excited. There's folks growing corn here that I haven't tried yet, but I'm very excited about.
And for you, is baking a political act?
Roxana: 100%. Because everything is.
And I have to say that the last two years of social change, starting with even a little bit before the George Floyd assassination and the sort of reclaiming who we are and what belongs to us and the right to turn tell our own stories and the right to cook our own recipes. Leches be seis leches and all those things we were getting fights about, I always had this sense of advocacy. You really have to fight that good fight. And sometimes I have not been really good at finding my voice in the whole process, and let anger be the tone rather than persuasion, which is what we're—I'm leaning a little bit more.
But yeah, it is a political act. But it's also an act of mindfulness. We talk so much about being in the moment and being present and ‘Let's meditate,’ but also what about that sort of moment in which you can make these decisions with calm—pure calm and are able to say, ‘This is the flour that I can see, that I can feel, that I can smell, is going to be different.’ So your whole senses are engaged, and you're going to taste something that is familiar but different. Your entire system is involved in that sole moment of producing a baked good.
I hope. I hope you're not that checked out, that you're like, ‘Oh, look at that cookie.’ It really pulls you in, and in doing so, you're 100% present.
Alicia: Right. Well, thank you so much for taking the time.
Roxana: Thank you so much for having me.