WASHINGTON - The influences of Jonathan Bethony's experiences in Africa are everywhere in his Washington DC bakery, from its name to the practice of grinding whole grains from local farms in his on-site mill.
Started in Senegal
More than 15 years ago, Bethony, then an aspiring musician, visited Senegal to learn West African drumming. He ended up living in a small desert village where he became more interested in working with local farmers. He wanted to help locals who were struggling for their next meal. When he came back to the U.S., he began working in restaurants and discovered a passion for baking.
“I returned to Senegal 10 years later, sent by USDA to work with a millet program,” Bethony recalls. “And this millet program happened to be operating where this village is and I got to bring them into the millet program. So we were doing some work there in the village with development and with agriculture.”
Bethony’s skills were honed when he landed a job at Washington State University’s Bread Lab. That's where he worked to develop new techniques that take advantage of locally grown wheat varieties without discarding any of their components.
Having his own bakery was the next step for him to put into practice the techniques he’d learned and developed over the years. So, in November, he opened his bakery and called it Seylou, which means eagle in the Mandinka language of West Africa.
Milling local grains
The idea of sustainability became a cornerstone for Seylou, which gets all of its grain fresh from local farmers. Bethony uses about 20 varieties of organic grains in making his bread loaves.
“We use several varieties of wheat alone, and about 3 different ryes,” he says. “We also use barley, oats, non-gluten grain, sorghum, buckwheat. I use legume from farmers. I have some beans in some of my bread. Our mission here is to use what they call underutilized grains, which is important to grow in the organic system. A lot of these soils are destroyed from growing tobacco. So, growing a crop like millet helps rejuvenate them.”
Bethony is also one of only a handful of bakers around the United States who mill their grains on-site. This unique approach to bread-making caught the attention of food and environment reporter Sam Fromartz, who's written a book titled, "In Search of the Perfect Loaf." He says knowing how to mill and knowing which grains to use is what gives each type of bread its unique texture and taste.
“Milling your own flour is hugely challenging because there is a whole industry, the milling industry, whose whole purpose is to create a really consistent product,” he explains. “But when you start baking with grains from particular farmers, the grains will be different in each farm. So, Jonathan, in a sense, is adjusting each batch of grain that he mills. One type of flour from a particular grain might ferment really quickly. Another may take much longer. One might be really appropriate for, say, a baguette, and another type of flour might not be appropriate for that. So, he’s kind of mixing and matching and playing with his ingredients. It adds another layer to the process.”
Fromartz says Bethony is part of a developing trend in the American food industry. “There are bakers like him in different parts of the country, and even in Europe as well, who are kind of pertaining to what I call the old food ways, trying to bake with whole grain. But it’s still pretty rare.”
Whole grain pastries
Using 100 percent organic whole grain is not only for making bread, different kinds of pastry products are also made from whole grains and contain no refined white sugar.
It's easy because Bethony surrounds himself with like-minded people, like his pastry chef, Charbel Abrache.
“Charbel is patient and willing to take risk,” he says. “He’s been to pastry school, and used to teach in a pastry school and work in fine dining, but he doesn’t let his preconceptions about pastry get in the way of innovating and experimenting with non-traditional ingredients. The result is variety of unconventional pastries like whole wheat croissant, sorghum brownies and millet chocolate chip cookies.”
Bethony says Seylou wouldn’t fly without the support of his wife, Jessica Azees, a teacher and yoga instructor who became his business partner.
“It’s a rewarding opportunity for me to get to meet all kinds of great people walking through the door, working with our staff, with the farmers we’re working with all the time.” Azeez says.
It's the taste
Seylou's baked products are rich in natural minerals, vitamins and essential acids. But it's the taste that brings customers back. That pleases Bethony, as he wants people to have a different perception of healthy food.
“When you’re going to a pastry shop or a bakery, there is excitement, like 'let’s go get a treat or a crusty bread',” he says. “I don’t want to take away any of this experience. I’d love for people to come and get the excitement at the same time get something that’s very nurturing for them. The front of the house doesn’t explain about our philosophy. But my favorite part is when someone actually doesn’t know these things, they enjoy it just as if it was that sweet piece of cake or that sugary pastry or that white flour croissant.”
Customer Nooni Reatig, an architect who works nearby, has been convinced. “At first, I was skeptical about the whole, whole grain," she admits. "But I tasted Jonathan's bread and it’s not something static, it’s completely a live product. It has so many things going on at once, like the bread, when you bite in, the crust is crispy but inside has a bounce and a texture.”
That texture and flavor don't come easy. Bethony forms each loaf by hand, feeding them one by one into a wood fired oven. Each loaf takes about 36 hours from start to finish. It's a long process, but Seylou's loyal customers say the results are worth it.