We're in Love Already: A Wood-Fired Oven, Flour Milled Fresh Onsite and Local Grain from Local Farmers
By Susan Able, Edible DC
Jonathan Bethony is one of the country’s top bakers at the forefront of the whole grain bread movement. And in a stroke of luck for all of us in the DMV, he and his wife, Jessica Azeez, will be opening their first bakery here. Seylou Bakery and Mill (named after the word "eagle" in the African language Mandinka) is beginning to take shape in a storefront space on N Street NW, around the corner from buzzy Blagden Alley and the restaurant scene in Shaw. If the deliciously full-flavored, rustic, fermented and moist loaves we sampled are any indication of the bread Seylou will be turning out, this is your new addiction. We just wanted to give you fair warning.
As Bethony and Azeez decided where their first solo bakery would be, DC emerged as the top choice because of deep family connections for the them on the East Coast. And equally important, the couple felt DC’s growing food scene would welcome a bakery that ferments its dough and sources heritage and local grains.
Bethony brings a singular portfolio of baking experience to DC. Before his move, he was Baker-in-Residence at the reknowned Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, working with Chef Dan Barber to expand the baking program. He was also on the team that developed a deeply flavorful wheat for Dan Barber, now called "Barber Wheat." Bethony met Barber through the Bread Lab, but before that he grew his chops as a baker through training at the San Francisco Baking Institute and then by working at several top California bakeries.
Bethony's reputation as a whole grain expert was firmly established by his three years as the resident baker and bread researcher at Washington State University’s famed Bread Lab, where the mission is to make regional grain farming viable again by creating and baking with new wheat varieties with the taste and nutrition of ancient grains but grown in today’s climate. Building on his knowledge from The Bread Lab (where he still consults), Bethony will use local grains and work with area farmers, like Heinz Thomet from Next Step Produce in Maryland, to grow more of what he will need at Seylou.
No white flour to be found at Seylou, Bethony cares so much about his product that he will be milling his own flours, one of only a handful of places on the East Coast that have a mill operation.
“At Bread Lab, we researched and planted different grains that hadn’t been used in commercial bakeries, and I worked with each one as a baker to find out about them and their properties, because each one is different. And when you mill grain yourself it is a wild card—it the opposite of standardized. White flour is dead, it isn’t living anymore. And what most people really don’t know is that most processed flour, even whole grain, isn't fresh. Flour gets rancid, it doesn’t last. Even culinary students can’t tell the difference when they smell fresh flour from old, rancid flour. We haven’t been educated on what fresh flour is because we have moved so far away from experiencing it or eating bread made from it.”
The commitment Seylou has made to producing good whole grain bread will be obvious on entry. Plans call for a very large, multi-ton stone mill from New American Stone Mills to be located near the front door of the shop, near pallets of grain and wood for the wood-fired rotating deck oven.
“Milling takes skill, so I’ll have to be as good a miller as I am baker—and now I need to be good at fire,” Bethony explained as he showed where his rotating deck wood oven will be built by craftsmen from Spain. Jessica is also his partner in the business and will be working on marketing and social media. She'll also be developing a line of herbal teas, turmeric matcha and a hot chai tea we sampled that is wonderful.
Bethony explains that the menu will be short but that everything he makes will have a story, be healthy, nourishing and he promises it will taste amazing. Everything at Seylou will be made with flour that has been milled within 24-48 hours. You'll find the standards: Pain levain and basic whole wheat sourdough made with local flour. A single origin 100% fresh milled bread.
But expect surprises—maybe waffles. Maybe tartine sandwiches. Definitely pizza nights. Pastries? There will be croissants, canneles, financiers, other French-inspired pastries and Lebanese pastries from Charbel Abrache, whom Bethony met at Blue Hill and brought down to DC to lead the pastry program at Seylou.
Bethony expects that as Seylou grows to supplying restaurants and stores, there will be ripple effects through the supply chain. “A dream would be that our second phase might be opening a bigger place that is a mill, so once that we’ve built the appreciation for how great fresh flour is, we can do a bigger mill to supply bakers and home bakers. And we'll work with area farmers to grow more heritage grains to fuel our growth.”
A soft opening is planned for this August, but follow Seylou on social media to find out about their pop-ups which are happening until the opening. Seylou will be participating in Edible DC’s Eat/Drink Local event on May 22, by creating a “breadscape” of their goods. Tickets are available at edibledc.evenbrite.com
Susan Able is publisher and editor-in-chief at EdibleDC. A farmers market junkie, home cook and story chaser, she's a big fan of whole grain bread. Read more of her work at edibledc.com