Graison Gill really does live by bread alone — and fresh pasta, grits and stone-milled flour. A professional baker for over a decade who studied at the San Francisco Baking Institute, he opened Bellegarde Bakery in 2013. His bakery now cranks out up to 6,000 loaves of freshly baked artisanal bread weekly and milled whole-grain flour by the ton. Through its retail shop and online store, Bellegarde caters to restaurants, businesses and individual consumers, locally and beyond. Gill has appeared on the cover of Food & Wine magazine and his accolades include and a James Beard Award nomination for 2020.
Bon Vivant: How are you navigating the COVID-19 crisis (in business or personally)?
Graison Gill: Much like Katrina, COVID-19 is forcing New Orleanians to change, whether we want to or not. So, as opposed to resisting that change, we are being positive about the changes we are able to make. As a team, we are addressing the fundamental model of the bakery. It’s been more than seven years since we’ve opened, so this is as good a time as any to do so. Our bakery is now focused on — and promoting more — the incredibly unique things that make Bellegarde exceptional: our freshly milled flours, our heirloom grits and our fresh pastas. Instead of navigating the changes, we are doing our best to control them and to be pro-active about our future in New Orleans and beyond.
Being nominated by the James Beard Foundation as Outstanding Baker only vindicated the hard work I’ve been doing for years, often when no one was listening. And now that everyone is listening, this is more necessary than ever.
BV: What creative methods are you discovering in order to continue to serve clients?
Gill: Bellegarde is pivoting from being a primarily wholesale bakery to becoming a retail bakery. I’ve been making bread for New Orleans restaurants for 11 years, and now, for the foreseeable future, that is all gone. So, in order to adapt, we are shipping a vast amount of flour and pasta nationally, and we are doing curbside pick-up for local customers on Thursdays and Saturdays. It’s been incredibly heartening to see the support — and the joy — that we are able to bring to people, simply through a loaf of bread. I never discounted the power of food, but I am awed at how disarming it can be. Bread for me has always been more than a business, more than a hobby, more than pleasure — it’s my passion, my ritual and my identity. And my commitment to bread has been reaffirmed by the COVID-19 crisis.
BV: Who or what is inspiring you right now and why?
Gill: I have a distinct memory of the week we closed in mid-March. I was eviscerated on every level. What I think most people do not understand is that being a baker or being a chef is not just a job. It’s not even a way of life — it is an identity. So, when we were forced to close down, it wasn’t just my business being closed. It was me — everything I identify as, in every way that I see myself — that was being told to stop. And in that moment, it was impossible for me to untie the future from the present. I felt weightless; I felt paralyzed, because it felt like I was being forced to be something else. It felt like who I had been for so long — a baker in New Orleans — was no longer viable. It really rocked me to my core.
Later that week, I spent some time with Alon Shaya, who is a great friend and mentor. And after too many drinks (it was the only way I could get sleep that week), his words of encouragement and discipline weighed on me so hard that I snapped out of the paralysis. He, along with a few of our incredible staff at the bakery, cleared the path that I’d been walking for so many years and allowed me to get back on it. They left the light on in my heart when all around it was very dark.
I’m also incredibly inspired by our farmers and the wonderful network of growers we’ve built the past seven-plus years. Our supply chains are intact because we don’t work with multinationals, brokers or middlemen. We buy most all of our ingredients from the people who make them, and we finish them ourselves. These men and women — these stewards of the earth — inspire me on a daily basis because their commitment to life is so profound and so deeply ancient. And in times like these, they are hardly fazed.
BV: Guilty pleasure?
Gill: Getting a hamburger from Buffa’s as soon as they reopened.
BV: What’s the best way to eat grits?
Gill: Grits are best eaten with Gulf shrimp. There’s a recipe for how to cook our heirloom grits on our website.
BV: What would you say to anyone on a low-carb diet?
Gill: Anyone on a low-carb diet has been eating the wrong carbs. Complex carbohydrates, in the form of whole grains, are the healthiest foods on the planet. Our breads and pastas are made with freshly stone-milled flour. Stone-milled flour provides everything from polyunsaturated fats to protein and amino acids. Also, all of our breads are fermented with sourdough; this not only makes them delicious, but it makes them incredibly digestible and increases nutritional value and caloric quality.
Food is like karma — what goes in is what comes out. That’s why we start with the freshest, least-processed flour available anywhere around. In fact, it’s why we make our own flour. You can think of bad carbs as simple carbs: Think of the traditional white-flour breads, pastas, pizzas and pastries, which have rightfully given carbohydrates a bad rap. They are made with simple carbohydrates in the form of white, processed flour. But foods made with freshly stone-milled, whole-grain flour are the ones providing our bodies and those of our families with complex carbohydrates. Thankfully, at Bellegarde, we don’t make simple bread.