Could Superwheat Kernza Save Our Soil?

San Francisco's The Perennial is one of the first spots in the country to bake with Kernza, a new kind of wheat with superpowers to fight climate change and stop soil erosion.

The Perennial
Photo: © Alanna Hale

It's fitting that The Perennial, a hotly anticipated new San Francisco restaurant, would debut the most promising new example of its namesake. The spot is among the first places in the country to work with Kernza, a so-called superwheat that grows year-round.

The Perennial, which has been open for less than two weeks, comes from Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, the husband-and-wife team behind Mission Chinese Food and Commonwealth. The deep focus here is sustainability, and they're approaching the issue from multiple angles. The space was designed by Paul Discoe, a master woodworker who specializes in reclaimed lumber. Meat comes from producers that practice carbon farming, a philosophy aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions. The kitchen cooks with produce grown aquaponically in a greenhouse, a closed circle ecosystem that uses 80 percent less water than a conventional growing system (perfect for California's drought crisis).

The duo's interest in perennial grains, which have environmental advantages over annuals, led them to The Land Institute, a research nonprofit in Kansas that developed Kernza, which is a perennial wheatgrass with low gluten content and superpowers to fight soil erosion. Unlike annual wheats, a perennial like Kernza grows deep roots that take hold of soil and keep it from wearing away. Kernza also grabs more carbon dioxide from the air, which the Land Institute says could help mitigate the effects of climate change.

The Perennial
© Wendy MacNaughton for The Perennial

Kernza is the star of The Perennial's house bread, a slightly sour and grassy country loaf with a dark and rich flavor. It's also the base for a toast topped with cauliflower, puntarelle, cilantro and savory glaze. So far, diners are receptive. This writer personally witnessed her party of non-bread eaters order three portions of it at a friends and family preview.

But The Perennial crew admits that Kernza is not an easy ingredient to work with, at least not yet. "Because of the low gluten, it's a little bit difficult and unpredictable when it bakes," said pastry chef Nicola Carey. Kernza's deep roots seem to produce a taste of the terroir in which it is grown, which adds another wild card. Nonetheless, Carey plans to develop Kernza crackers, lavash, uttapam-style breads, pan de mie and cakes.

Kernza's appeal goes beyond sustainability-focused spots. Two of the country's elite bakeries, Bien Cuit in Brooklyn and Tartine in San Francisco, are also experimenting.

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