Publican Quality Bread’s Greg Wade joins the ranks of the top bakers in America after winning the coveted 2019 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Baker. He was among winners announced May 6 at the 2019 James Beard Awards Gala at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. The head baker for Publican Quality Bread in Chicago, Wade is a multiple-time nominee for the award. Under his leadership, the bakery crafts whole-grain, long-fermented breads fresh daily. Publican Quality Bread is seen as a leader in the local grain movement.
Following his win, Wade stressed the importance of working together to improve America’s food system. “We have one food system — for the 1%, for the 99%, for Democrats, for Republicans, for black lives matter, for blue lives matter. And we all have to start working together,” he says.
In an exclusive with Bake magazine, Wade says that he is honored to be part of a larger and growing movement to bring grains to the forefront of conversations about the value of bread with the American public.
“Bread and wheat in general is getting a pretty bad wrap these days,” he says. “Through our work at Publican Quality Bread and also our involvement in groups like the Artisan Grain Collaborative, we are trying to show that when grown and processed properly, wheat and delicious, nutritious bread can and should sustain us far into the future just like it has in antiquity. I’d like to think that we are also doing our part to prove to the world that American bread is not just factory-made white bread, and we can be major contributors to our craft on a world stage.”
On winning the James Beard Outstanding Baker Award, joining previous winners Belinda Leong and Michel Suas of B. Patisserie, Mark Furstenberg of Bread Furst, Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery & Café, and Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery, Wade admitted that “the whole thing is pretty surreal. To open a bakery, then five years later be recognized among the top in the country is really incredible. I was immediately thankful for my amazingly talented and supportive staff and felt that all of our hard work and dedication was validated.”
JBF Award winners receive a certificate and a medallion engraved with the James Beard Foundation Awards insignia, as well as the honor and prestige that come with the distinctions.
Other Outstanding Baker 2019 finalists were Zachary Golper of Bien Cuit in Brooklyn, New York, Maura Kilpatrick of Sofra Bakery and Café in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie in Detroit, Michigan, and Avery Ruzicka of Manresa Bread in Los Gatos, California.
The start of a baking career
Wade works as head baker at Publican Quality Bread, the wholesale bakery under the Publican family of restaurants. A graduate of the Illinois Institute of Art’s Culinary Program, Wade started his career at Taxim in Wicker Park, where he specialized in breads and pastries. To deepen his knowledge of bread-making, Wade joined the opening team at Girl & the Goat in 2010, excelling under Chef Stephanie Izard’s guidance. In 2013, Wade moved to Izard’s Little Goat to oversee bread baking at Girl & the Goat, Little Goat and Little Goat French Market.
“I really just fell into baking,” Wade says. “I had gone to culinary school for the savory program and started working in restaurants while still attending school. I did bread as a passion project at those restaurants. Eventually, my chef de cuisine at the time was leaving to go open Girl & the Goat with Stephanie Izard and he told me he wanted me to come open that restaurant, but he wanted me to do bread full-time. I baked everything in the wood fire oven there, and I fell in love with baking bread. We did well there, and when Stephanie built Little Goat, she built a small bakery in it. Later, I was introduced to Paul Kahan through one of my culinary school instructors. We met and talked about the wholesale bakery he wanted to open, that bakery became Publican Quality Bread.”
Since joining Publican Quality Bread as head baker in 2014, Wade has transformed the concept’s baking program from a seedling operation within Publican Quality Meats to a highly successful wholesale division that works hand-in-hand with One Off Hospitality’s other concepts as well as the top chefs, farmers and retail owners in the Windy City.
Envisioned by executive chef-partner Paul Kahan and the culinary teams at the Publican family of restaurants, Publican Quality Bread specializes in whole-grain, long-fermented baked goods, which can be purchased at Publican Quality Meats and enjoyed at more than 50 restaurants and markets across Chicago. With an emphasis on naturally leavened bread doughs and heritage grains, Publican Quality Bread sells a variety of ciabattas, baguettes, boules, sourdough and rye breads, which are baked fresh daily.
“At Publican Quality Bread we focus on naturally fermented, whole grain breads,” Wade says. “Our country sourdough, multigrain and honey-oat porridge I think are very indicative of our program and mission. Right now, I’ve really been digging making these Rye Kouign Amann, they’re lightly perfumed with fenugreek and just really something special.”
Specializing in whole grains and fermentation, Wade was honored with a 2017 and 2018 James Beard nomination for Outstanding Baker and was featured in the documentary, “Sustainable: A Documentary on the Local Food Movement in America,” on Netflix.
Small grains are integral to biodynamic, regenerative agriculture, Wade says, because they work amazingly well in crop rotations, also serve as fodder for livestock on pasture and they work well as a winter cover crop in the Midwest.
“I would love to see a movement to take back rural America, re-regionalizing our food systems to support and celebrate what we produce locally,” Wade says. “For me, the future of bread does not come from a factory. The future of bread is becoming reacquainted with our product and our process, with the knowledge, passion and skill that no machine can reproduce.”
Advancing the appreciation of grains
Wade says they work with multiple varieties of wheat, rye and oats now. Publican is a founding member of the Artisan Grain Collaborative in Chicago, a group whose reach has now spread to most of the Midwest. It is a group of farmers, bakers, millers, plant breeders and university extensions, all working together to create a stronger regional grain system.
“We are constantly testing new varieties over different soil types and climate conditions, performing bake and flavor tests among other programs with the end goal of more grain being grown and used in all culinary and even beverage applications,” he says. “By working together with everyone in the grain value chain, we are able to overcome a lot of hurdles that most of us wouldn’t be able to accomplish working alone.
“We have a pretty dynamic relationship with our farmers,” he continues. “We get together before the growing seasons and talk about how much wheat, rye, etc. I reasonably think we can go through in the year, then they plan accordingly. Other times they are trying out a new technique, such as poly-cropping, or doing a test plot of a new variety of grain. They won’t get much yield out of test plots, so we can’t use them in our main production, but they make a welcome addition to a special product for a weekend or two. I think the last product we made like that was a sorghum blondie, the buttery flavor of the sorghum worked really well in that application.”
Wade considers the biggest food trends impacting their business to be the way in which consumers are incredibly concerned with transparency, “something that I am incredibly excited to see. Transparency and clean labeling has always been important in our mission, we are happy to tell people our story of working with local farms.”