For as long as she can remember, Nan Kohler has had a deep-rooted passion. Growing up in Independence, Missouri, “halfway between Harry Truman’s home and his Presidential library,” she loved to bake—and among her most treasured childhood memories is time spent creating in the kitchen.
Nan with the 2,500-pound, wood Ostiroller, which was imported from Austria
“I’ve always been a really curious and pretty fearless baker,” shares the Midwest native, her brown eyes sparkling as she reminisces. “I would try anything … and if I was bored and felt like making a layer cake, I’d be the one calling my friends to come over to eat it.
“I just love it—the magic that happens when you take ingredients and completely transform them into a mouth-watering and delectable taste that makes people happy.”
But aligning her passion with her career didn’t happen until much later in life.
The Van Nuys resident spent most of her career working in the wine industry. After constant urging by her friends to open a bakery, she finally took a baby step in 2009, introducing her baked goods at the Studio City Farmers Market. A short time later, Sherman Oaks’ Sweet Butter Kitchen founder, Leslie Danelian, (who passed away in 2015) approached her.
“The moment I bit into her soft and chewy oatmeal cookie, I fell in love. I asked Nan, right on the spot, if she would be interested in baking for Sweet Butter. Lucky for me, she said yes,” wrote Leslie in a 2010 blog post.
“I definitely grew more confident and creatively empowered in my ability to put delicious things together that people would be interested in buying, but I knew that scooping muffin batter and cookie dough was never going to be enough for me,” expresses Nan, about her time as head baker. “I missed the engagement and educational component I had in the wine industry. I just knew that for me to be really happy and engaged 24/7, I had to figure out something different.”
Then she saw a PBS rerun of Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth [Reichl]. In the episode, the famed chef/food writer visits French chef/baker Richard Bertinet in Bath, England. He tells Reichl that they have to go see the miller to get a recommendation for the bread they’re baking.
“All the bells and whistles went off for me,” Nan animatedly explains. “Here I am, this very avid baker in Los Angeles, one of the hottest food cities in the world, and I can’t go down the street and talk to a miller. I don’t have access to fresh flour.”
That realization kicked off an exploration into the fundamentals of milling.
“All the bells and whistles went off…Here I am, this very avid baker in Los Angeles, one of the hottest food cities in the world, and I can’t go down the street and talk to a miller. I don’t have access to fresh flour.”
“Do we grow wheat in the state of California? Could I get equipment on a smaller scale? The more I started to project things I would need to make this happen, the more the answers came back to me. Yes, you can have it … yes, you can find it. It won’t be easy, but yes, you probably could. And ultimately it was that decision that if I feel I can, I really think I should—and so I did.”
Chef Bruce Kalman, co-owner of Pasadena’s Union and Grand Central Market’s Knead & Co., was the first professional chef to become a customer. He says, “Nan is filling a much-needed void in the food world by connecting chefs directly with the grain growers and developing incredible, freshly milled flour, not to mention access to whole grain and new grains, which is exciting for us to work with and experiment.”
Located in a small, unassuming industrial complex in Pasadena, Grist & Toll inhabits a 1,700-square-foot space. It is the first independent stone mill in LA in nearly a century and the only mill of its kind located within a city. With the help of two full-time employees, Nan, along with her husband, Chris, (who assists “far more than he ever imagined”) do it all—from educating ambitious home bakers to meticulously testing products. They also mill and bag the flour.
A small marketplace is open to the public Wednesday to Saturday, showcasing eight to 10 varieties of flour, baking supplies and select gourmet items. The area in the back houses Nan’s cozy office and adjacent kitchen; a storage area complete with a forklift and stacked with one-ton wheat and grain bags; and the centerpiece—a 2,500-pound, wood stone mill—the Ostiroller, imported from an 80-year-old, family-owned company in Austria.
“I wanted a mill where the stones are placed horizontally so the wheat or grain can be milled with the whole berry intact,” says Nan. She explains that her small batch process resembles centuries old principles to “preserve the nutritional value of the wheat, creating multi-faceted flour with superior flavor, color and texture.”
The highest volume of wheat and grains are sourced from California, such as hard red, hard white and organic non-GMO corn (polenta and the cornmeal rye). However Nan also pulls from farms across the country, including Pennsylvania, Montana, Oregon and Arizona, which can present a quandary.
“Do I want to be environmentally responsible and try to source as locally as possible? I absolutely do,” she asserts. “But a huge part of this business is getting this product into the marketplace and opening people’s eyes that we have other choices that are potentially so much more creative and inspiring to a chef and baker.
“If I can create market demand for unique wheat, like spelt and einkorn, I will have California growers planting that seed again. Part of bringing diversity means paving the way to create a community of farmers and bakers centered around a sustainable grain hub.”
Andy Kadin of Bub and Grandma’s has used Grist & Toll since opening his primarily wholesale bakery three years ago, baking 8,000 bread loaves a week and distributing to top-shelf restaurants across LA, including Osteria Mozza and Petit Trois. He credits Nan and her work for “helping to define us as a bakery and continuing to make our bread distinctive.” Andy says he reveres the flour producer for her “strong, deeply informed opinions. Trends mean nothing to Nan. She’s doing what she does the right way—and that’s the hardest way, mind you—and nothing is going to push her off that track.”
Chef Marge Manzke, co-owner of République, says there’s a clear difference when using Grist & Toll hard white flour as compared to regular white flour in their waffles. “You can see the difference in the taste, texture and aroma, which has brought the dish to another level. It’s crispier, has more depth and has a bit of a nuttier taste.”
Nan explains that being a baker and a miller informs every decision she makes. “I hunt for grains based on what I think is going to be pretty mind-blowing for bakers and chefs to experience, and something that will elevate and inspire everyone’s craft and their eating experience.”
Bestia and Bavel, in downtown LA, also use the mill’s flour, in everything from various breads to desserts.
“Depending on the type of flour, her wheat can be super nutty, bitter or sweet in flavor. There’s almost like a hoppy quality to it. Nan has a ton of different varieties that you can’t find easily,” says chef/owner Ori Menashe.
Despite doing what so many others only aspire to do in midlife—shift a career toward a passion—surprisingly, Nan says there’s still one void.
“I don’t have enough hours in the day to just geek out and bake.”
Valley luxury market.