Charleston restaurant uses 172-year-old gristmill

Millers All Day restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, has a 172-year-old gristmill stationed in an old display window that helps create the restaurant’s signature dishes.
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By Sara Jordan-Heintz

Greg Johnsman displays an unmistakable zest when he talks about his love of old-fashioned grist milling, which isn’t just his livelihood, but rather, his life’s calling.

He’s spent his whole life working, studying and living in South Carolina. He is co-owner of Millers All Day, an old school, yet trendy, spot for brunch-goers located at 120 King St., Charleston, South Carolina. A 172-year-old gristmill stationed in an old display window spotlights the state’s agricultural history and helps create his restaurant’s signature dishes.

 The gristmill waits by the window for Johnsman to mill corn whenever the kitchen runs out of grits. Images courtesy of Millers All Day

The gristmill waits by the window for Johnsman to mill corn whenever the kitchen runs out of grits. Images courtesy of Millers All Day

Millers All Day opened in March 2018. Johnsman’s business partner is Nathan Thurston. Executive chef is Joe DiMaio. The restaurant feeds 600-700 people every weekend. The popular Hoppin John consists of sea island red peas, Carolina gold rice and veggies. And, of course, shrimp and grits are a mainstay. The Golden Cocktail is made with Cannon Grit vodka, yellow tomato, roasted peppers and corn.

“We came together and we talked about how Charleston is very much a brunch town — very southern and relatable to those hours of operation — and we thought a chef and farmer coming together would be a great concept,” Johnsman explained.

He grew up in the Upstate South Carolina town of Powdersville and attended Clemson University to study poultry science, earning a master’s degree in agriculture education. In 2003, he and his wife Betsy moved to Edisto Island to help father-in-law Adair McCoy on the large family farm.

“Even though I always milled, I put it to the side, to help on the family farm I married into, but as I saw it decline, I reintroduced crops we were growing as cover crops and put them to the forefront and it really took off,” he said. “About 15 years ago, I started selling heirloom vegetables to high-end chefs. To supplement that, in 2007, I got Geechie Boy Mill up and running.”

Many of the products he creates at the mill are sold and used in the restaurant.

“On any given day, you could have 12-15 different products from my farm, let alone from friends, served at the restaurant,” he said.

The concept: small crops cultivated for the restaurant industry. The Jimmy Red is a local red corn with heavy starch/fat content. Johnsman said a whiff of this variety leaves you with the scent of banana Laffy Taffy. The Specialty Food Association picked his Guinea Flint Grits as the 2018 Sofi Gold Winner (in the grain, rice and pasta category) in a blind taste test of 2,300 products. Arguably, his most unusual products are the Unicorn grits and cornmeal, which possess a pink hue.

 Greg Johnsman operating his “Queen of the South” gristmill.

Greg Johnsman operating his “Queen of the South” gristmill.

Johnsman learned the nearly lost art of gristmilling at the knee of third-generation miller Jack Brock. The antique mill on display at Millers All Day dates to 1847 and is known as the “Queen of the South.” The Cincinnati-based Straub Company crafted it. Originally, it was water-powered.

Today it is fixed with a grits separator that dates to 1909. He purchased the gristmill about eight years ago, not knowing just what to do with it before the restaurant concept was born.

The gristmill weighs 1,800 pounds and is 4-1/2 feet tall by 4-1/2 feet wide and powered using an electric motor. It requires only one person to operate it. It took Johnsman and a friend a year and half to restore the gristmill. His father spent three years putting the grits separator back together. The machine was brought up to modern food safety standards. Johnsman does public demonstrations of how the gristmill grinds the grains every Tuesday and Friday at the restaurant.

“The building used to be a department store and the window was used to display women’s clothes. We had to take the front window out and build a crane to get the gristmill in,” he noted. “(The demos) are like people watching an old taffy machine.”

Whenever the kitchen runs out of grits, he can mill corn standing right in the window, having a fresh batch ready in minutes.

 The front entrance to the restaurant.

The front entrance to the restaurant.

Corn and wheat were ground by hand before the invention of gristmills. Gristmilling is an essential part of the history of various civilizations.

As author Donald Hill writes in his book, A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times: “From the available evidence, a broad pattern of activity emerges: a large expansion in grist milling in the Roman Empire from the third century onwards, continued in Byzantium and probably in Iran ... in parallel with these large state-sponsored or capitalistic enterprises, there were always small mills built by communities to serve only their own needs. And between these two extremes, and overlapping them, were the mills owned by law and clerical landlords, to which the peasants were obligated to take their corn for grinding — and to pay for the service.”

Johnsman describes his crops as a “rice kitchen.”

“It’s biodynamic: each crop helps the next. We grow rye and peas that create nitrogen and a lot of that I don’t ever produce; I put a lot of that back in the ground and the corn loves that ground and really does well,” he explained. “With three hurricanes in the last three years, we work with eight other farmers now all over the state in case of a problem.”

The high humidity of the Lowcountry allows the produce to spoil in grain bins. Instead, 400 tons of corn can reside in an old tomato cooler.

Inevitably, Johnsman gets asked the million-dollar question: What’s the difference between grits and corn meal?

 A signature dish the restaurant makes,with the help of the gristmill.

A signature dish the restaurant makes,with the help of the gristmill.

“Corn meal is finer, but not as fine as flour. Grits are coarser,” he explained. “We like corn meal for corn bread and hush puppies. There are three pieces to a kernel: the germ, the endosperm and the bran. The germ, or center, no matter the work, is too soft in most varieties to make any grits. The endosperm can be turned into corn meal, corn flour or leave as grits.”

He said depending on where you go, the definition of polenta will vary.

“Polenta is like whole wheat bread where everything is ground together. Polenta truly is a whole grain corn,” he said. “Now in terms of hominy, when old people in the south ask for it, they want grits. If you ask people out west or in Mexico, they’re referring to whole corn kernels that have been soaked in lye (or a lime solution).”

The gristmill exhibited at the restaurant is not the only one he owns. When asked how many are in his possession he answered, “too many.” There are seven such mills running at his family farm Monday through Saturday for 12-hour stretches.

“Every million pounds, we re-sharpen the stones, and you’d be surprised how fast one million pounds goes,” he said.

Besides Meadows Mill — a 110-year-old company based in North Carolina — there are few ways of finding parts to fix the aged gristmills.

“Some people like to drink and hang out with their friends; I like to sit next to an old, cantankerous mill and listen to it run and help it along. Each one has a rhythm. Each one has a story with the family. It’s like I get to hold a hand with a person I never got to meet. We get to work together, because they knew something I didn’t know and they have taught me a lot,” Johnsman concluded.

Millers All Day may be reached at 843-501-7342 and info@millersallday.com. It is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.