Specialty Oats, Rice and Spelt Upgrade Oatmeal

Lisa Shames

When Dave and Megan Miller were putting together the menu for their first Chicago café, Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse, the couple knew they wanted to offer oatmeal. “It’s a perfect comfort food,” says Dave, inspired by his great-grandfather, who lived to be close to 100 and swore by his daily oatmeal habit. The catch? Dave wasn’t a fan of oatmeal. Or, at least, that’s what he thought before he began his mission to find the perfect-tasting oat. “Oatmeal has always been about what’s on it,” he notes, “but not the oats themselves.”

The Millers contracted local farms to plant, grow, harvest and store a Scottish heirloom oat variety to their exact specifications. After they are milled in-house, the oats are cooked like rice, with a roughly two-parts liquid to one-part oats ratio. The Millers cook oats in everything from oat milk—which doubles up on the flavor—to cider, which is good around the holidays, or vegetable broth for savory oat dishes like their shakshouka. The oatmeal is topped with cultured cream, a cinnamon-sugar blend, toasted pecans and hot milk ($8, recipe); diners can also add any of the seasonal jams available. “That gives the incentive to come every day and not have the same oatmeal,” says Dave.

Just as much thought went into the oatmeal’s serving vessel, a shallow bowl, which allows for optimal heat distribution. “Oatmeal has become an obsessive thing for us,” says Dave. “We got lucky and found some good oats and figured out how to have it regularly on our menu.

Oatmeal has become an obsessive thing for us. We got lucky and found some good oats and figured out how to have it regularly on our menu.
Dave Miller, Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse

At Indianapolis’ Milktooth, nostalgia also came into play for Jonathan Brooks when it came to offering a warm grain cereal on the menu. “I ate it growing up, and I wanted to do a more elegant version,” he says, adding that he approached it as he would any other refined dish. Despite the flashier dishes on the menu—like the pearl sugar and sourdough zucchini-bread waffles—Milktooth’s ancient grains porridge with coconut milk, plum jam, hemp seeds and toasted pistachios ($10, recipe) has earned enough fans that Brooks can’t take it off the menu. “Porridge can remind people of something they were forced to eat, so it’s not the easiest sell,” he says. “But so many people tell me it’s one of their favorite things we’ve done.”

For his sophisticated take on oatmeal, Brooks uses a combination of Chinese black rice, spelt berries and sometimes steel-cut oats—“it depends on what’s available,” he says—all cooked separately in salted water, for the dish’s base. Coconut water and coconut milk are infused overnight with fresh Indiana-grown white ginger and toasted spices, including cinnamon, red and green cardamom, star anise and allspice. To order, he warms up the grains and coconut milk mixture with butter and brown sugar.

While the base stays the same, the garnishes change seasonally. There’s always a housemade jam—sour cherry was popular, says Brooks—or fresh fruit. And like at Baker Miller, he serves it in a shallow bowl, which helps separate the garnishes and adds to the eye appeal.

“Texture and balance are important,” Brooks says. “It can become unappealing pretty quick.”

Lisa Shames could eat salty, crunchy things all day.

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