go to basket

Glenn Roberts

Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, in Carolina Gold Rice at Turnbridge Plantation near the Savannah River

Anson Mills founder and visionary Glenn Roberts grew up in San Diego, California, the son of a professional singer and photographer, and an erstwhile Southern belle from Edisto, South Carolina who became an accomplished scratch cook and occasional restaurateur. Glenn was a restless, deeply curious boy, who, by all accounts, required steady discipline to stay out of mischief. His mother tried to tame him by putting him to work on weekends as a busboy in her restaurant. His father taught him to fly an Aeronca Champ when he was just eight years old, using pillows to prop him up and two-by-fours wired to the rudder pedals. Both parents required their children to have musical training: Glenn studied French horn throughout his boyhood and adolescence, performing first in the San Diego Youth Symphony, and later occupying fourth chair in the San Diego Symphony. None of this, however, prevented Glenn from pursuing his real passion (and every parent’s nightmare): chemistry experiments. Working with explosive gas for a national science contest, Glenn blew the door off his parents’ garage on one occasion and decimated his mother’s kitchen on another. (The experiments earned him second place in the contest; the damages earned him a whipping.)

At 17, Glenn entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a music and science scholarship and graduated four years later. A conventional life track, however, was too narrow to contain his energies: he joined the Air Force to feed his love of supersonic jets and flying and later sailed around the world on private yachts as a navigator and a mate (becoming, in the process, absorbed by indigenous foods of the tropical environment and the agriculture that accompanied them). He took up riding and dressage. He drove long-haul trucks.

Somewhere along the road of diversionary adventure, Glenn’s overarching interests distilled into the study of architectural history and the history of food. Settling down into a suit and proper shoes, he backed into historic property restoration from the kitchen door, working on space design and adaptive reuse in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. His geographic area ultimately narrowed to South Carolina where Glenn took on broader aspects of redesign projects, carrying those through to the hiring of chefs and marketing staff, and to the planning and execution of celebratory dinners at projects’ end. The menus he helped plan were intended to offer period-authentic dishes. But the ingredients didn’t exist: they were extinct. Local growers did not produce them and would not be persuaded to try. In particular, grains of the era like Carolina Gold rice, lynchpin of the Antebellum cuisine of South Carolina, were nearly impossible to source.

Glenn’s career epiphany came on a hot summer afternoon in the kitchen of an historic Charleston property. An elaborate rice dinner was just hours away, and the solitary source on earth for Carolina Gold rice at that time—a grower in Savannah—had delivered his product earlier in the day. When the chef opened the bag to cook the rice, the grains were writhing with weevils. Picking through the rice was laborious and time was of the essence. At 7 o’clock in the evening, Glenn found himself at a prep table with two dishwashers, sweating in his suit and tie, and rousting weevils from Carolina Gold, the dinner swirling by without him. He thought of his mother’s cooking when he was a boy. He looked at the lousy rice. He vowed to put Carolina Gold into serious production so this would never happen again.

For the next several years, between projects, Glenn grew small-plot Carolina Gold in Charleston and worked with a rice geneticist in Texas to reinvigorate the seed, which, through neglect and inactivity, had begun to display characteristics of its sister rice, Carolina White. To support his experiments in Carolina Gold, whose resurrection now represented for Glenn an all-consuming preoccupation (his mother, after all, was Geechee, a person who eats rice every day), he began to research other regional heirloom grains of the era that he could throw into production more quickly.

The research began with corn. In 1995, Glenn explored rural back roads looking for the famous white Carolina mill corn that was revered in Antebellum plantation inventories and recipes for its high mineral and floral characteristics and its creamy mouthfeel. He found this corn in a bootlegger’s field near Dillon, South Carolina in 1997, and planted and harvested his own first crop of 30 acres in 1998. Known as Carolina Gourdseed White, the single-family hand-select dated back to the late 1600s.

Glenn passed the Gourdseed grits around to chefs in Charleston and Atlanta, and they all went crazy.

The discovery of Carolina Gourdseed White, and of other nearly extinct varieties of Southern mill corn, fueled Glenn’s efforts to preserve nutrition and flavor in heirloom corn. But he knew the corn would have to be milled as carefully as it was grown.

Returning to historic documents, Glenn read about an heirloom that had been bred to blow down in late fall for hand harvest under snow in deep winter. The corn, an 1850 yellow dent of Appalachian provenance called John Haulk, was known to have made the “finest cornbread and mush.” The fact that it was milled under freezing conditions after full field ripening and drying puzzled Glenn until he froze and milled his own Gourdseed White. The flavors of the cold-milled corn were stunning. With this experiment, Glenn “rediscovered” cold milling and, in so doing, found a way to offset the heat damage grains experience between two stones. He also found a perfect place to store his seed corn: in the freezer.

At this point Glenn possessed a fully realized, madly ambitious plan: to make Carolina Gold rice a viable Southern crop, and to grow, harvest, and mill other nearly extinct varieties of heirloom corn and wheat organically. By doing this, Glenn hoped to re-create ingredients of the Antebellum Southern larder, ingredients that had vanished over time. Grits, cornmeal, Carolina Gold rice, graham and biscuit flour—these ingredients, all milled fresh daily for the table, had helped create a celebrated regional cuisine and America’s first cuisine: the Carolina Rice Kitchen.

Never one for half measures, Glenn, in 1998, sold his worldly possessions, tossed his business cards, and began living out of his car. He rented a sprawling metal warehouse behind a car wash in Columbia, South Carolina and bought four native granite stone mills. Anson Mills was born.

By 2000, Glenn had his first real harvest of Carolina Gold rice, as well as 10 varieties of heirloom Southern dent corns. He was milling grits for chefs in Georgia and the Carolinas. Word got around. A handful of ingredient-conscious chefs across the country began to use Anson Mills products and promote them vigorously to their colleagues. The circle widened.

In 2001, sustained by the success of Anson Mills’ early efforts, Glenn was able to take on full production of certified organic Carolina Gold rice and a “Thirteen Colony” wheat called Red May.

In 2004, Glenn found a complementary match for his drive and detail awareness in the diminutive personage of Kay Rentschler, a former chef and then freelance journalist for the New York Times dining section, as well other New York publications. On assignment for the Times to report on Glenn’s grits, Kay asked more questions and pursued the acquisition of information like few others he had known. Her Times article on Anson Mills, “A Grits Revival with the Flavor of the Old South,” brought such attention to the company that Glenn promptly fell in love. He married Kay, but could not keep her in the South. He’s not complaining: you can’t have everything.

Today, in addition to its collection of native heirloom grains, Anson Mills grows Japanese buckwheat, French oats and Mediterranean wheat, and Italian farro. Kay creates period-authentic recipes, catalogues the history and virtues of the ingredients and dishes alike, and is the photographer for ansonmills.com.

Glenn continues to be restless and deeply curious. He works tirelessly to manage his old grains, the land, and their growers, as well as chefs and retail customers. It’s a relentless effort. But only rarely must he wear a suit.

Kay Rentschler

Kay Rentschler, Creative Director of ansonmills.com, shooting olives on Folly Beach, South Carolina

Kay Rentschler hails from a Hoosier family of German extraction. A knack for handwork with dough was a trait among women in her family, and accounts for the lovely raisin, squash, sugar cream, and cherry pies she grew up with. But it was her maternal grandmother’s handmade egg noodles and apple dumplings—both distinctly German and prepared exclusively for the holidays—that made a particular impression on Kay. These early memories may explain, in part, why, at the end of an undergraduate program in English literature, Kay drifted into a professional kitchen. The kitchen was in Cambridge, Massachusetts and belonged to the Harvest, a restaurant with a culinary sensibility that was unique in the area at the time. Several of Boston’s chef laureates cut their teeth—and their fingers—in the Harvest kitchen.

Drawn inexorably to cooking, Kay enrolled in Madeleine Kamman’s Modern Chef program in Newton, Massachusetts in 1977. Frenchwoman, brilliant cook, and exacting instructor with a firm grip on the mysteries of terroir, Madeleine was a stickler for ingredient stream and tradition. Her taste for controversy and her well-publicized disdain for American culinary habits of the time made Madeleine both beloved and derided in Boston. But each student she worked with in those years came away with a deep respect for her knowledge, pedagogic gifts, and thrilling anecdotes—and grateful for all she bequeathed them.

Kay spent the next years hooked on speed in restaurant kitchens where the quick, balletic intercepts and intensity of line cooks facing a full house gripped her like a fever. But the restaurant line is a punishing place and unsustainable over time. She eventually took a job with the Ladies’ Home Journal in midtown Manhattan. At the LHJ office high above the city, she worked with a coterie of young women, developing recipes and stepping out to photo shoots. In this decidedly unrestaurant-like environment, where chopped herbs were pressed into a teaspoon measure, not clawed from a dish near the stove, Kay learned, perforce, a different pace and a patience that would steer her away from the stove and toward the oven.

With a fondness for the German language and its literature, and a taste for adventure, Kay landed in Berlin in 1988, and stayed for five years. She acquired fluency in the language, and after working in a handful of fine restaurants, pulled down a job with Lenôtre Pâtisserie. Housed in KaDeWe, Berlin’s oldest and most venerable department store, the Lenôtre division was as unapologetically parisien as everything in its midst was deutsch. There, Kay worked alongside German pastry chefs under the sharp eye of a French master. She observed and akkerte (toiled) to master the elements of fine European pastry work. The potent combination of skill, precision, discipline, and artistry that her superiors and colleagues at KaDeWe possessed worked on Kay like a contact high, and is something she has sought ever since to emulate.

In 1994 and back to real life, Kay and her lifelong friend Susan Wehry, a physician, opened The Storm Café in Middlebury, Vermont. The Storm delivered the jagged bolts of energy any chef needs to keep her head and mission clear—and her ideas flowing. No half measures compromised the food or drink there: stocks, sauces, breads, pasta, pastries, and pâtés were all raised from scratch. The restaurant sustained Kay creatively for four years, but the financial rigors of running a seasonal business in a rural town ultimately wore her out. Kay sold The Storm in 1997.

Kay was recruited by her old Harvest buddy Chris Schlesinger to help on a book project. Chris and coauthor Doc Willoughby, at work on How to Cook Meat, assigned Kay the rich, robust foods of Germany, Austria, and Eastern Europe. Thereafter, Doc prompted Kay to apply for the position of test kitchen director at Cook’s Illustrated magazine. Once in this role, Kay embraced it with enthusiasm and threw herself at everything she undertook, from recipe development to writing, from food styling to serving as culinary co-producer for the America’s Test Kitchen cooking show. After Cook’s, the freelance world drew Kay to Manhattan’s publishing arena for several years, during which time she had the good fortune to be a regular contributor to the New York Times dining section. Her work has also been published in Gourmet and Martha Stewart Living.

In 2004, while on assignment for the Times, Kay met “the crazy grits guy.” Anson Mills was six years old at the time, and chefs were beginning to take note. Kay flew down to Columbia, South Carolina to interview Glenn Roberts. She was fascinated by his mind, mission, and gripping turns of phrase—and she could also not help but notice that he had blue, blue eyes and a single, charming dimple. The piece she wrote, “A Grits Revival with the Flavor of the Old South,” seemed to tap into the consciousness of a surprising number of people desirous of a return to authentic foods or to the foods of their childhood, for the article’s impact was astonishing. The Anson Mills phones were jammed for weeks after publication and the orders, at one point, exceeded the company’s ability to fill them.

The association begat courtship, and a magnificent collaboration began. Kay and Glenn were married in 2005 on the water’s edge in Folly Beach, South Carolina.

Kay works with Glenn on resuscitating traditional recipes of Southern foodways. One of her achievements has been to make Glenn’s knowledge of the arcane—of historic foodways, agriculture, and milling practices—understandable to the people who value such things. In an effort to close the circle of recipe development and photography that ansonmills.com requires, Kay studied photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. Her recipes, writing, and photography inform the content at ansonmills.com.

An unrepentant Yankee, Kay lives in New York City with her dogs, Bodë and Cricket. She and Glenn (who attends to Anson Mills business in South Carolina) nurture their special relationship with frequent happy reunions.

Catherine Horton Schopfer

Catherine Schopfer, Partner, Anson Mills Direct to Chefs Worldwide

The arc of Catherine Schopfer’s career in upscale hospitality does not immediately suggest why she would immerse herself in the competitive fine foods arena to support chefs across the globe. Those reasons lie in her kitchen, farm, and garden experiences growing up in small-town North Carolina.

Catherine’s culinary sensibilities were informed by the traditional maritime foods of the seaside village of Wilmington, as well as by the array of classic Southern ingredients from the Piedmont fields and gardens surrounding her family’s hometown in Salisbury, North Carolina. Wilmington and Salisbury had both been centers of the Antebellum Carolina rice trade—and even a century later, the rice culture persisted: each morning, without fail, Catherine’s grandmother steamed a big pot of rice for breakfast. No one in the family questioned why rice rather than grits was served—rice had commanded center stage at their table for generations.

Catherine’s fascination with food eclipsed the Southern larder during her college years at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She fell in love with fine wine and discovered international cuisines. Journalism degree in hand, Catherine continued her culinary pursuits clerking part-time in a gourmet food and wine store. Later, she cooked, tended bar, and became sommelier, and ultimately buyer, for a large restaurant. She then brokered wine before transitioning to hotel foodservice as caterer, corporate sales, and general manager. In 1978, Catherine and Glenn became business partners and worked together on hotel and restaurant projects that involved fine dining and talented chefs. During this time she had the opportunity to work with some of the South’s finest chefs, and discovered a common language in her interaction with them.

By the early 1990s, Catherine and Glenn became alarmed by the decline of traditional Carolina culinary ingredients. They also shared concern for the deteriorating quality of river systems that had given birth to rice as the focal point of Carolina cuisine. Glenn chose to focus on Antebellum grains of Carolina for preservation: rice, corn, and wheat. Catherine believed chefs would support this costly but sound organic research project and the seedsmanship required to preserve and produce heirloom ingredients—providing the resulting flavors were outstanding and unique. It took Glenn nearly six years to achieve this flavor standard and to establish Anson Mills. In 1998, friends of Glenn and Catherine and a handful of America’s finest chefs formed a brigade to conduct tests on Anson Mills’ first ingredients and develop scale-up recipes in their own kitchens. This spirit of camaraderie continues today with Catherine’s chef friends worldwide.

Catherine lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a full partner in Anson Mills Direct to Chefs Worldwide. She is the driving force behind all chef marketing and is liaison for chef custom-ingredient research and development.