a white man with a scruffy brown beard, glasses, hat, and apron holds up a handful of compost
Wilson Bauer and his totes of rich, slimy, wormy compost Credit: Carolina Sanchez for Chicago Reader

Wilson Bauer’s campanelle with oxtail had an impeccable pedigree. The bell-shaped pasta was kneaded with filtered water and imported Italian semolina flour. The braised and shredded beef was harvested from cows who lived out their lives on verdant, rotating, downstate pastures. The green garlic was grown at Middle Fork Farm, a regenerative farm near Bloomington, and the parsley came from Carroll’s Timber Edge Farm near Pontiac. The chef finished the dish with a hit of orange zest and a squeeze of lime from fruit grown on an organic ranch in California’s San Gabriel Valley.

Flour Power campanelle. Credit: Wilson Bauer

When Bauer finished prepping this pasta last spring, the excess vegetable scraps and bits of dough that never escaped his extruder joined an ever-growing collection in the freezer at Flour Power, his Ukrainian Village pasta joint.

Once a week, Bauer throws an icy lump of this organic slurry into his stand mixer and beats it to a pulp. The freeze-thaw process breaks down the plant matter’s cell walls, which gives it a particularly attractive quality.

“It’s kind of slimy,” he says. “That’s what the worms really seem to like.” The red wigglers and Indian blues that live in Bauer’s apartment bathroom got a taste of the oxtails too. He incinerated them into biochar, which doesn’t do much for the worms themselves but contributes necessary carbon to the matrix.

For more than a year, Flour Power has produced almost no food waste. It all gets tossed into two large Amazon courier totes Bauer stores just to the right of his toilet. To this he adds pulverized egg shells; weathered and shredded, untreated cardboard boxes; and paper flour sacks left to soak in the rain in the alley behind the restaurant. Occasionally he adds amendments from his neighbors’ dumpsters: coffee grounds from Standing Passengers and spent brewers’ grains from Forbidden Root.

Bauer opened Flour Power in the summer of 2020, but the restaurant closed the following year for a mid-pandemic break and reset. He used his time off to go fishing and teach himself to grow cannabis again. And he developed a preoccupation with healthy, living soil. He saw parallels between his old, unhealthy plants and the diseases and general weakening that afflict humans as they age.

“That stuff sets the bins on fire,” he says. “The microbes just love that stuff.” The worms, however, don’t, so those are added in moderation.

Despite its appearance, Bauer’s compost smells neutral unless it becomes imbalanced. Credit: Carolina Sanchez for Chicago Reader

Since Bauer started this meticulous composting regimen, he figures his worms have excreted some 175 pounds of castings, black gold he gives away to friends—medical marijuana users who feed it to their cannabis plants, and a few vegetable gardeners.

“I’ve always been a bit bothered by how cannabis fertilizer companies make it so expensive to grow,” he says. “I’m really bothered by how expensive legalization has made cannabis and somehow diminished quality.”

Bauer grows his own as well, at a friend’s place. “These castings are what’s keeping my friends’ indoor gardens growing. The plants I have there are out of control.”

Before he made his bones in Chicago, cooking at Elizabeth, Longman & Eagle, and Schwa, Bauer grew up in Seattle where his parents composted for their home gardens. But he didn’t pick it up when he first started growing weed with friends. “We were giving the plants an amended Miracle Grow mix. It would work out after a while, but you would start to see deficiencies.” After several generations, the plants they cloned from the mother plants would lose their vigor and health, and they’d have to start all over again with first cuts from a new plant.

 “If you’re clean, you can get a lot more runs,” he says. “I started thinking how the same mechanisms that happen in a plant are the same mechanisms that happen in people. I started going down these rabbit holes on plant nutrition and how it affects human nutrition.”

His compost operation began casually. He had some spare soil laying around in a 20-quart Rubbermaid bin, to which he added some commercial vermicompost, seeded with earthworms and other organisms that break down organic matter into castings that can contribute nutrients for plants. Occasionally he tossed in leftover worms after fishing, or dead cannabis leaves, and then his own home kitchen scraps. Soon he graduated to another bin, then four, and then the Amazon totes he’d found abandoned in an alley.

“They just left them there for me,” he says.

When the restaurant reopened in March 2022, he went into high gear, experimenting with amendments like spent mushroom blocks from Four Star Mushrooms; rotting forest leaves threaded with fungal mycelium; or horse manure from Janie’s Mill, the purveyors who supply the organic, stone-ground flour he usually uses.

The only time it ever smelled bad was when something went sideways, like when he added too much spent brewers’ grains, whose decomposition produces so much heat it can kill the worms. “That smells like low tide,” he says. When things are going well, it smells neutral.

It was about this time that he read a pivotal book that validated everything he’d been thinking about plant nutrition and its connection to human and environmental health. What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé is an argument for regenerative farming that makes the case that humans are suffering from an epidemic of nutrient malnutrition brought on by the overtillage and the overuse of commercial fertilizers and pesticides that are endemic to conventional farming practices.

Bauer, like any self-respecting chef, adheres to the simplest but most important principle of cooking—start with the best ingredients. What he’s come to believe is that it starts with good soil. The plants and animals that live on it taste superior to conventionally produced food because they’re healthier. And eating them makes people healthier.

He religiously buys from farms that practice organic, sustainable, or regenerative practices. But that’s expensive, and it’s counterintuitive to let any of it go to waste. If a clump of soil makes its way into the kitchen on the root end of a vegetable, he brushes it into the scrap bin. “That stuff is beyond organic,” he says.   

At the peak of his compost operations, one of his cooks told him, “You like buying the best stuff just so that you can feed it to your compost.”

Bauer jokes, “It’s like, ‘Dude, if I’m paying two dollars a pound extra for that produce, yeah, save that dirt.’”

Flour Power
1642 W. Chicago

His bathroom bins are rarely empty. He’s perpetually adding to the compost, moving it around, turning it to distribute material uniformly, aerate it, and release some of the heat it produces. When a quadrant is ready, he scoops it into a bus tub fitted with a screen and sifts the worm poop from all the undigested cardboard and leaves—and worms. The end product is a rich, black, granular material that’s odorless and light enough to shower through your fingers. And if Bauer hooks you up, it’s ready to feed your weed, tomatoes, or flower beds.

“The goal and the purpose behind this is about sequestering carbon,” he says. “It’s keeping carbon in a system where it’s used over and over again until it’s in our bodies. It makes us what we are instead of getting trapped in garbage bags and landfills and in the atmosphere. Whether that carbon comes from a kale stem or a carrot or a cannabis plant, it’s staying in the dirt and it’s become something enjoyable.

“I guess I sound like a pot-smoking hippie, but it’s true.”