How One DC Chef Ended Up Giving Away More Than 200 Sourdough Starters (and Counting) on Instagram

Mercy Me's Johanna Hellrigl wants people to support local restaurants in exchange for her fermented dough

Johanna Hellrigl, executive chef of forthcoming restaurant Mercy Me, has become a sourdough guru. Photograph by Johanna Hellrigl.
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In college, chef Johanna Hellrigl earned the nickname “Mama Jo” because she was always the one cooking for and taking care of friends. So naturally, when the former Doi Moi chef made her own sourdough starter last fall, she wanted to share.

Initially, she just gave the fermented mixture of flour and water away to a neighbor, a friend, her mom. But over the last few weeks, the restaurant she had been preparing to open—”sorta South American” cafe Mercy Me—was put on hold, and suddenly, it seemed everyone is stuck at home with time to bake. So, Hellrigl asked her Instagram followers if anyone wanted some starter. Bartender friends and her butcher took her up on it at first. But soon enough, friends of friends and complete strangers were reaching out.

So far, Hellrigl has given away more than 200 sourdough starters. At least 80 people are on her waitlist.

Johanna Hellrigl leaves sanitized containers of her sourdough starter on her stoop for pickup. Photograph by Johanna Hellrigl.

Hellrigl was a baker before anything else. She grew up in her parents’ northern Italian restaurant in New York City, where the pastry section was the safest place for a young kid to hang out. “My mom would basically shove me in there, and I baked a lot,” she says.

When she started getting deeper into baking bread last fall, Hellrigl wanted to honor her Italian heritage. “I love the idea of being able to create something from something else,” she says. And so she had been researching ways to turn fermented fruit into yeast. She wanted to try the technique with an apple—but not just any apple. It had to be an apple from the Dolomites in Italy, where her family is from.

“I had to have it. It didn’t feel right to do it with an apple from here,” she says. “I really wanted that nostalgia of what having fruit in Europe means to me.”

Hellrigl now has a whole system in place for distributing her starter. For anyone who makes a request, she takes their name and their Instagram handle and adds them to her list. Each day, she makes 10 to 15 starters and leaves them in sanitized deli containers in a cooler on her stoop for people to pickup. She gives instructions on how to feed the fermented mix and directs everyone to a recipe for sourdough pancakes to help them gain some cooking confidence. She’s also essentially running a sourdough helpline from her Instagram page, helping troubleshoot baking projects.

In return, Hellrigl is asking people to buy a gift card or donate to the restaurant of their choice.

“If I’m going to have a platform, I want to use it wisely to make sure my friends in the industry feel support when I can’t physically go there and give it to them,” she says.

Hellrigl also figures her giveaways encourage people to slow the spread of coronavirus: “I’m asking you by doing this to stay home and watch a loaf of bread basically for two days. If that’s a way that I can get people to stay home with the families and stay safe, then that’s a really cool thing.”

While Hellrigl wasn’t expecting anything personally in return, she been moved by the little gifts and tokens of appreciation left behind: hand-written cards, lemon curd, chocolate chip cookies, bottles of wine and liquor, a homemade bookmark.

Even more rewarding, though, has been seeing the multiplier effect. For example, Hellrigl says a bartender friend has started giving away her starter to people in a neighborhood group.

“It’s really cute because people will give away their starter and then that person will be like, ‘Thank the grandmother!'” Hellrigl says. “I’ll be a Grandma and not a Mama Jo, it’s OK.”

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.