Chef Bernd Gronert is an imposing German tower, slightly balding, with a thick Old Country accent and Alan Greenspan's glasses. He's not into Instagram. Gronert is, however, possibly the trendiest farm-to-fork grower in the Charleston region.
By day Gronert is a professor of Pastry Arts at Trident Technical College. At home, the bachelor single-handedly tends a 1,000 tree orchard in his Ridgeville backyard. Imagine: snaps of decorative plating, sunlight filtering through trees, and pets at farmers markets. With a lifestyle to make hipsters swoon and scalding apathy for what anybody else thinks, Gronert is slowly becoming our region's preeminent citrus king. He isn't in it for the following, though.
"I go home and nobody can bother me," he says, "It's just me up there, no family, so it gives me always something to do."
Since 2002, when Gronert bought five acres for his tree-growing "hobby," the professor spends every moment outside the classroom pruning, picking, tending, and trucking to market. Now he's atop the Lowcountry's competitive citrus-growing ladder. Didn't know our citrus scene was a thing? You'd be forgiven for missing the roiling debate over Lowcountry fruit-growing methods given the year we've all had, but there is hot dissent in Charleston's farming community about how to make anything beyond high rises grow in this climate. All you need to know is this: there are three citrus czars and each one has his own method. Stan McKenzie grafts his trees; Darren "the citrus guy" Sheriff uses planters; and Bernd Gronert has a method completely his own — the German way.
"Mckenzie said he doesn't understand what I do to make them [citrus trees] grow like that, and I said, 'nothing ... absolutely nothing,'" laughs Gronert.
Stop trying so hard. That is a lesson Gronert learned as a child, running around his father's garden in Rheinland Pfalz.
"We had a strange neighbor," says Gronert. "I grew up on a mountain where everybody had a garden and my neighbor, this lady, she was always in the garden doing something. Pulling a weed here, do this, do that, always something. My dad said, 'just leave it alone and it will grow.'"
Gronert grows without fertilizer or sprays, hearkening back to natural methods from before they were cool.
- Jonathan Boncek
"I took my dad's advice to let it alone. Not to be lazy! But let the tree adapt to its environment," he says. "I don't have any proven evidence for this, but I compare the tree to humans. If you let the tree suffer a bit it builds an immune system."
For years, Gronert's trees died every winter during the frost. He would cut them to stumps and let the roots stay. Every spring new trunks would grow; every winter they would die; every year Gronert would cut the stumps and wait. Years and years went by until the tree roots were so entrenched and their trunks so thick that today no frost can kill them.
While Gronert might sound like a weathered country man, he spends most days molding chocolate bunnies with Trident Tech students. He sports a pristine chef's coat embroidered with his name in cursive, and his hands stay soft even during harvest season thanks to the natural cacao butter in chocolate.
Gronert's story has an almost Jeckyl-and-Hyde vibe to it. Young Gronert and his twin brother left their home, father, and farm for a baking apprenticeship. That was the first time the twins were forced to split up. "The teacher didn't want us in the same room. So one of us did culinary and the other did baking and pastry; then we switched." The second time the Gronert twins split up was decades later, after they founded Zuckergehalt Sugar School together, get headhunted by Johnson & Wales University and gave up everything to become culinary professors in Providence. In the States, two six-foot-five twins with heavy accents teaching sugarcraft was too much for one school: "The students had no idea with whom they were talking. So it became a problem." And lo, Chef Gronert landed at Trident Tech.
In his boxy office in North Charleston, Gronert looks like a misplaced Coen brothers' character, surrounded by instructional posters on chocolate formation, pictures of lemon trees and a blank office calendar from 2014.
"I follow the trends," he says, straight-faced. Actually, Gronert grows the trends.
Next time you brunch on bacon-wrapped figs, mispronounce jujube, or pop a bottle of locally-made Cannonborough soda, think of Chef Gronert. With his insider's access to the culinary world and his industry experience — Gronert ran Rococo Bakery for a decade before selling to focus on his trees — he has an uncanny knack for predicting the next hot thing in fruit. He grows more rare and coveted varieties, like figs and jujube, than anyone else in the state. He harvests hundreds of persimmons, because: "food magazines are pushing the persimmons." And Gronert's citrumelo fruits are so in vogue that Cannonborough Beverage Co. sold out of the artisanal, small-batch Citrumelo + Hop soda they make with Gronert's fruits. He is behind the twists for craft cocktails, the fruity tops of acai bowls, and the charred grapefruits accompanying avocado toasts.
"I wanted to be a little bit different," says Gronert, sounding very tech startup.
For a man with no interest in marketing, Gronert's branding is on-point. "I don't have machines ... I have a lawnmower, yes, but I like doing everything by hand," he says. "I dig a hole with a shovel. I pick all the fruit by hand, and I eat it outside."
When asked about his website, Gronert laughs and fishes in his faded leather wallet for a card. On the front is an aol.com address. On the back, you'll find a printed-out MapQuest route from the Summerville Farmers Market to his home, "second house on the right." He welcomes visits, and you can forget your phone.
"It's the environment, the whole surrounding," says Gronert. "The taste of that fresh fruit is so different. It is very difficult to describe it. It's an experience you have to feel."