Land connection: Chefs, diners reaching out to farmers

 
By Deborah Pankey
Posted10/6/2011 6:00 AM
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  • Katie Stasiek of Geneva helped with the cooking at the Milly's Root Farm dinner in July. More photos in the gallery at dailyherald.com.

      Katie Stasiek of Geneva helped with the cooking at the Milly's Root Farm dinner in July. More photos in the gallery at dailyherald.com. Kristin Ackmann | Staff Photographer

  • A Big Bowl employee harvests onions at Heritage Prairie Farm. The onions were used hours later for dinner.

    A Big Bowl employee harvests onions at Heritage Prairie Farm. The onions were used hours later for dinner. courtesy of Big Bowl

  • Squash blossoms garnish a salad made with greens and vegetables grown at Heritage Prairie Farm near Elburn.

    Squash blossoms garnish a salad made with greens and vegetables grown at Heritage Prairie Farm near Elburn. Courtesy of Big Bowl

  • Staff members from Niche Restaurant harvest beets from their nearby farm.

    Staff members from Niche Restaurant harvest beets from their nearby farm. Courtesy of Niche

On a balmy summer evening nearly 100 people gathered for dinner at a communal table at a farm near Elburn.

Grasshoppers lept through plots where brussels sprouts, now on the menu, towered hours earlier as the diners dug into plates of slow-roasted pork and honey-drenched cornbread. Birds flitted overhead while chefs placed platters of salad on the table -- salad made from lettuce and onions and tomatoes harvested just feet from where they gathered.

Not far away, at yet another farm, cooks and waitstaff at an upscale restaurant in Geneva harvest beets, radishes and kale from a large garden plot they planted. Those Bull Run beets show up on that night's menu paired with fennel and scallops.

These scenes are playing out with more frequency across Illinois as chefs and folks from throughout the suburbs attempt to get better acquainted with their food and the people who produce it.

"I'm really interested in getting closer to food sourcing," said Theresa Nesbitt of St. Charles before she sat down to an August feast at Heritage Prairie Farm near Elburn.

"Everywhere you go you hear 'this came from this farm.' It's nice to meet the people who are doing it," she said. "It's important to support the people who are doing it."

Nesbitt might be overstating a bit when she says "everywhere," but certainly efforts to eat local ingredients and support area farms are gaining momentum. Here's a look at some of those efforts.

Big Bowl restaurants and Heritage Prairie Farm

"Local trumps all."

It's as simple as that, says Danny McGowan, president of Big Bowl restaurants, the Thai and Chinese chain.

"Buying local is where we can have the biggest impact on what we do," McGowan said.

So with that in mind he set out to find local producers who could supply the restaurant's four suburban and Chicago locations. That search led him to Heritage Prairie Farm, a small, organic farm in the far west suburbs. The farm didn't have the capacity (yet) to produce what the restaurant needed, so the restaurant leased an adjacent two acres of land.

"This is a way for us to be partners," he said.

Chef Marc Bernard pored through seed catalogs and worked with Heritage Prairie Farm staff to determine what greens and vegetables would work for the farm and the restaurant. Restaurant staff -- from cooks to busboys -- took turns each week planting, weeding and harvesting.

It's labor intensive, certainly, but "the thing I liked most is that we'll pull a carrot from the ground and it will have great flavor," Bernard said.

"When we have parsnips on the menu the server can say 'I weeded the ground,'" he added. "Imagine, as a customer, how powerful that is."

The partnership has been powerful for the farm as well.

"It was exciting when they approached us," said owner Bronwyn Weaver. The cash infusion has allowed the farm to work more land and grow more produce for other area restaurants, farmers markets and Whole Foods Markets.

Niche Restaurant/Bull Run Farm

Niche Restaurant in Geneva has been a leader in the eating local movement since it opened in 2006.

This spring, staff members took their commitment to local produce a step further by setting up their own garden on some land at Bull Run Equestrian Center, a boarding and events facility owned by the family that also owns the restaurants.

Working with farmer Ted Richter (who also tends to the garden at top-rated Alinea in Chicago), they selected crops that would work with the land, with each other and with the restaurant. Richter oversees the garden with restaurant staff pitching in when needed for maintenance and harvesting.

"It's 100 percent true that you can tell when (vegetables) are fresh," said chef Serena Perdue. She's worked herbs and leafy greens like Swiss chard and kale into her menus alongside fennel, radishes, tomatoes and beets.

"When we came back with the kale, we had three sinks full. It was exciting, but then we had to figure out what to do with all of it," Perdue recalled. "And a couple asked us 'Why are there beets all over your menu?' Because it's what's coming out of the ground now."

For Niche, it's as much about eating local as it is quality control and planning.

"The chef can have what she wants, when she wants it," said Vince Balesteri, general manager and wine director. "We can grow things that we can't get from our other purveyors."

So they're growing heirloom and hard-to-find vegetable varieties -- varieties that might spur diners to seek these items out from other small farmers or try to grow themselves.

"Onions are so cheap, we're better off not growing them ourselves."

Spence Farm Foundation

Located in downstate Livingston County, Spence Farm has been operating since the mid-1800s. At its peak, the property reached 1,000 acres, though now it's back to its original 160 acres. In 2005, owners Marty and Kris Spence created a foundation aimed at teaching sustainable farming to new farmers and anyone else with an interest.

Thomas Leavitt, an Arlington Heights chef, is one of the interested folk. Last fall he was looking for a source for organic corn for tortillas and learned about the farm. Since then, he's joined the board and helped the foundation extend its reach among area chefs and restaurants.

Most recently, he organized Chef Camp, an overnight experience that drew some of Chicago's big name chefs including Stephanie Izard of Girl and the Goat and Chris Pandel of The Bristol. The chefs helped with farm chores like feeding livestock, harvesting crops and butchering.

"Chefs get it," Leavitt said of the farm-to-plate connection. "Chefs want the best ingredients. They know what's going on on the farms."

He said chefs are on the front lines of the movement to support, and maybe even save, family farms.

"Chefs promote where food comes from and that helps diners to investigate it further," Leavitt said.

Pitchfork Productions

Looking for a unique place for a wedding, party or corporate event? Portia Lowndes started Pitchfork Productions to help you find that spot in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.

Lowndes, formerly the farm manager at Heritage Prairie Farm, works with farmers to organize such events on their property. And she plans dinners on their farms to introduce suburban and city dwellers to food at its source.

She's twice held well-attended dinners at Milly's Root Farm in Huntley where patrons tour the farm and learn about efforts to eat locally before sitting down to a multicourse dinner created using recently harvested ingredients and locally produced artisan products.

Her Oct. 15 event will introduce people to the Cavney family who raise heritage turkeys on their farm in Monticello.