Dinner: Down on the Farm
MOLECULAR gastronomy smoothie bowls, small plates ... Dining trends come and go, but farm-to-table has moved beyond a trend to a way of life thanks to a collaboration of chefs and farmers. They’ve taken the farm-to-table experience dinner on the farm.
When chef Dave Swanson created the business plan for Braise in the early 1990s, he envisioned a restaurant and culinary school. In 2004, Swanson planted the seed for the culinary school with Braise On-the-Go.
“I would rent a tent and take students to the farm,” Swanson explains. “We walked around the farm, the farmer showed how to grow things and harvest, and then we took the items back to the tent where we had a mini kitchen and tables. We would make three to four recipes and we served them along with wine pairings. It was part of the business plan to educate people on how to use local food.”
Back at the farmers’ markets, Swanson did regular food demos. “The farmers would ask me to write recipes for things like kohlrabi, so I started creating recipes for farmers to hand out,” Swanson recalls. Farmers market regulars loved the recipes, which inspired Swanson to take the next step. “People wanted more, so we started doing dinners on Saturday nights and we’d rotate to different farms. I made a flyer and the farmers sent an email to their CSA members, but people who shop the farmers’ market already subscribe to that style [a focus on locally grown food],” Swanson says. Swanson wanted to spread the message. “We bring people out to the farm to see where this wonderful food is being grown and we break bread with the people who grow it.”
Farm dinners let city folk like Karen and Dave Friedlen experience the beauty of a farm and enjoy a meal prepared with locally grown food. “Life is busy and complicated, and the idea of an experience like this was intriguing,” Karen says. Dave adds, “We’ve been to Braise a couple of times and we think the food is outstanding.” Having no idea what they’d be eating or who they’d be with, the Friedlens drove to a Braise dinner at Highfield Farm on the Wisconsin/Illinois border
“Sitting out on a summer day in a restaurant environment was peaceful and the scenery was beautiful. You could actually talk to people,” Dave recalls. From the moment they arrived, the evening did not disappoint these self-proclaimed the farm’s craft cheeses.“We’re cheeseheads and love that they produce their own cheese,” Dave says. “The menu was simple and straightforward ... The grilled peach and bean salad with the Highfield cheese was a highlight,” he adds.
“There was a long table with 40 people and the food came on big platters ... Everyone was so into it and having fun,” Karen says. A return visit to a farm dinner is on the Friedlen’s to-do list. “I think it captures all of your senses the taste of the food, the smell and sounds of the farm and nature,” say Karen. Dave adds, “We’re already looking at other farm dinner opportunities.”
Farmers love to show off their farms and the fruits of their labor. David Kozlowski and his wife, Sandy Raduenz, own and operate Pinehold Gardens, a small, organic farm in Oak Creek. Kozlowski partnered with Swanson to do one of the area’s first farm dinners at Pinehold several years ago. “Dave started the Braise farm dinner thing here at Pinehold and I did some of the grunt work for him.” A few years later, Pinehold began hosting regular farm gatherings. Kozlowski recalls, “The idea is to bring the community together around food—Let’s all eat together and get to know each other.” As word got out, Kozlowski got a call from the fundraising chair at Milwaukee Public Television. Could MPTV could host a farm dinner/fundraiser at Pinehold? Kozlowski was open to the idea. “If it’s an organization we have a great deal of respect for, we will allow them to hold a fundraising dinner here,” he says.
In August, Kozlowski and Raduenz hosted a fundraising dinner at Pinehold Gardens for the Eco-Justice Center in Racine. Kozlowski explains, “We got a collection of chefs who are wonderful at pulling these dinners together and they’re very good at keeping the interests of the hosts in mind.” Kozlowski serves as host, Eco-Justice Center staff handled the organization, marketing and served the food. The Center’s mission is environmental education and care of the earth, so a fundraiser on a working farm is a perfect fit. Eco-Justice Center Program and Communications Coordinator, Sarah Ronnevik, says, “This is the second year of our Racine Area Youth Farm Corp program for high school students who are in our fields learning to farm, sell their produce at the farmers’ market and learn to cook with their produce.”
A shared mission is a great starting point, but a fundraiser at a farm is a huge undertaking. Sister Rejane Cytacki, Executive Director of the Eco-Justice Center recalls, “Sarah already had a working relationship with Pinehold which made this that was elegant and delicious.” The delicious part was a no-brainer, with a slate of prominent Milwaukee chefs led by Karen Bell from Bavette and featuring Sanford’s Justin Aprahamian, Amilinda’s Gregory Leon, Lisa and Paul Zerkel from Goodkind and Peter SAndroni from La Merenda and Engine Company No. 3. Dawn DeMuyt, Youth Farm Corps Program Manager at the Eco-Justice Center, was proud of the staff and food they provided for the dinner. “Over 100 pounds of the food grown by our youth crew traveled 5.3 miles (from our farm in Racine to this dinner) and the chefs did an exceptional job of incorporating it into these dishes,” DeMuyt explains. Sister Rejane adds, “It’s really special for us to be connected with the Milwaukee food scene. It brings new people into our organization.”
Karen Bell, chef/owner at Bavette La Boucherie, is one of those people. “To be honest, I didn’t know anything about EJC. When I learned that its mission is to create a community that's self-sustaining, it inspired me. The Milwaukee chef community is very supportive and collaborative so this was easy and fun,” Bell says. Gregory Leon, chef/owner of Amilinda agreed. “Participating in this dinner gets us out of the kitchen, we can hang out with our friends and see what other chefs are doing,” he says.