Gourmet Dining in the Woods

  • Chef Ben Bebenroth and his crew plate mushroom dishes for their dinner guests. (Photo by Julie Grant)

Most people don’t spend a lot of
time thinking about where their food was
grown. Even fewer actually go out and forage
in the woods for it. But that’s what one
chef is trying to get people to do. Julie
Grant reports this chef wants people to
connect the dots between the environment
and their food:

Transcript

Most people don’t spend a lot of
time thinking about where their food was
grown. Even fewer actually go out and forage
in the woods for it. But that’s what one
chef is trying to get people to do. Julie
Grant reports this chef wants people to
connect the dots between the environment
and their food:

(sound of gathering)

The threat of rain has passed. Cars are pulling in the grassy
drive at Killbuck Valley Mushroom Farm. And Chef Ben
Bebenroth cuts big leafy greens from the garden as a visiting
dog chases a chicken through the yard. He’s starting
preparations for a six course meal.

(sound of chopping and sizzling)

“The menu is going to be a loose guideline tonight, at best.”

Most of the guests have driven an hour from the city and the
suburbs of Cleveland. They’re dressed for a dinner party,
not for hiking. But, a hike in the woods is exactly where
some of them are going.

Tom Wiandt: “Anyone who wants to see wild mushrooms,
come hither.”

Guest: “Question – how far and how rough?”
Tom: “Not too rough. We’re just going along the bottom of
the hollow here.”

(sound of hiking)

Farm owners Tom and Wendy Wiandt show their 20 guests
honey mushrooms growing on a log. They stop to explain
the difference between puff balls – some are poisonous,
others delicious. Each person carries a paper lunch bag to
fill with fungus.

Guest: “It’s a gold mine up there.”

Tom: “Oh, did this big stump produce this year?”

Wendy: “Yeah.”

Tom: “Holy moley did it ever. That’s the great thing about
dead trees.”

Guest: “Look at that. Wow.”

Tom: “That’s dinner tonight.”

The guests carry their bounty back to the chef. They’re
rewarded with a glass of wine. And they learn a little more
about the Wiandt’s farm – how they cultivate bright yellow
oyster mushrooms, fuzzy lion’s manes, shitakes, and more.

(sound of kitchen)

Chef Bebenroth and his crew are at work in his outdoor
makeshift kitchen. He’s using the mushrooms in various
dishes.
Some of the guests are excited about getting involved in
finding food for the meal. Others are a little skeptical.

Guest: “This is really farm to table, literally. We’re a part of
that movement, right Tony?”

Guest: “I’m a Wendy’s kind of guy.”

But that Wendy’s guy was impressed once dinner was being
served.

“Your first course is going to be a shittake and truffle tea,
with antelope tartar.”

After courses of cooked greens and mushrooms, squash
with local goat cheese, steaks, desserts and lots of wine –
the party was down right festive.

(sound of laughing and music)

Guest: “It is surreal to be here, under the stars, the dog on
stage, the exquisite cuisine.”

Chef Bebenroth creates these dinners at farms around the
region through the summer and fall. And despite what
seems like a high price – this event was $150 a plate – it’s
still tough for him to break even on them. But it’s important
to him. It’s taking that idea of farm to table that guests say
they want to be involved in – and showing them what it really
means.

“We’re so divorced from how our food becomes our food
anymore. You’re empowering people to say, ‘pick this,’ or
they’re watching me pick it. That, to me is really completing
that circle. And they’re starting to understand it does matter
what I put in the air, what I put in the ground, in the water.
This is going into my body, it’s going into my kids.”

Bebenroth hatched this whole plated landscape idea
because he wanted to be outdoors. Now, as his guests
drive back to the city and the suburbs, he hopes he’s made a
few converts – made people see small local farms and the
woods as essential to their dinner.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Related Links

Facebook for Farmers’ Food

  • Bob Gavlak and his partners organize freshly-harvested produce in their cooling truck. (Photo by Julie Grant)

Most twenty year olds use online
networking sites. But most farmers don’t.
Until now. A team of recent college grads
is using their internet savvy to connect
farms and restaurants. Julie Grant reports:

Transcript

Most twenty year olds use online
networking sites. But most farmers don’t.
Until now. A team of recent college grads
is using their internet savvy to connect
farms and restaurants. Julie Grant reports:

Last summer Matt Szugye entered a college business school
competition. His team needed to make a plan for a new
business. They started throwing around ideas.

“It just happened, that the night before I was at a restaurant
talking with an owner, and they were telling me about the
trials and tribulations of starting their restaurant with the idea
that they would serve seasonal, local produce.”

But the restaurant owner couldn’t get food like onions,
zucchini or tomatoes directly from local farms. Szugye’s
team studied the idea. Lots of people in the food business
were saying the same things. Things like this:

“So I’m getting things shipped in from other states.”

That’s Donna Chriszt. She’s the owner and chef at Dish Deli
and Catering. It’s a small, gourmet deli in a downtown
Cleveland neighborhood.

“And the amount of fossil fuels that are coming out of that,
we hated. So, it’s not what I wanted to do for my
community.”

So now that the college team knew there was demand for a
product, they contacted farmers. Eureka. There was also a
supply. Lots of farmers wanted new ways to sell their fruits
and vegetables locally.

The team put together a plan for a distribution business – to
pickup produce from farms and deliver it to nearby
restaurants.

They decided they could use the internet.

It would work a little like an online dating service. Each
farmer could list what’s available and set the price. The
restaurant owners could browse through the list and place
their orders. The college students’ business plan would be
the match-maker.

The team won their business school contest.

After graduation this Spring, they launched an actual
business based on their model.

They call it Fresh Fork.

Donna Chriszt was thrilled.

“I was like hallelujah. Thank God someone will be able to
help a small place like me by doing all the foot work.”

(sound of a factory)

After picking up produce from farmers, Fresh Fork Team
member Bob Gavlak is finally getting back to the distribution
center. It’s 10 p.m. It could have gone a lot sooner, but he
got caught up talking with the farmers about what they’re
growing and how their kids are doing, you know, forging
relationships.

(sound of a cooling truck)

The team now has to move racks of produce in a cooling
truck. Then they organize it all.

“This is where we’re going tomorrow, is Dish Deli and
Catering. And you can see Knoble Farms. They have some
corn.”

When Gavlak and his partners started planning this
business, they didn’t quite get why there was such a fuss
about local food.

They were still college students fueled by Ramen and fast
food.

So they spent some time on the food prep line at an upscale
local restaurant – cutting onions, stirring soup – for hours.
Not pouring soup out of a bag like a lot of places. Gavlak
says he started to understand.

“I would go to the store and I’d have strawberries, and I’d be
like, ‘oh, these are so good’. But then, when we had
strawberries here in the spring and early summer, it’s like I’d
never had a strawberry before. It’s just seeing the difference
that happens between a product that’s fresh and homegrown
and the product that isn’t.”

The team finishes sorting all their fresh produce at midnight.
They’ve got to get up at the crack of dawn to deliver to 8
restaurants, a grocery store, and a hospital.

(sound of Dish Deli)

When Gavlak brings her order, deli owner Donna Chriszt
inspects the cucumbers, rhubarb, and red skin potatoes.

“And our big bushel of corn. And everything looks great. It’s
always exciting when it comes in, because we’re like, ‘what
are we going to do with this?’”

This week, they’re planning rhubarb cobbler, potato salad
and fresh pickles for a neighborhood festival.

Gavlak smiles. He’s says it makes him feel good that the
business he and his college buddies designed, Fresh Fork,
is connecting farms and restaurants and getting people
fresh, locally grown food.

He finishes the order, and then walks into Chriszt’s deli to
have some lunch.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Related Links

Farms Keeping Up With Chefs

  • Jesse Meerman is a 4th generation Dutch dairy farmer in West Michigan. He's the family cheesemaker. Here, he's cutting a big vat of curdled milk into cheese curds. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Chefs are always dreaming up the next big dish. Lately, it’s been
trendy for restaurants to showcase locally-grown farm products and meat
from livestock that’s been raised on a pasture instead of in a feedlot.
But Rebecca Williams reports just because something’s hot in the
kitchen… it doesn’t always mean a better payoff for farmers:

Transcript

Chefs are always dreaming up the next big dish. Lately, it’s been
trendy for restaurants to showcase locally-grown farm products and meat
from livestock that’s been raised on a pasture instead of in a feedlot.
But Rebecca Williams reports just because something’s hot in the
kitchen… it doesn’t always mean a better payoff for farmers:


(Sound of water running, dishes clanking)


It’s 11 am at Sweet Lorraine’s Cafe. But it’s not too early for beer.


Chef Lorraine Platman is whipping up the first batch of her new fish
and chips. She’s using locally-milled flour and locally-brewed beer:


“I shouldn’t give you my whole recipe because it’s going to be an
absolutely fabulous beer batter. But it’s got a little baking
powder… the beer is what accelerates it and makes it nice and
crispy.”


(Sound of whisking)


Platman owns the three restaurants that bear her name, so naturally she
calls the shots. For her, this means getting ingredients close to home
and as close to nature as possible. Platman says fresher food tastes
better.


But it’s also about how a product performs when you cook with it. She
swears by the eggs she gets from local chickens that are raised without
antibiotics or hormones.


But Platman says it’s not easy getting local ingredients year round
especially during northern winters, so it means being flexible:


“I have a vivid imagination so I come up with some weird ideas but they
work and the guests really like them. They get very excited when they see
either Michigan grass-fed beef or chicken on the menu, they’re just enthused
by it and we’re buying from our neighbors so it makes us feel good I
think.”


Platman says the restaurant industry is competitive and always
changing. You have to serve food that excites people. She says chefs
pay a lot of attention to what their guests like.


The National Restaurant Association recently surveyed chefs around the
country. Locally-grown foods, organic produce and meats and cheeses
from grass-fed animals all made the top ten list. They’re expected to
stay trendy for at least the next year.


For the farmers who grow these products, all of this can look appealing
on paper. Smaller family farms are slowly disappearing in favor of
much bigger operations. Getting into new markets can mean staying in
business. But many small farmers say there’s a gap between the promise
of new markets in restaurants and the reality.


(Sound of cheese-making)


Jesse Meerman raises pastured dairy cows three hours west of Sweet
Lorraine’s Cafe. His farm supplies the Cafe with organic cheese.
Meerman is the family cheesemaker. He’s cutting a big vat of cheese
curd into millions of tiny pieces:


“Today we’re making Gouda cheese and a variety of it is Leyden, which has
caraway seeds in it.”


Meerman says they used to only sell their milk. But they wanted to
make more money by selling aged organic Dutch cheeses. They sell to
retail stores, farmers’ markets and restaurants. With the help of a
distributor they’re starting to get on menus in Chicago.


Meerman says restaurants are by far the toughest new markets to break
into:


“Being a farmer, it’s completely opposite of the way I am because we’re
connected to the land… this is our place, you know? We want to have our
business right here and we’re so stable and to a fault almost, because
farmers don’t change, that’s one of our biggest flaws. And chefs –
they’re opposite, they’re always changing. And it’s hard to keep up
with them.”


Chefs say they just want what they want when they want it. They’re not
always willing to wait for farmers to catch up.


Rich Pirog is with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He
says farmers need some help to adapt to chefs’ changing needs. He says
more investment in infrastructure at the state and local level would be
a start:


“We need to be able to make the case for investment in these types of
foods and if we can’t make that case then it’s likely we won’t see local
foods be able to scale up to the levels that I think people are wanting them to be
available in every store, at every restaurant.”


Pirog says farmers also need to have something solid to take to the
bank. They need to prove to their banker that these new restaurant
markets are real before they can get loans. They need loans to buy new
equipment that helps them produce more or different products for chefs
– and to keep quality high.


But mostly, whether or not restaurants can become sustainable markets for
farmers depends on the whims of chefs.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links