Chefs say farm-to-table dinners 'complete the circle'

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LOUISVILLE Ky. It’s 2 a.m. on a Saturday in September, and Park Place on Main executive chef Jay Denham is in a farm field wood-smoking a 220-pound hog. The product of a Maysville, Ky., farm, Denham is no stranger to all-night barbecuing, so he's prepared with provisions: a glass of real moonshine for sipping and a bag of chips for sustenance. Should he fall asleep, his cell phone alarm rings every 30 minutes to remind him to refuel or moisten the fire with a hose.

Fifteen hours from now, Denham will serve the hog along with a meal of fresh-picked vegetables to 85 people headed out to Field Day Farms. Dinner will be served in a tent pegged in the middle of a coarsely mown field next to a vegetable patch studded with colorful gourds. Other than a string of rope lights along the edges of the tent, the most modern diner amenity here is a pair of portable toilets.

Denham is a passionate promoter of farm-to-table initiatives such as this, events that place growers and livestock producers face to face with end-users at the dinner table. Getting away from the restaurant, he said, makes a strong impression.

“I think it's important to complete the circle of where it comes from, who grows it and who buys it,” Denham said. He assumes most who will attend the dinner frequent farmers markets or take part in Community Supported Agriculture programs, but he doubts few ever make it to an actual farm. "Seeing it, being there, it's part of the whole experience," he said.

This summer chef Joe Truex had a debatably cushier time serving a farmers' dinner in the more civilized surroundings of an Atlanta high-rise. The site had a well-equipped kitchen with plenty of modern cooking equipment and air conditioning. But his intent was the same as Denham's: to create a unique way of introducing farmers to committed end-users.

"When [diners] are talking to the people who produce it and who cook it, they realize it can't get any fresher," said Truex, co-owner and chef at Repast in Atlanta. Meeting end-users — 30 in the case of Truex's meal — lets farmers learn what buyers want and like. "They're thrilled [that] people are interested in them and what they do. It's necessary to let them see people who love the fruits of their labors."

This blend of unconventional meals with a conventional cause is slowly gaining popularity among gourmands and locavores — often one and the same — who view such dinners as instructional adventures. The Kudzu Supper Club, the Atlanta event-planning group that organized Truex's meal and nine others this year, gives diners only 24 hours notice by e-mail about each dinner's location and who will cook what.

"It keeps people in suspense, on the edge of their seats, by delivering a little different experience," said Brady Lowe, founder of the Taste Network, parent company of Kudzu. Some events, he added, include bus trips to farms outside the city, while others are held in urban settings such as homes or historic monuments.

Such dinners are neither cheap nor exorbitant: Denham's meal cost around $80 per person, while some put on by Kudzu cost $150 and include champagne toasts on the bus ride out of town. In every case the meals are slowly savored feasts that include properly matched wines and beers, live music, and meet-and-greet sessions with farmers.

"There's no question that, right now, this is a niche market," Lowe said. "People want to know the story behind the event, and events like these create stories. They're not just dinners, they're experiences."

Truex views exposing diners to farmers and their farms as comparable to introducing them to winemakers and their wines.

"These people are knowledgeable, so its specificity is what they want," he said. Generic food labels such as "organic" or "all-natural" mean little if you don't know its origins, he added. "It's like reading the label of a grand cru: People want to know where it's from and who made it. They want to put a person behind it."

The time invested in these events is donated by Kudzu and the chefs who prepare the meals because, as Lowe said, "Our main goal is to help farmers first." Truex agreed but added that the business boost the meal brought him "didn't suck at all." Not only did a reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution write a piece about the dinner he cooked, but also, the Kudzu diners who attended are quality Repast prospects.

"These are the kind I want to cook for, a very discerning crowd," he said. "They came for the right reasons, to receive what we were doing. They're committed to that. And when you serve what we did, things like octopus [and watermelon slice] salad in the South, and they like it, you know you've got a good crowd."

Jeremy Lieb, executive chef at TROIS in Atlanta, also prepared a farmers meal for Kudzu this year. He said he loves getting diners away from a comparably sterile restaurant and into unfamiliar territory. He also said diners find it meaningful to see chefs and farmers working to serve them.

"They see chefs and farmers doing what they want to do, being hardcore about it and committed to it," Lieb said. "I want to touch people that way, and to do that, it's got to be more than food and service, it's got to be a total experience."

The current glamorization of chefs and cooking leads Lowe to believe restaurants have a lot to gain from the goodwill generated in the service of farmers and, ultimately, diners.

"People follow chefs and their food," said Lowe, who started Taste Network as a custom creator of high-end food and wine pairings. "Everyone wants to talk about the next best meal, so they follow chefs because they to see good things made — which they do at these meals. When we pair that with good wine and the stories of where all of it came from, that's the apex of it all."