Harvesting Connections: Perspectives on Creating Memorable Farm-to-Table Events with Farmers and Chefs: Part I – The Farmers

Last updated on May 13th, 2024 at 02:09 pm

In a world where culinary innovation meets sustainability, the concept of farm-to-table dining has flourished, fostering an exquisite experience that reconnects diners with the origins of their food.

In this first of two-part Q&A blog series, we dig into the benefits of forging partnerships between local farmers and passionate chefs to create unforgettable events from the farmer’s perspective.

These events are more than just collaborative culinary endeavors; they weave together bold flavors, devotion to the land, and a genuine celebration of locally sourced ingredients.

Shared Legacy Farms, Elmore, OH

Corinna and Kurt Bench, owners of Shared Legacy Farms in Elmore Ohio.
Corinna and Kurt Bench, Shared Legacy Farms

Shared Legacy Farms is a certified organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in Elmore, OH, owned and operated by Kurt and Corinna Bench.

The farm’s inception in 2008 began with a modest 12-member customer base and has since flourished into nearly 400 devoted members.

This growth trajectory reflects the farm’s constant commitment to nurturing relationships with its CSA members through different avenues, including farm-to-table events.

Over the years, Shared Legacy Farms has partnered with Chef Joseph Jacobsen of Cork & Knife Provisions, Chef Chris Nixon from Element 112, Chef Scott Bowman from Odd Fodder, and Chef Janea Makowski from Penta Career Center to host a variety of farm-to-table experiences, all with the idea to bring people closer to understanding where their food comes from.

Q: What inspired you to start hosting farm-to-table dinners in the first place? Have your goals or motivations evolved over time?

Corinna Bench: Our first Farm dinner had a couple of different goals – one of them was to create a more elevated dining experience where we had a chef dressed in whites with his staff serving us like we were in a restaurant but out in our fields with a gorgeous view of the acreage.

The second motivation though was to try and make some revenue. Farm dinners actually don’t act as much of a money maker for us but there are a lot of other benefits that come from it.

Now that we’re in our 16th season of the farm I would say the main reason that we do these Farm dinners is because it gives us a chance to rub shoulders with some of our best clients.

We usually have two dinners. The first one is a smaller one, so we only have maybe 15 to 20 guests and the price point is much higher.

The second dinner is usually a little bit bigger (there might be 80 people), so we try to make that price point a little more accessible so more of our customers can come to that. We want our customers to feel like they have a chance to come out to experience their farm.

We usually hook up a wagon and take them around the fields, give them a view, and deliver a great meal. We have a toast, say thank you, and position the timing of that particular dinner to be towards the end of the season where it feels more like a celebration and a thank you of our year. We’ll also invite our vendors to come to that and we’ll showcase them and have them stand up so we can all feel like we’re one giant big family. I just want to create these positive good field vibes.

Q: Could you explain how your most recent event with Cork & Knife Provisions originated in terms of who contacted who?

Chef Joseph Jacobsen plates food for a farm-to-table event.
Chef Joseph Jacobsen, Cork & Knife Provisions

Corinna Bench: This year Cork & Knife Provisions reached out to us first and asked to schedule the events, although it could have just as easily been the other way around.

Cork & Knife is in that stage of their business where they’re trying to grow their customer base and get exposure and know that our customers are very likely to be their customers.

Chef Jacobsen is a great chef, and he does great work. He has a good team. I don’t have to do anything to plan. I just book the date with them and give them the ingredients for the menu, and it pretty much goes from there.

So, it’s a win-win for both of us. We usually book those events about 3 to 4 months before they actually happen.

Q: Do you have a process for selecting the participating chefs/restaurants for your farm-to-table events? Are there specific criteria you look for in potential partners?

Corinna Bench: Our chefs have come out of prior relationships that we’ve created over time as a farm business.

I think when you’re choosing a chef for an event like this you want to ask questions like: do I consistently like the food they eat? You definitely want to go and test it out and see if it’s consistently good quality.

I think you also have to look at whether they are able to cook outside, because not every chef knows how to do that well. So much of the success of a field to table dinner is pre-cooking most of the menu, and then bringing those ingredients to the farm and plating them.

Finally, do they have enough staff to be able to serve the meal? Having quick and responsive servers is critical. It does help if you have a chef that’s fairly well-known already by the community because it helps you sell tickets.

We also care about whether the chef supports local businesses.

Q: What are some advantages you see for chefs/restaurants when it comes to doing this type of event with a local farm?

Corinna Bench: Most chefs like to be creative in the kitchen so you have an opportunity to make a one-of-a-kind type meal with the freshest produce possible from a local farmer. And it’s going to be this beautiful plating, and you’re going to have real-time feedback from customers right there out in the fields, feeling the wind blow on their faces.

All of those external elements are working in your favor that are going to just make the meal that much better.

One of the things you have to remember about a field to table dinner is that it actually isn’t just about the food – it’s about the whole experience.

It’s about the view, the people next to you, and walking the farm; it’s smelling the smoke from the grill and speaking directly with the chef. It’s feeling like you have inside-access to the experience. Your customers at the farm will forever remember and associate the chef with that dining experience. Another benefit for a chef is they have an opportunity to co-market with another business. It’s a great way to get both our brands in front of the right customer and get exposure.

Corinna Bench, owner of Shared Legacy Farms
Corinna Bench

One of the things you have to remember about a field to table dinner is that it actually isn’t just about the food – it’s about the whole experience.

Corinna Bench, Shared Legacy Farms

Q: What is the process for coming up with a menu for one of these events and how do you handle challenges related to seasonality and availability of produce when planning these events?

Corinna Bench: A week before we publish tickets to the event, we let the chef know what we’ll have available in our fields. He takes that and builds a draft menu.

Chef Jacobsen is really good at putting fancy language to the menu. Then I take a look at it and offer any suggestions. We do pay attention to the seasonality, too.

For example, one time the chef had asparagus down as one of the courses and it wasn’t in season. That course got nixed and replaced with something else from the farm. In general, if there’s a vegetable on our menu, we want it to be coming from our farm.

Q: What other activities do you regularly have available to possibly keep guests invested and learning about the entire field-to-plate experience?

Corinna Bench: We like to offer a couple of different options during the dinner to help our guests learn about the farm. First, we often have some kind of a farm tour. Either we pull out the farm wagons and drive them around and periodically stop and talk about different places on the farm, or we’ll do a walking tour.

We find that our guests really enjoy this, and it adds a whole lot to the experience. We coach the chef to have appetizers waiting for them when they arrive, and we build in about 30 to 45 minutes before the meal even starts so that these kinds of field walks can happen.

Another thing that the chefs like to do is put their cooking area fairly close to the dining area and invite the customers to stand up and come and watch them cook.

Chef Joseph delegates plating of salad appetizers at Shared Legacy Farms.
Chef Jacobsen, Cork & Knife Provisions

This gives our customers a chance to see the whole process of how the food is actually put together. They can watch the plating happen in real time, and they can ask questions of the chef.

When we have an A-liner chef at the helm for the event, this actually creates a sense of exclusivity. Imagine knowing that you’ll be able to talk to one of the most famous chefs in Toledo for 2 hours, that you’ll be able to rub shoulders with them and get to know them on a personal level.

Part of what we’re doing is giving people access to celebrity chefs in a really cool setting.

Finally, I think the fact that the farmers are at the dinner also matters because we have a chance to narrate and tell stories during the meal. It really allows the customer to feel connected to us and to the story of the farm in a much deeper way.

CTA for Corinna Bench's MyDigitalFarmer consultation.

Broken Yoke Ranch, Thompson, OH

Dawn and Darrell Fleming-Kendall at a farm-to-table event.
Dawn and Darrell Fleming-Kendall

Founded by Darrell and Dawn Fleming-Kendall, Broken Yoke Ranch is a dynamic sustainable farm rooted in regenerative practices in Thompson, OH.

With a strong commitment to ethical farming, they have nurtured an environment where soil health, animals, and community thrive in harmony.

Recently, they’ve expanded their reach by opening The Ox Shoppe, a non-profit venture that offers a curated selection of products reflective of their values. This extension allows them to share their dedication to sustainability and holistic living with a wider audience.

The Ox Shoppe recently hosted their inaugural farm-to-table event, with dinner and wine pairings from Chef Brandon Chrostowski, founder of the EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, a renowned culinary establishment with a commitment to second chances and community impact.

Q: Can you share a bit about the history and culture of your farm and how it contributes to the overall experience of farm-to-table dinners?

Darrell Fleming-Kendall: The farm started completely by accident. We are first generation farmers, so we have always approached farming from a business perspective rather than embracing the tradition of “that’s what daddy did.” We’ve also been very keen on the goal of connecting people back to their food. The farm-to-table concept really keys in on all that stuff.

Q: What inspired you to start hosting farm-to-table dinners in the first place?

Darrell Fleming-Kendall: The combination of using it as a fundraiser and using it to align with the goal of reconnecting people with their food was the goal. It’s really hard to convince someone to break their habits and get out of the comfort zone of going to a grocery store for their food. By showing them the next-level quality that is produced locally, we can make changes happen quickly.

Q: Do you have a process for selecting the participating chefs/restaurants for your farm-to-table events? Are there specific criteria you look for in potential partners?

Chef Brandon Chrostowski (left)

Darrell Fleming-Kendall: Mission matters to us, so Chef Chrostowski was a great fit for us.

EDWINS is such a great story and does so much good for the city of Cleveland, so it was easy to reach out to him. I think other things that matter are flexibility, open-mindedness, willingness to accept everyone’s roles as equal in the process…collaboration.

The chef is a HUGE part of a farm-to-table event, and it’s easy to forget that the producers are integral as well. As a perfect example, we have been ready to do whatever Chef Chrostowski has needed at every step of the process.

Imagine our shock when one of those requests was, “Can I visit your farm?” To hear him telling guests at the event the experience reminded him of being in Paris, where fresh ingredients came in the back door straight from the farm, with unrivaled ingredients is a testament to what we have done here.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for local chefs/restaurants who want to be part of a farm-to-table dinner and how to connect with local farmers?

Darrell Fleming-Kendall: Be a partner. Farmers are hard workers that work on low margins, just like chefs. We are more than happy to do whatever we can to elevate the work of the chef, and it goes a long way when the chef feels the same way. The other part of that is the news of “farm-friendly” chefs travels quickly.

Q: In your opinion, what are some key factors that make a farm-to-table dinner truly special and memorable for guests?

Brandon Chrostowki, Darrell and Dawn Fleming giving a speech at their fundraising event.
Left to right, Chef Chrostowski, Darrell Fleming-Kendall, Dawn Fleming-Kendall

Darrell Fleming-Kendall: I think the big part is the very intimate and personal nature of it.

You meet the producers, you meet the chef, it was all grown in the same soil that your lawn grows in; it’s also a celebration of talent.

Just like sports, or a Taylor Swift concert, it’s a celebration of an industry’s best (or most forward-presenting) talent.

Q: Besides restaurants, are there other businesses or organizations involved in your farm-to-table dinners, such as local breweries, wineries, or artisanal producers?

Darrell Fleming-Kendall: Well, our hosts, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy were a huge partner, we had Debonne Vineyards and Double Wing Brewing Co. from Madison, OH supply wine and beer.

The Brownhoist Cider Company of Cleveland, OH provided hard cider. Many of our vendors from the store provided donations for “take home” bags that highlighted local production.

Also, behind the scenes, our processor was super flexible to ensure freshness and meet our timelines for this, our farmers were planning for key dates and timelines to ensure freshness. It’s a massive undertaking to make sure everyone is bringing their A-game.

Like raising a kid – it takes a community.

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