By Jason DeRusha
When you think of farm-to-table cooking, you probably don't think of Mall of America, or the glitzy JW Marriott Hotel, but chef Everton Clarke wants to change that. Friday night, the hotel's excellent Cedar + Stone restaurant invited local farmers (and me) to a special dinner highlighting ingredients that the farmers themselves had produced.
"We couldn't do what we do without you," Chef Clarke told the farmers, as he rolled out a seven-course dinner featuring their products.
We started with an incredible seared foie gras with absolutely beautiful wild mushrooms from Kevin Doyle's Forest Mushroom farm, in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Doyle talked about growing thousands of pounds of shiitake and oyster mushrooms indoors, in bags. He sells to wholesale distributors like Bix Produce and US Foods, and his mushrooms are in grocery stores and restaurants all over Minnesota.
Farmer Ron Costa brought kale and sweet corn. His corn was married with Brad Donnay's goat cheese in a lovely corn/cognac bisque. Costa Farm is near White Bear Lake in Grant, a third-generation family farm. Costa sells peppers to Chipotle, and he talked about the certification and inspections he had to go through to be allowed to sell to them. ( Sign up for his CSA program next year!) Donnay Dairy is an interesting operation, too, in Kimball: Brad raises goats and makes small-batch chevre (cheese made with goat's milk). He has zero employees—the family does everything, and his oldest son is going off to college to study dairy and cheese making. Pretty exciting to see the family tradition carry on.
There were meat purveyors, too: Mark Mann, from Swanson Meats, brought a knockout of a short rib from Revier Farms (ask Mark about "grass-fed" sometime; he's got thoughts), and American Seafood, from Minnetonka, brought Atlantic Sapphire Salmon. Future Farm Grown in Wisconsin is a hydroponic operation, growing butterhead lettuce and microgreens.
The meal was incredible—but the conversation was even more interesting. These farmers are definitely aware of and struggling with low commodity prices, with prices for corn and beans very low. The labor concern is real, too—trying to find enough workers. But for second- and third-generation farms, the bigger concern is the same one every small business owner worries about: Will the kids want to go into the business? The passion for their products was clear.
The idea of a chef inviting farmers in and cooking a dinner for them highlighting their own ingredients—it was an awesome experience. And a reminder of how far the farm-to-table idea has come. It's come all the way to a hotel inside Mall of America. Not as a gimmick, but as part of their menu every day.