I have just returned from what was possibly the most inspirational trip yet, and that's not a word I use very often. I was hosted by the Relish Restaurant Group, basically some of the most driven and dedicated food folks I've had the pleasure of meeting, as part of a big event they were organizing called Farmer's Fair. It was essentially a farmer's market festival, with local farms, producers, restaurants and bands as well as the cutest little Red Wattle piglet you ever did see. Ed Begley, Jr. was to the keynote speaker and Jay Denham and myself would give presentations as well. It promised to be a trip packed full of experiences and new skills and I loved every second of it.
The first morning should have tipped me off to the fun and hard work that lie ahead. Before our planed day of cutting, Justin Dean, COO of the Relish group, and Jay Denham and I headed out to Carriage House Farms to pick potatoes for Jay's dinner the next night. As Jay actually runs the farm where they are building their own stock of pastured pigs for the restaurant group, in addition to his Woodlands Pork, I was amazed he even had the time to travel!
We first took a walk around Richard Stewart's small farm that has been in the family for generations and then drove down to the far end of his land, past the hives and shooting ranges. Richard is like many small farmers today who are bucking conventions and going back to traditional methods of farming. He is slowly converting his family's soy and corn fields into a veggie CSA and also keeps bees. He's quickly proving neighbors and doubtful family members wrong, already projecting that 30% of the farms' profits this year will be from his new organic venture! The Doubting Toms are quieting down with every year's harvest and he is becoming an example in the community of an alternative to raising monocrops for the commodity market.
In the bright sun of an Ohio River Valley morning, we jumped out of Justin's truck to help Richard harvest potatoes. Standing in a field in my nice new shoes that I'd bought (second-hand) for my first "big" trip, I weighed my options for a moment: ruin the shoes or go barefoot? Anyone who knows me, knows my answer. Off came the shoes. Less than 12 hours after arriving, there I stood with soft, freshly turned Ohio soil between my toes. In that moment, it was all I could do to contain my excitement for what the rest of the trip would hold. Several pounds of potatoes were thrown into milk crates in the back of the truck and then we hung around chatting with Richard a while more, met his parents and a young farm hand he recently hired, Chris, who coincidently also prefers to work barefoot...go figure.
Potatoes picked, the three of us headed off to begin our real day: cutting 2.5 pigs and a whole steer for our respective dinners and the big festival on Saturday. As I wrote in the post before leaving, we were shooting a video of Jay teaching me the Italian/Spanish method of pig butchery, a style mostly aimed toward charcuterie. It was such an incredible learning experience, taking a skill that I knew very well, and turning it into a brand new learning opportunity. It felt like my first day behind the counter al over again, and even if for just a little while, it was energizing and thrilling. The long day of cutting for nearly 12 hours was a great way to get to know Justin and Jay and by the end of the day, we were ready to sit over a few big burgers and of course, bourbons. Perfection.
Friday morning, I took a short walk through the tiny town of Covington, KY before heading into the kitchen at Chalk Food + Wine to begin preparing my 4 courses for that night's dinner. It was a fun day in a busy, tight kitchen. Chef Mark Bodenstein's restaurant is an example for all striving to source locally, not one can or even can opener in the house! I have never seen a kitchen so improvisational. As I moved through the courses on my menu, whatever didn't get used was worked into Mark's free-form seasonal, local menu, something that drew my eye when I was looking into the restaurant before my trip. Whether it was my watermelon-pink peppercorn sauce, melon gazpacho or juniper-crusted pork loin, Mark and his kitchen were on the ball and ready to work with whatever was available, the key of successful local sourcing.
The dinner went really well and the conversations I had went way into the wee hours of the morning as I sat at a table with one couple, the restaurant's GM and a server who is one of Covington's few bike commuters, talking about everything from the region's history as a winemaking region to food deserts. This trip had one recurring theme for me: I Live for This.
The big day finally came on Saturday. The rest of the trip had been so wonderful, I would have been happy to go home then, but Kentucky had even more greatness in store for me. The day was full of insightful and informative conversations, and the exchange was always mutual. I saw in Covington a fire and drive toward action that I've not seen echoed in New York, San Francisco or Portland, the presumed great beacons of light in the sustainability movement. Here I saw people excited about change and ready to dive in to help. I stood in a booth in the Kentucky heat, having one conversation after another, handing out bacon recipes and explaining the video that was playing of Jay and I cutting down all of the meat that was being served that day. At the very end of the day I hopped on the main stage for a bacon making demo and presentation on the Bacon Gospel. I put a twist on the usual recipe development and used audience participation to create 3 new flavors right on the spot, it was a really fun way to come up with flavors that reflect local tastes.
The highlight of the entire trip actually came during this presentation. As I was literally mid-sentence, none other than the green guru himself, Ed Begley Jr. , pulled his electric car over right next to the stage, and yelled out of the window, "Everyone, listen to this guy. He know what he's talking about!"
Then he turns and point to me and says, "I love what you do, keep it up!" Then he made a joke about his near silent electric car being to loud to hear him over, waved and drove off. I stood there humbled and somewhat sort flabbergasted, attempting to bring myself back to earth.
A personal endorsement by a celebrity, a vegan celebrity at that? Wow. Once I regained my composure, I finished my presentation, the gift of bacon making having been passed on to the crowd. I was exhausted and relieved to be done with all of my engagements and ready to continue the vibrant, yet casual conversations that were happening all around me.
I am already planning a trip back in November and hope to return many more times in the future. I am really looking forward to doing a dinner with Cincinnati's fledgling Slow Foods chapter, run by a young married couple who offered their home to me next time I come to town. I'll also be shooting a longer film about the Bacon Gospel that will feature farm visits, bacon making and a group tasting and of course, I plan to see lots and lots of farms.