With farm to table restaurants springing up left and right, cooks are having to go beyond the grocery store. That’s why about a dozen chefs from Chicago and central Illinois recently gathered for a two-day crash course on where their food comes from – the farm.
Each year in June and September, central Illinois farmer Marty Travis hosts chefs on his farm for Chef Champ, a project of a foundation he and his wife started that promotes small, sustainable family farming. The chefs are there to learn about everything from keeping bees to butchering chickens to maintaining healthy soil.
Chicago chef John Asbaty was on Travis' farm in June for the camp. Asbaty relies heavily on local produce and meats when he is cooking.
“I actually spend all my time thinking about where the food has come from,” Asbaty said. “That’s kind of the basis and inspiration for how we cook.”
Asbaty is planning to open a new restaurant by the end of the summer. He previously ran a small Italian market in the city.
“Serving food, it’s kind of a very intimate relationship with people you don’t know,” Asbaty said. “So, I take pride in finding the people who care about growing and raising the food as much as we care about cooking the food. So, I think keeping that symbiotic relationship makes a lot of sense.”
Travis showed Asbaty and the other campers some of what he is growing. There are wild onions, alfalfa, fava bean tops and red potatoes – a small sample of the roughly 200 varieties of crops on his farm. Running his fingers along a recently harvested potato, Travis checks it for evidence of invasive insects.
“If those white flies were starting to cause the plants to turn yellow, we’d mix some sea salt – mineralized sea salt that we would mix with water – and I’d just spray over this whole thing,” Travis explained. “That would give more mineral content to the plant and it would also get rid of that soft shell insect.”
Later on, the campers heard from an agricultural consultant who explained how to test the nutrients, sweetness and acidity of fruits and vegetables – useful when deciding whether to rely on a farmer’s produce. They also learned about some of the jargon found on meat labels, like “cage free,” “free range,” and “all natural.”
“Everybody’s all natural, it means nothing,” said Donna O'Shaughnessy, who runs a certified organic farm with her husband in rural Chatsworth, Ill. “It’s a very nebulous, nebulous term.”
O'Shaughnessy told the chefs that “all natural” only applies to processing.
“All that means is that (at) the processing point it’s done naturally without chemicals, but there’s no guarantee that they weren’t fed antibiotics or hormones while they were growing,” she said.
O'Shaughnessy explained that labels only tell part of the story. She said the best way to know what you’re getting from the farm is to know the farmer.
“If you’re working with a farmer who says, ‘No, I don’t allow visits,’ you need to be suspicious,” she said. “Drop-ins are hard. They’re busy. They’re doing something. But if they don’t want to make an appointment for you to come and drop by, I’d be really suspicious about buying from that particular farmer.”
The chefs also learned how to kill and butcher an animal. Wildlife Biologist Darryl Coates with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was there with a rifle and a cage holding three rabbits. He told the campers that slaughtering an animal isn’t something he takes lightly.
“The harvest of an animal is important to me because I try to respect the animal,” Coates said. “It’s giving its life to nourish me or my guests.”
For the chefs here at Chef Camp, this was not the first time they had thought about the origins of the food they prepare. Sarah McVicker-Waters, head chef at a café in Bloomington-Normal, Ill., said she is working to expand the Garlic Press’ local offerings.
“Food is so important, and our food system is so, so essential and the more I can do to help this sort of system work, and to show that it does work on a scale like a café, then honestly, why aren’t we all doing that?” she said.
That is a question farmer Marty Travis is trying to answer. He and his wife also oversee a food hub, a distribution network that connects area farmers with businesses in Chicago and central Illinois. During the chef camp, the campers helped process food hub orders, packing a cooler with produce destined for restaurants, grocery stores and other customers. From planting to distribution, Travis said he hopes going through the camp helps these chefs better understand and appreciate food.
“These chefs all have the opportunity to make us better farmers,” Travis said. “They can go to other farmers that they work with either at the farmer’s markets or on their own and say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about such and such. I was at a chef camp and I learned about this.’”
This story was originally produced by Illinois Public Media