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The dining-on-the-farm movement is plowing across Connecticut, reconnecting the chef to the farmer, the farmer to the diner, the diner to the chef. “It’s exciting to see our work come full circle,” says farmer Pauline Lord of White Gate Farm in East Lyme, “to see our produce transformed in the hands of these wonderful chefs. And to see diners enjoying it in situ.”
But there’s more. These dinners exemplify the way these connections are fostering the local food movement, creating more consumers for Connecticut’s fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, poultry, fish and wine. “We’re promoting buying locally,” says chef Scott Miller, who cooks at Max Restaurant Group’s Chef to Farm dinners. “People leave a dinner talking about the best tomato they’ve ever had, because it was picked just three hours earlier. And they tell their friends, start going to farmers’ markets, joining CSAs [community supported agriculture] and coming to our restaurants.”
If it seems unlikely that people would be willing to drive (sometimes long distances) into the countryside, braving the uncertainties of weather (and eschewing high heels for sturdier footwear) to sit at communal tables outdoors with strangers, possibly swatting at bugs—and pay in the range of $100 to $150 or more for the privilege—the success of these dinners speaks for itself. They’re selling out. Talk to chefs and farmers, and they say the same thing: Make your reservation early. “So many people told me later, ‘We tried to get tickets,’” says farmer Kelly Goddard of Barberry Hill Farm in Madison.
This summer, Connecticut food lovers have many more opportunities to eat just-picked produce and local meat, fowl and fish prepared by celebrated chefs in beautiful cultivated landscapes. The fourth season of River Tavern in Chester’s pioneering Dinners at the Farm will offer 12 dinners in August, at Barberry Hill and White Gate Farm. Max Restaurant Group in Hartford is expanding its second season of Chef to Farm dinners at Rosedale Farm and Vineyard in Simsbury on Thursdays from June through September. Two Chef to Farm dinners will be held at Belltown Hill Orchards in South Glastonbury and Starlight Farm in Durham. Entering the arena—make that the vineyard—this year is The Litchfield Saltwater Grille, which has scheduled June dinners at Miranda Vineyard and Sunset Meadow Vineyard in Goshen, and plans to do more throughout the summer. And “Outstanding in the Field,” the group that started the trend in California back in 1999 and now tours North America and Europe, arrives at Millstone Farm in Wilton on Aug. 25. Michel Nischan of Westport’s Dressing Room will be the guest chef (tickets cost $225 per person, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting Nischan’s Wholesome Wave Foundation).
What all these farm meals have in common is a growing group of people who are concerned about the industrial food system and its toll on human and environmental health. “There are social benefits, economic benefits and psychological benefits to local food,” says Jonathan Rapp, owner and executive chef of River Tavern and the man who started the dining-on-the-farm movement in Connecticut. “The most important is that local food re-establishes a relationship between the customer and the grower. And it encourages better practices on how food is raised. There’s an inherent scrutiny. You don’t end up with millions of hogs and leaking lagoons of hog [waste].”
These are just the multicourse, linen-and-crystal affairs. Less formal, and less costly, meals on the farm, like the last Thursday of each month potluck dinner at Sticks and Stones Farm in Newtown, and Amie Hall’s “Meet Me at the Farm” lunches at Sport Hill Farm in Easton, also reconnect diners to the land, albeit in a pointedly health-conscious way. (Sticks and Stones dinners are alcohol-free. Hall gives talks on whole grains, adding seaweed to the diet, etc.)