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Local food gets chefs out the kitchen door and onto the farm to pick up produce. Over the five-plus years Miller has been with Max Restaurant Group, he’s developed friendships with local farmers, among them Marshall Epstein, owner of Rosedale Farms, a 110-acre farm in Simsbury. “We started throwing ideas around,” says Miller, “I had lived in Denver, and I’d done about 50 ‘Plow to Plate’ dinners there.” Max Restaurant Group President Rich Rosenthal thought Miller and Epstein were being overly ambitious throwing eight Chef to Farm dinners for 100 guests last summer. But the dinners sold out and the collaborators ended the season with a family festival featuring bluegrass music. This year they’ll do 10 dinners with 150 guests.
Marshall Epstein is not only a farmer, he’s a full-time professor of marketing at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He’s up-front about taking a marketing approach to his farm, which has been in his family for 90 years. “Rosedale is a brand,” he says. “We make sure to sell to restaurants like Max Restaurant Group that share our goals.” Eleven years ago, he started a vineyard on the property. The Chef to Farm dinners, he says, “are a perfect ambassador—they bring people to the farm. People sit in the middle of the vineyard, tasting the wine. They feel they’re in Napa Valley.” He decided to embrace agritourism and has worked in tie-ins with local businesses, like the Simsbury Inn. “You have to keep evolving,” he says.
For Albert Clugston III, chef-owner of The Litchfield Saltwater Grille, cooking dinner in a local vineyard is a natural evolution.
He’s been supplementing local products with herbs and produce from his own garden on the former River Brook Farm. And pairing local wines with local foodstuffs at a vineyard will be natural, too. “It’s all from the same soil,” he says.
Judy Motel of Sunset Meadows Vineyard has been excited about collaborating with Clugston since she first ate at The Litchfield Saltwater Grille. “We were impressed with the food quality and how they use fresh and local food,” she says. At Sunset Meadows, they don’t use pesticides or systemic chemicals. They harvest grapes by hand to ensure unadulterated juice. “We want to offer a glimpse of local fare,” she says. “We want customers to know you don’t have to go to the city to get a nice meal and a decent glass of wine.”
When Rapp, who’ll be cooking with Yale University culinary director Thomas Peterlik at this season’s Dinners at the Farm, gives a short talk at the dinners, he points out to diners that they are an important part of the equation, that eating here is connecting them with the local agricultural system.
“The consumer is the crucial piece,” he says. “Farming is a business and it depends on customers. If the customers aren’t involved as collaborators, we won’t go anywhere. They are the third leg. Local food is a micro market. We don’t have an advertising budget. Word of mouth is all there is.”
And word of mouth is spreading, with dining on the farm being incorporated into a host of special events. Epstein has started doing bar mitzvahs at Rosedale. Clugston says The Litchfield Saltwater Grille has already catered one wedding at a farm and has another one coming up in September. Whatever the event, having it at a farm returns people to the state’s agricultural roots, feeding them real food, full of flavor, while reminding them that local food is good for the environment and the economy. If this is a trend now, it may soon become a full-fledged phenomenon. “My advice is to get in now,” says Miller. “Five years from now, everyone is going to want to be the farmer’s best friend.”