Chefs learn where their food comes from

Jun 18, 2014

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. Illinois Public Radio’s Sean Powers tagged along. And a warning to our listeners, this story contains audio of animals being slaughtered.

 If you spend any time cooking, did you ever wonder where all the ingredients came from?

ASBATY: “I actually spend all my time thinking about where the food has come from. That’s kind of the basis and inspiration for how we cook.”

That’s Chicago Chef John Asbaty, who’s planning to open a new restaurant by the end of the summer. He previously ran a small Italian market in the city, and relied largely on local farmers for his meats and produce. 

 ASBATY: “Serving food, it’s kind of a very intimate relationship with people you don’t know. 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 keep that symbiotic relationship makes a lot of sense.” (nat of bird squawking) John Asbaty, welcome to Chef Camp. 

TRAVIS: “I think you will probably be overwhelmed with knowledge.”

That’s Camp Leader Marty Travis, a seventh generation farmer in rural Livingston County. Each year in June and September, he hosts about a dozen chefs on his farm for Chef Champ, a project of a foundation he and his wife started to promote small sustainable family farming. The chefs on his farm for the camp are there to learn about everything from keeping bees to butchering chickens to maintaining healthy soil.

TRAVIS: “So, right here is the beginning of a potato. So you see, we’re just barely starting.” Travis shows the campers some of what he’s growing.  TRAVIS: “I have no idea what I’m going to pull up here.”

There are wild onions, alfalfa, fava bean tops, and red potatoes – a small sample of the roughly 200 varieties of crops. He checks the potatoes for invasive insects.

TRAVIS: “If those white flies we’re 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. That would give more mineral content to the plant and it would also get rid of that soft shell insect.”

Later on, the group hears from an agricultural consultant who explains how to test the nutrients, sweetness, and acidity of fruits and vegetables - all useful when deciding whether to rely on a farmer’s produce. They also learn about some of the jargon found on meat labels, like cage free, free range, and all natural. 

OSHAUGHNESSY: “Everybody’s all natural, it means nothing. It’s a very nebulous, nebulous term.”  That’s Donna OShaughnessy of rural Chatsworth in Livingston County. She and her husband run a certified organic farm, and she tells the chefs that “all natural” only applies to processing.

OSHAUGHNESSY: “All that means if that 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.”

OShaughnessy says labels only tell part of the story. She says the best way to know what you’re getting from the farm is to know the farmer.

OSHAUGHNESSY: “And if you’re working with a farmer who says, ‘No, I don’t allow visits,’ you need to be suspicious. 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.”

OShaughnessy also produces raw milk. She has the campers do a taste test of her milk and pasteurized skim milk. There’s more taste testing later with different kinds of beef, eggs, and honey. The chefs also learn how to kill and butcher an animal. Wildlife Biologist Darryl Coates with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is there with a rifle and a cage holding three rabbits. He tells the campers that hunting isn’t something he takes lightly.

COATES: “The harvest of an animal is important to me because I try to respect the animal. It’s giving its life to nourish me or my guests.”Coates aims the gun behind one of the rabbit’s ears. 

COATES: “….just behind the head and here we go.” (Gunshot) “There is a little twitching that’s going to happen. It’s the nerves of the animal, but trust me this animal is deceased.”

Coates skins the animal and takes out its organs, pointing out physical features that show the animal’s bill of health- for example, white patches on the liver could be signs of disease. 

COATES: “The lungs are these white materials here. If they’re breathing a lot of dust and stuff, you may see little flecks of black in it. This is very healthy. The environment that it came from is extremely good.”

He shoots two more rabbits, but this time has the campers do the butchering. A similar exercise plays out a few feet away with three chickens, which one-by-one are stuffed into a metal cone with their heads sticking out. Their throats are cut, and their blood drips into a bucket. Farmer Kate 

Potter from Peoria County leads this discussion. She shows Chef Terrah King of Champaign’s Big Grove Tavern how to kill one of the birds. This is King’s first time.

KING: “Oh my Goodness.” (Bird squirming) “Oh, nope.”

POTTER: “Yeah, very good.”

KING: “That’s scary.”

POTTER: “You did it very well and humanely.”

Kate Potter instructs the chefs to pluck out the feathers and then do the butchering. Here she explains a bit about chicken anatomy to Terrah King.

POTTER: “Some people take off the fat gland, which is right here. If you see chickens preening themselves, they get fat from back there.”

KING: “Yeah.”

POTTER: “…To keep their feathers nice, but I actually like the flavor of it. So, you can decide whether or not to take that off.”

KING: “I think we’ll keep it.”

POTTER: “Ok.”For the chefs here at chef camp, this isn’t the first time they’ve thought about the origins of the food they prepare. Sarah McVicker-Waters is the head chef at the Garlic Press Market Cafe in Bloomington-Normal. She’s raising a couple of chickens and wants to start a small farm where she lives in rural McLean County.  McVicker-Waters says she’s working to expand the Garlic Press’ local offerings. 

MCVICKER-WATERS: “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?”

And that’s a question Farmer Marty Travis is trying to answer. He and his wife oversee a food hub, a distribution network that connects area farmers with businesses in Chicago and central Illinois. During the chef camp, the campers help process food hub orders, packing a cooler with produce destined for restaurants, grocery stores and other customers. From planting to distribution, Travis says he hopes going through the camp helps these chefs better understand and appreciate food.

TRAVIS “These chefs all have the opportunity to make us better farmers. 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. 

….Lessons that Marty Travis hopes will stay with chefs in a constantly changing food industry. I’m Sean Powers.