Sweet Harvest

Rest assured, the final installment of the St. Louis Chef’s Collaborative 2000 Dinner Series was one for the record books. The evening was the culmination of six months of pure synergy between farmers, chefs and food purveyors to create a heightened awareness of healthy and fabulous food grown and prepared locally. The air was thick with anticipation for chefs Bill Cardwell, Dave Owens and Maggie Kelly’s phantasmagorical seven course feté, including a dessert course by special guest chef Ann Cooper and author of the book Bitter Harvest which deftly explores the positive ramifications of a healthy and sustainable food network.

The evening began with Noshings & Nibbles which consisted of delicately crispy and flavorful Frito Misto with a Garlic Aioli, crunchy Sweet Potato Chips served alongside a pungent, creamy Black Bean Dip and Bruschetta made with tart and delicious goat cheese topped with savory chopped green olives and peppers. Each course was complimented by a wine pairing that was either organically grown or biodynamical produced. The welcoming wines were a choice between a Marquis de Perlade, Brut N.V., Alsace or a 1998 Chateau La Roque, Pic St. Loup Rose, Provence - both were a perfectly light and crisp accompaniment to the bursts of flavor set forth from the kitchen.

According to Julie Ridlon, the indefatigable Chair of the St. Louis Chef’s Collaborative, the response to the dinner series (as well as the Clayton Market and in-school programs) has been above and beyond her expectations. While she never doubted that the alchemy between the local farmers and chefs would be nothing less than stellar, it has been the reaction of the public that she expresses as "phenomenal". With a negligible advertising budget, and PR that has been done primarily by word of mouth, the Chef’s Collaborative dinners have not only been selling out, but many of the diners are repeat guests. To Ridlon, this reflects people’s desire to see organic and sustainable farm foods take precedent not only in their diets, but in their restaurants as well as markets.

The speaker for the evening, Ann Cooper - Executive Chef of the Ross School in East Hampton, NY as well as a consultant for the Culinary Institute of America - presented an informative "tasting" from her exceptional book, Bitter Harvest. Cooper’s argument for natural food sources over genetically modified products was emphasized by her unabashed love of food. For Cooper, it’s all about the taste and quality of the food, having been a "cook" her whole life. She believes there now exists a strong disconnect with the food supply. We live in a time where children think strawberries grow on trees and the producers of Round Up, DDT and industrial carpet are in charge of our food supply. Current research reveals that approximately 40% of all cancer is diet-related. Cooper believes it's her mission to keep talking about these issues, fomenting a dialogue so that awareness is raised and people begin to question the methods used to grow their food. She quotes Anthelme Brillat-Savarin from The Physiology of Taste to encapsulate her message: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."

The dinner's first course was an Apple Cider Cured Smoked Ozark Mountain Rainbow Trout, Autumn Field Greens and Fuji Apples with a Cider Fresh Horseradish Vinaigrette. The smoky richness of the fish was contrasted superbly by the crisp and refreshing greens. Vegetarian diners were treated to Apple Cider Cured Smoked Tofu that was so loaded with flavor, the meat-eaters offered a taste were requesting second helpings. The wine pairing was a 1988 La Begude, Marsanne~Roussane, Vin de Pays d’Oc and it was superb.

The next course was an Ozark Forest Exotic & Oregon Chanterelle Mushroom "Stroganoff" atop Caraway Egg Noodles and finished with Herbed Creme Fraîche. The combination of the woodsy mushrooms along with the delicate pasta and devilishly rich Creme Fraiche was otherworldly. Companion Baking once again donated their wonderful artisan breads to accompany the entire dinner, and for this course, there was a lot of dipping into the "stroganoff" juice. For this dish, the wine pairing was a 1999 Bonterra Chardonnay, Mendocino.

Throughout the evening, the excitement over the magnificently prepared food was palpable. Additionally, there was the excitement of having successfully brought together so many terrific people that care so much about food. Attending the dinner were the following farmers: Brett Palmier from Biver Farm, Paul Krautmann of Bellew’s Creek Farm, Nicola Macpherson of Ozark Forest Mushroom Farm, Sam Hilmer of Walnut Creek Farm and Chris Wimmer of The Farm at Kraut Run - an amazing group of talented growers and altruistic individuals who donated all of the produce for the evening’s meal. Local chefs in attendance were: Ed Neill of Cafe Provencal (Kirkwood & Clayton) and Eddie’s Steak and Chop, Vince Bommarito Jr., of Tony’s, Lou Rook of Annie Gunn’s and Steve Gontram from Harvest. The enthusiasm set forth by these individuals throughout the evening regarding the dinner, the Chef’s Collaborative organization, as well as the Clayton Market was delightfully pervasive.

The main course was Red Wine Braised Niman Ranch Lamb Osso Bucco & Housemade Sausage, with Garlicky Greens, Winter Squashes and a Potato~Onion Tart. The lamb was so tender it practically fell off the bone and the sausage was perfectly balanced between spice and meat. Usually the side vegetables are uninspired, but on this plate, the Greens were bursting with flavor, the squash puree was divine as was the roasted squash, and the Torte was sublime - a flaky crust filled with perfectly cooked potatoes with just the right amount of onion flavor. The wine pairing was an exceptional 1997 Perrin Family "Reserve" Côtes du Rhone Rouge, Rhone Valley.

Vegetarians were most certainly not left out of this fabulous equation. Stepping in for the lamb and sausage, was an outstanding Red Wine Braised Herb & Fennel Seed Seitan that was as rich and flavorful as the meat offering. Seitan is wheat gluten, which has the fortuitous property of taking on the flavors of whatever it is cooked with - like tofu -but the consistency is much more meat-like. The chefs at Cardwell's at the Plaza take vegetarian food to a whole other level.

Almost immediately following was a "palate cleanser" of Maytag Blue Cheese, Stone Hill Port~Beet Chutney, Blue Cornmeal-Rosemary Madeleine and Concord Grape Granita. The variegated tastes and textures went beyond the usual intermezzo of sorbet. The chutney was inspired, especially when eaten with the strong and flavorful blue cheese. Served in a small fluted glass, the sorbet was refreshingly grape tasting, but not all too sweet. The wine pairing was a 1996 Chateau Maris Minervois "Prestige" Bordeaux.

Luckily, all the diners were presented with a lovely scroll tied with a beautiful piece of wheat that detailed the evening's menu, so everyone knew the evening was far from over. The pastry chef that flew in with Ann Cooper, Chad Vanerslice, blew everyone over with her dessert of Trilogy of Pear~Maple Brioche Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce & Cinnamon Spiced Ice Cream. The pudding was incredibly light and airy, yet the perfectly concocted sauce was powerful without being cloyingly sweet. The ice-cream helped achieve the most perfect balance between the bread pudding and the sauce. Chef Cooper is welcome back to St. Louis anytime to cook for us. The wine pairing was a 1998 M. Chapoutier, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Tain~Rhone.

The grand finale was Kaldi’s rich, organic coffees (Birds & Bees Blend caffeinated and Natural High decaffeinated) served with a medley of miniature Sweets including a nut tart and a pumpkin pie. Chef’s Cardwell, Owens and Kelly most definitely outdid themselves that evening preparing a sweet harvest that resulted a unanimously satiated and amazed crowd.

As the evening drew to a close (lasting almost as long as a performance of Tristan & Isolde but feeling as if only a scant few minutes passed) everyone was flush from the incredible food, the wonderful talk by Cooper and the recognition of all those chefs, farmers, and local businesses who donated their phenomenal products to help make sure that the St. Louis Chef’s Collaborative experienced an extraordinarily successful first run. Expect to see a lot more wonderful things from the folks behind the Chef’s Collaborative, a group of individuals who are not only passionate about the food they eat, but the food you eat too.