Harvesting a New Way to Look a Vegetables

The fifth Missouri Chef’s Collaborative Dinner at Harvest restaurant was one for the record books. Every dish from the hors d’oeuvres all the way through the four courses up until and including the dessert was vegan. That is, not one iota of meat or cream or butter or eggs was used in the preparation of this phenomenal meal. Even the skeptics were astonished that organically grown fruits and vegetables from Sam Hilmer of Walnut Creek Farm could be transformed into a dining extravaganza - filled with original and delicious dishes by Chef Steve Gontrum of Harvest.

The 85 diners who attended began the evening grazing on a host of items that proved the absence of cheese to begin (or even end) a meal can easily go unnoticed. There were several Foccacia Pizzas that were topped with sweet Caramelized Onions and pungent, salty olives along with spices and some that were topped with lusciously browned peaches and onions. Situated on the bar were baskets full of crisp and flavorful homemade Yukon Gold Potato Chips alongside bowls of freshly made Humus and Beet Puree to dip into.

With the exception of the onions, Sam Hilmer of Walnut Creek Farm provided all of the produce for the evening's meal. Walnut Creek Farm specializes in organic produce that most farmers do not grow, such as Baby Greens, Arugula, Baby Bok Choi and Asian Pears. Hilmer graduated in 1998 with an Anthropology degree from St. Louis’ Webster University, and from the minute he took off his cap and gown, he knew he wanted to work the land that had been in his family since the 1890s. Learning from his grandfather how to cultivate and farm, Hilmer transformed his family’s non-working farm into a very successful local, organic farm. With tutelage from Paul Krautmann of Bellew’s Creek Farm and inspiration from Elliot Coleman’s book the New Organic Grower, Hilmer began growing varieties of fruits and vegetables purely for their culinary attributes.

Traveling to France, Italy and Australia, Hilmer cultivated a collection of seeds (not to mention techniques) for growing such crops as Nardello (Italian Sweet) Peppers, Heirloom Tomatoes, Chioggia Beets and Thai Basil. Hilmer is a staple among St. Louis restaurants (including Harvest) for his exceptional and extraordinary produce. He is now branching out into organic wine making - inspired by his trips to Australia where he saw the farmers, especially Ludwig Mueler of New South Wales, deal with growing and harvesting problems biologically rather than chemically. For Hilmer, it all boils down to the flavor of organic produce and he does it because he "can taste the difference."

Speaking of tasting, the first course of the evening was a Roasted Beet and Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho with Tomato and Cucumber Water and Fire Roasted Aji Pepper. This was not just soup, it was an explosion of tastes and textures; spicy and cool at the same time, with the underlying richness of the roasted beets. The individual flavors of each of the vegetables were easily discernible yet they came together in a most satisfying and unusual way.

Before the next course was served, Chef Steve Gontrum addressed the diners. He said it was deeply important to him to serve local and organic produce as much as possible. Stressing that quality, organic produce is being grown only fifteen minutes from St. Louis, Gontrum emphasized how important it was to bring attention to these farmers so they can continue growing the best quality food for our consumption. To illuminate his point and his passion, Gontrum adopted a complete vegetarian philosophy behind the construction of his menu - primarily to showcase the flavors of the fruits and vegetables themselves. His belief is that not enough consideration is paid to the parts of the meal that are served alongside the fish, fowl or filet. To prove his point, he focused all of his attention on showcasing Hilmer’s produce as the star of the meal, not the side dish.

Gontrum’s consummate skills as an innovate chef were on display that evening with the next course which was otherworldly: Roasted Butternut and Leek Cannelloni with Almond Buttered Greens, Wild Mushroom Plum Conserve, Wild Mushroom Reduction and Truffle Oil. The mushroom reduction was as rich and flavorful as a veal stock (made from using the stems and scraps of Portabello, Cremini, Oyster and Shiitake mushrooms) and the cannelloni (made from whole wheat spring roll wrappers) served with the conserve was bursting with a melody of tastes and textures. Even the most die-hard carnivores were left no choice but to admit it was one of the best dishes they had ever eaten, meat or otherwise.

To cleanse our palates (though I wouldn’t have minded those flavors lingering for a while), Pastry Chef Miriam Aquino served up Organic Seyval Blanc and Thai Basil Granitas. They were unbelievably delicious and functioned beyond palate cleansers. The juice from the Seyval Blanc grapes was pressed by Hilmer specifically for Aquino's granita, along with the Thai basil which was combined with a simple syrup and lemon juice for an explosion of minty basil flavor. The grape juice was so naturally sweet that Aquino only needed to enhance the flavor by adding a few tablespoons of lemon juice. The result was breathtaking and yes, cleansing.

The final course was a Roasted Organic Potato and Heirloom Bean Pave with Caramelized Onion, Wilted Italian Dandelion, and Yellow Pepper Slaw. Pave is French for paving stone and basically denotes a square shaped item. Gontrum’s pave was loaded with creamy potatoes and balanced nicely with the onions. The surprise was the Italian Dandelions which are hard to find (not anymore thanks to Hilmer) and worth the hunt because of their uniquely tart and tangy taste which complimented the solidness of the pave.

A look of both disbelief and pure, unabashed satisfaction fell over the faces of the diners as their plates were removed. An entire meal composed completely out of fruits and vegetables and the restaurant was filled with patrons patting their stomachs as if they had just finished eating a sixteen ounce steak. In a matter of minutes, the waitstaff descended once again upon the tables carrying a gorgeously plated Devil’s Food Cake with a Spiced Apple and Dried Cherry Compote and Brandied Apple Sorbet with a Beet Chip Garnish. Everyone assumed the vegan portion of the dinner was over and dessert would more than make up for the lack of eggs, butter and cream. But, no. Aquino had created an incredibly moist and extraordinary cake using apple, beet and carrot puree, apple juice, chocolate, cocoa, cake flour and maple syrup. The result was a phenomenally delicious and rich cake balanced expertly with the natural fruitiness of the compote and sorbet.

The delicious organic coffee served that evening was donated by Kaldi’s Roasting Company of St. Louis and the wonderful organic breads were served courtesy of Companion Baking Company, also of St. Louis-- two local organizations who are leaders in bringing quality organic products to their public.

The entire evening was a gastronomic and agricultural tour de force. Hilmer and Gontrum teamed up to teach us that everything old (i.e. garden variety and not-so garden variety produce) can be new again. The creativity and dedication behind this dinner highlighted one of the top principles of the Chef’s Collaborative: "Food is fundamental to life. It nourishes us in body and soul, and the sharing of food immeasurably enriches our sense of community." The diners at Harvest went home heady (and completely satiated) with the notion that what they had just eaten was not only incredibly delicious, but was healthy for themselves as well as the community.