Firing It Up for Organics at Annie Gunn's

The fourth Missouri Chef’s Collaborative dinner started off with a bang. (Time out. Keep reading. That was my first and only pun - excluding the title. I promise to restrain myself). Lou Rook, head chef at Annie Gunn’s, whetted the palates of the 125 diners with an impressive selection of fresh organic cheeses, smokehouse sausages - made on the premises - and house pickled vegetables. There were platters of melt-in-your-mouth Goat Cheese and Cheddar and Brie surrounded by Smoked Salami and Smoked Ham all adorned by pickled baby carrots, okra and cucumbers. The combination was unabashedly simple yet totally delicious. The secret was in the quality of the ingredients - the main theme for the entire evening.

Annie Gunn’s is considered the place to go for a great piece of meat. It is not a pickup bar, but one of St. Louis’ most talked about restaurants and an inspired choice for a Chef’s Collaborative dinner. When most people think of Organic Farming, they generally focus primarily on fruits, vegetables and grains and completely forget about animal husbandry. It is an art form really, just like maintaining an Organic Farm or making Artisan Cheeses - it requires creative problem solving and overcoming peripatetic stock in an ever-changing environment.

Niman Ranch ( of San Francisco, California, is one of this country’s leading producers of gourmet quality meat. Niman products (beef, pork and lamb) must comply with what farmer and representative Michael Christy calls "The Big Three": one, no antibiotics, steroids or growth stimulants are given to the animals; two, the animals are free range, raised on open, exceptionally cultivated land - there is no confinement; and three, no animal byproducts are fed to the stock. Additionally, the animals are treated with dignity and respect and Niman works closely with the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington D.C. to insure that their farms function within the highest standards set forth in this country.

The produce for the evening’s dinner was supplied by Chris Wimmer (along with wife Kelli and newborn son Cole) of The Farm at Kraut Run. Wimmer spoke on why we should support organics in this new Millennium. It has nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with function. Wimmer, a former agricultural student, believes that organic farming embodies an overwhelming notion of common sense; a combination of new and old practices, symbiotic elements and chicken tractors. "Chicken tractors" consist of a portable chicken coop filled with chickens that is moved along a harvested plot in order for the chickens to eat bugs and remove debris - in essence, work and compost the soil. Who needs gas guzzling, smoke spewing tractors anyway?

At The Farm at Kraut Run Wimmer runs an Educational Center to teach kids about organic farming. Wimmer also helps adults: his neighbor was diagnosed with cancer. The neighbor's oncologist told him to stay away from produce grown with pesticides and eat only organically grown fruits and vegetables. He showed up at Wimmer’s farm for the first time in all their years as neighbors to buy produce and Wimmer was more than willing to oblige. Wimmer understands that moving towards organic and sustainable farming is a slow process. However, its a process that leads to diversity in crops and growing methods that are not only good for those who consume the harvests but, according to Wimmer, "enhances nature and the natural process of farming."

To regain focus on the dinner itself: Annie Gunn's Chef Rook did an exemplary job showcasing top of the line, extraordinary ingredients provided by Niman Ranch and The Farm at Kraut Run. Annie Gunn’s has always looked for the highest quality ingredients. Rook said that taste has always been a priority for him, and he has found that purveyors who follow organic and non-pesticide/antibiotic principles generally have the best products to offer. Rook serves red veal as opposed to the more familiar milk fed, caged calf variety which is white. His customers balked at the veal's color until he explained that this veal was raised from calves that were not contained in boxes and allowed to run free and eat from the earth around them, so the blood flowed naturally through their systems - hence the red meat. It tastes better and is better for you - not to mention the treatment of the animal.

The evening's meal began with an appetizer of Grilled Troutdale Farm Rainbow Trout on a Summer Vegetable Salad with Sap Sago Shallot Butter was a mouthful on many levels. Sap Sago, an herbal Swiss cheese, was melted atop the light and flaky trout to give it an infusion of tangy, herbal taste. The accompanying salad was a delightfully fresh organic tomato relish that contrasted wonderfully with the fish.

The follow up to the fish was a very unique and surprising dish: Smoked Niman Ranch Pork Cheeks on Roasted Onion Risotto with a Savory Garlic Chanterelle Chutney. Chef Rook cleaned the cheeks and soaked them in brine for 24 hours. The cheeks were then smoked for eight hours, seared, and finally simmered in pork stock. The result was intensely smoky and rich slices of pork. The chutney was made with fresh roasted garlic puree, red wine, soy sauce, sugar, rosemary, caraway seeds, bay leaves, and of course, fresh Chantrelles. The Chanterelles were provided by the Chef’s Collaborative’s own Julie Ridlon who took four trips into the outer reaches of West County (that’s as specific as she would get - you know how secretive those mushroom hunters are) to provide Rook with a milk crate full of the most supple Chanterelles I’ve ever tasted.

The final course for the evening was Niman Ranch Braised Beef Brisket with a Traditional Marchand de Vin Sauce and Fingerling Potato Gratin. The gratin was made of layers of sharp gruyere cheese and exquisite organic potatoes. The brisket was otherworldly. It melted in one’s mouth like butter - putting many mother’s and grandmother’s around the country to shame. I overheard many diners exclaiming that this was the best brisket they had since leaving their childhood homes, if not better.

The dessert was surprisingly delicious. I say that because the menu listed Roasted Banana Spice Cake with White Chocolate Ganache. On paper it sounded unoriginal and uninspired. Alas, I was wrong. Dead wrong. The six-layer cake with alternating layers of the ganache was unbelievably light and fluffy and was not cloyingly sweet or too "banana tasting". The Raspberry Couli garnish was a perfect compliment to the cake.

In the past ten years the quality of meat and produce grown in this country has become consistently more healthy and ultimately better for us and better for the planet. As Wimmer has said, it is a slow process, but we should focus on the big picture. The more care and common sense used in farming, the more people will benefit from foods that have higher nutritional value, better taste, and are free of chemicals. Also, our planet becomes a healthier place to be. It’s quite simple, just pay attention - it doesn’t take much to avoid shooting yourself in the foot. (It’s true, I have absolutely no control.)