Photos by Annie Laura, 621 Studios
Destination farm dinners aren’t exactly a new thing. Back in 1999, Santa Cruz, Calif.-based chef and artist Jim Denevan made waves when he founded Outstanding in the Field on the concept of “celebrating food at its source.” Since then, Denevan and his crew of self-described “culinary carnies” have traveled the U.S. and beyond, putting on more than 90 farm dinners for 12,000-plus guests in locations ranging from Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains, Nebraska, Maine, the Caribbean and elsewhere.
“They started something new, and that opened everyone’s eyes in terms of interest and possibility,” says Ian Boden, owner and executive chef at Staunton’s The Shack. However, with seats starting at $250, the two-time James Beard Foundation Best Chef in America semifinalist soon came to view the events as missing the point. “I cooked at three or four and realized they’re so cost prohibitive, most participants wind up flying in, and that makes the dinners really exclusive.”
Meanwhile, according to Boden, the whole point of a farm dinner is to celebrate area chefs, farmers and food producers as resources for the local community. The farmer works the land to raise delicious, environmentally-friendly produce and meats. The chef combines and transforms that bounty into delectable taste sensations. Winemakers craft beverages from the terroir. Sommeliers create thoughtful wine pairings. In other words, everybody lends their expertise, and the collaborative result is amazing.
“I think of a farm dinner as a food-based community gathering with an educational component,” says Boden. “As a chef, you want to show off what the farmers have done. You want people to learn about where their food comes from. You want them to walk away feeling pride for their local food producers.”
Following the OIF events, the idea of doing something more grassroots took hold. Occasionally, a regional agricultural producer would broach the subject, and Boden would share his thoughts about the perfect farm dinner. Impressed, some invited him to cook at upcoming events. Others made plans for the future. The owner of Esmont's Caromont Farm, Gail Hobbs Page, fell into this latter category.
“Ian and I have been friends for 12 years,” she says. “We’d talked about doing a farm dinner since I opened Caromont and started making my own goat cheeses in 2007. He’s been a big supporter of my business, and I’ve gotten to watch his career take off. Once everything was in place, naturally, I wanted us to collaborate in this way.”
What happened was, three years ago, Hobbs Page began hosting annual dinners on her farm. For her, the events provide an opportunity to intimately connect with Caromont customers while spotlighting the region’s most dedicated farm-to-table chefs.
“As a farmer, I live a pretty insulated life,” she says. “Most of my time is spent on the farm—working with the goats, doing the milking, making cheese, prepping products for shipping, and the like. I don’t get to have a lot of face-to-face interaction with my end customers.”
On the other hand, most of Hobbs Page’s customers have never stepped foot on a farm, much less one like hers. “Some have an idea of what goes on, but they don’t get to see the work that goes into our cheeses,” she says. “Hosting annual spring and fall dinners is a way to get folks out here on the farm to experience what we do. It gives us the chance to get some face time with the people that enjoy our products the most.”
This past Oct. 22, Boden and Hobbs Page were finally able to collaborate on a Caromont Farm event—the third annual Virginia Wine Dinner.
“At this point, I’ve cooked for a dozen dinners at various farms, and I think Gail does them absolutely right,” says Boden.“I love how laid back her events are. Because you’re on a goat farm, nobody’s getting super dressed up. The wine starts flowing, and people just sort of hang out and make friends. There’s no assigned seating. It’s very social. Conversations strike up, and things go from there.”
In this case, the result is an organic mingling unlike anything you’ll encounter at a restaurant, anywhere, ever. After navigating miles of back roads—including a conclusory stretch of single-lane gravel overshadowed by looming forests—guests arrive around 5 p.m. and are greeted with specialty cheese platters arranged by one of the world’s most celebrated cheese mongers, Sara Adduci of Charlottesville’s feast!. In celebration of the recent grape harvest, the appetizers are accompanied by wines and ciders selected by Jake Busching, an acclaimed winegrower and regional oenological consultant.
As Boden smokes whole cauliflower and prime rib roasts at an outdoor grill just steps from Hobbs Page’s rustic cabin-style home and the canvas tent marking the dining area, guests have the luxury of choosing between a couple of novel entertainment options.
Not far from the tent, Charlottesville blacksmith Corey Blanc, who owns Blanc Creatives, stands working at an anvil positioned alongside a firepit in a graveled area near the edge of the forest. Guests sip wine and munch cheese to the sound of his hammer blows as he provides an annotated demonstration of crafting his award-winning carbon steel skillets. Boden is a longtime fan of the cookware and is using plenty of it inside the cabin’s commercial-sized kitchen.
Alternatively, in a pasture just beyond a red aluminum gate in the side yard, dinner-goers kneel or lie in the grass cuddling swarms of baby goats. “They’re so soft and curious and lovey, you just can’t help it,” says Stuart Gunter, the 6-foot-2-inch drummer of the nationally touring rock band Chamomile & Whiskey, who was attending with his wife.
As Boden’s first course is served—chicken and dumplings with truffled hen broth—guests make their way to the tent, and, just as Boden described, randomly take seats around the big wooden tables. “We drove two hours for this,” confides Brian Noyes, a former art director for the Washington Post and current owner of Marshall’s Red Truck Bakery, who was accompanied by D.C. architect Dwight McNeill. “We love Caromont, but we’re here for Ian. He’s amazing. We sort of follow and support whatever he does.”
Another three delicious courses and wine pairings follow, all served family style. While the prime rib and roasted heirloom carrots with country ham, peanuts, barbecued whole cabbage and sorghum mustard barbecue sauce is exquisite, gauging by the mass emergence of camera-phones, it was the smokey delicata squash with heirloom apple butter, goat’s milk feta, sorrel and spicy green goddess dressing that steals the show.
By the end of the meal, diners chat and laugh like old friends. Some swap seats to be closer to new acquaintances, others wander from table to table, jumping in on conversations. Next door to Noyes sits Gunter and his wife—along with edacious.co food podcaster Jennee Libby, the drummer was plotting a Chamomile & Whiskey Thanksgiving dinner to feature concerts, touch football, a chef-cooked meal and tons of local beer.
“This is what it’s all about,” says Boden. Leaning against a fencepost, he sips from a glass of Busching’s rare 2015 F-8 red, a blend of Tannat and Petit Verdot, of which only 76 cases were produced. “People got together on a farm to share a meal. They laughed, joked, had a great time. And we were able to feature more than 20 area food producers. This is community in action. It’s not about making money, it’s about good people celebrating great food.”
$125 per person. CaromontCheese.com
See more about Virginia farm dinners here.