When we are asked to participate in the March of Dimes' second annual The Farmer and the Chef, again this year, we jump at the opportunity. Who we are is a group of studious chefs, jumping at every opportunity to learn, experience and make our mark in today's culinary industry. Based out of Delcastle Technical High School we call ourselves the Cooks and Bakers and seek to both help our community and further our own knowledge in the field. In being involved in the Farmer and the Chef, not only will we be rubbing elbows with some of the more renowned restaurateurs of our area, but also the proceeds from the guests' ticket will go to the March of Dimes. The mission of this organization is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects and since our mission is to serve our community, this event is very fitting.
Maybe this is why we find ourselves tromping through fields of sweet potatoes on a rather gloomy Saturday searching for what will become soufflés for the upcoming event. A few hours worth of farmland, fields and a cow or two have brought us just south of Dover, Delaware to Kalmar Farm, the farmer to our chef. The rather jolly, round owner that we come to know as Tommy Eliason is bursting with pride, praising his produce with the gusto of a new parent, and rightfully so. The eggplants, sweet potatoes, corn and bell peppers with which we are provided are the freshest around. Grown without the obscure and nameless chemicals that have become standard protocol with so many larger produce suppliers, we find comfort in the fact that we know from where our vegetables are coming and trust them in the hands of this man. Mr. Eliason shows us the way and soon here we are discovering our roots, digging them up and finally being able to appreciate what we eat from its modest beginnings – a cozy, dirt shack a few feet underground.
We take from this day not only enough produce to feed a small army, but a new found respect for this humble farmer and all that are like him. Behind the plaid shirts and thick southern accents, they know what they grow and are more than willing to share it with those who ask.
Thursday afternoon rolls around to grab hold of our sense of urgency and it lounges lazily as we rush to serve customers and tend to the vegetables softening on the stove and making our kitchen smell like Thanksgiving. We set out to tackle the delicate task of passing an egg yolk from half shell to half shell without any breakage bearing in mind the ever-present threat of starting over again. After tossing the batch twice, we are sure that we have a bowl of clean egg whites and we're ready to move forward. Close to thirty pounds of the sweet potatoes are strained leaving our hands red and tender when we load half of them in to one of the larger mixers. They are then seasoned to where the combination of cinnamon and sugar are only a whisper of encouragement to the true flavor of the sweet potato which, in truth, has been our only mission all along. The egg yolks are incorporated and the mixture is packaged to go along with the burners, sauté pans, spoons, bowls and display pieces that we need for the evening.
Our small caravan of four travels quickly down I-95 and we arrive at the Chase Center on the Riverfront, a building of such an immense size that we can't imagine it ceasing to humble even the most experienced chef. We unload and find our place in a hall unlike any we have seen before. With high ceilings and a large, expansive floor space only interrupted by the presenters' booths, this room makes us feel quite small. Large tapestries featuring photos of both the farmers and their chefs are hanging from the ceiling beneath the bright overhead lights. Flanking us to the right and left are the Family Career and Community Leaders of America, or FCCLA, and an energetic, brightly dressed woman who appears to be the head chef of Hobo's Restaurant and Bar from Rehoboth Beach.
We learn that her name is Gretchen Hanson and she is working with Low Key Farms for her locally inspired dish tonight. It is beautifully displayed on bolts of fabric in many different colors in which we come to recognize, as the very persona of Hobo's itself. Starting out with fifty to sixty percent of the food produced at the restaurant having been locally grown, Gretchen proudly states that they are now up to eighty percent. This is not as easy a task as it sounds, especially considering the state in which we find our economy. As most have noticed along with the higher quality of local produce comes the higher price. However, buying locally is one of the most important things one can do to help their community, she advises. "I support my community so that it can support me."
During our trek through the crowd this evening, we also meet Murray Schulman and Jerry Proctor who are representing the Kenny Family ShopRite supermarket. They are standing in front of a giant pumpkin cleverly carved in to a soup tureen that houses their chilled Pumpkin Velvet Soup. The soup is served with a swirl of sweet cream in the center and tastes purely of hayrides, multi colored leaves and chilly fall evenings. Much to it's compliment we find a butter cake across the way, served by Café Scalessa's that seems to make all of the hustle and bustle of the day completely worth it.
By now, the band is in full swing and playing at a volume that will, by the end of the night, leave our whole crew communicating through hand signals alone. The guests seem to be having a great time despite the noise level and, at thirty-five dollars a ticket, they certainly should, but it doesn't seem to bother them. Most guests agree that benefiting the March of Dimes is well worth the price alone however; food such as the bruschetta dish from Orillas Tapas and the watermelon gazpacho from Pizza by Elizabeths certainly helps.
Rounding out the night with an attendance of almost 800 guests, the second annual March of Dimes' The Farmer and the Chef event was a rousing success. We depart the Chase Center with empty containers, new acquaintances and a brand new insight as to the vast uses and possibilities of local produce. This, along with helping out the March of Dimes, was the idea behind this evening after all, but somehow it feels like much more. There was something in the air tonight and it is this feeling that holds the promise that we will be back next year, fork in hand, eager to do it all again.