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On The Farm, Chefs Learn The Basics To Food Production


About a dozen chefs from Chicago and central Illinois recently gathered for a two-day crash course on where their food comes from – the farm.

Each year in June and September, Livingston County Farmer Marty Travis hosts chefs on his farm for Chef Champ, a project of a foundation he and his wife started to promote small sustainable family farming. The chefs are there to learn about everything from keeping bees to butchering chickens to maintaining healthy soil.

Farmer Marty Travis shows off one of his fields to the campers on June 8, 2014. (Sean Powers/WILL)

Chicago chef John Asbaty was on Travis' farm in June for the camp. Asbaty relies heavily on local produce and meats when he is cooking.

“I actually spend all my time thinking about where the food has come from,” Asbaty said. “That’s kind of the basis and inspiration for how we cook.”

Asbaty is planning to open a new restaurant by the end of the summer. He previously ran a small Italian market in the city.

“Serving food, it’s kind of a very intimate relationship with people you don’t know,” Asbaty said. “So, I take pride in finding the people who care about growing and raising the food as much as we care about cooking the food. So, I think keep that symbiotic relationship makes a lot of sense.”

Travis showed Asbaty and the other campers some of what he is growing. There are wild onions, alfalfa, fava bean tops, and red potatoes – a small sample of the roughly 200 varieties of crops.

“So, right here is the beginning of a potato,” Travis explained. “So you see, we’re just barely starting.”

Marty Travis shows the campers potatoes he's growing on his farm. (Sean Powers/WILL)

Travis checked the potatoes for invasive insects.

“If those white flies were starting to cause the plants to turn yellow, we’d mix some sea salt, mineralized sea salt that we would mix with water and I’d just spray over this whole thing,” Travis explained. “That would give more mineral content to the plant and it would also get rid of that soft shell insect.”

Marty Travis (front center) shows the campers his fields. Pictured from left to right are chefs Camille Spaccapaniccia of Chicago, David Costello of Chicago, Sarah McVicker-Waters of Carlock, and Terrah King of Champaign. (Erin Meyer/Spence Farm Foundation)

Later on, the campers heard from an agricultural consultant who explained how to test the nutrients, sweetness, and acidity of fruits and vegetables - all useful when deciding whether to rely on a farmer’s produce. They also learned about some of the jargon found on meat labels, like cage free, free range, and all natural.

“Everybody’s all natural, it means nothing. It’s a very nebulous, nebulous term,” said Donna O'Shaughnessy, who runs a certified organic farm with her husband in rural Chatsworth in Livingston County.

O'Shaughnessy told the chefs that “all natural” only applies to processing.

“All that means is that (at) the processing point it’s done naturally without chemicals, but there’s no guarantee that they weren’t fed antibiotics or hormones while they were growing,” she said.

Farmer Donna O'Shaughnessy talks to the campers about the jargon found on meat labels. (Sean Powers/WILL)

O'Shaughnessy explained that labels only tell part of the story. She said the best way to know what you’re getting from the farm is to know the farmer.

“If you’re working with a farmer who says, ‘No, I don’t allow visits,’ you need to be suspicious,” she said. “Drop-ins are hard. They’re busy. They’re doing something, but if they don’t want to make an appointment for you to come and drop by, I’d be really suspicious about buying from that particular farmer.”

O'Shaughnessy also produces raw milk. She had the campers do a taste test of her milk and pasteurized skim milk. There was more taste testing later with different kinds of beef, eggs, and honey.

Donna O'Shaughnessy's raw milk that was produced on her farm in rural Chatsworth in Livingston County. (Sean Powers/WILL)

The chefs also learned how to kill and butcher an animal. Wildlife Biologist Darryl Coates with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was there with a rifle and a cage holding three rabbits. He told the campers that hunting isn’t something he takes lightly.

“The harvest of an animal is important to me because I try to respect the animal,” Coates said. “It’s giving its life to nourish me or my guests.”

Coates aimed the gun behind one of the rabbit’s ears.

Just behind the head and here we go,” he said, just before firing the rifle, which sounded like a small pop. “There is a little twitching that’s going to happen. It’s the nerves of the animal, but trust me this animal is deceased.”

Coates skinned the animal and took out its organs, pointing out physical features that show the animal’s bill of health. For example, white patches on the liver could be signs of disease.

“The lungs are these white materials here,” he said. “If they’re breathing a lot of dust and stuff, you may see little flecks of black in it. This is very healthy. The environment that it came from is extremely good.”

Wildlife Biologist Darryl Coates helps chef Camille Spaccapaniccia of Chicago with pulling the skin off of a rabbit. (Sean Powers/WILL)

Coates shot two more rabbits, but this time he had the campers do the butchering.

A similar exercise played out a few feet away with three chickens, which one-by-one were stuffed into a metal cone with their heads sticking out. Each bird squawked loudly as they were placed into the cone. Their throats were cut, and their blood dripped into a bucket. Farmer Kate Potter from Peoria County led this discussion. She showed chef Terrah King of Champaign’s Big Grove Tavern how to kill one of the birds. This was King’s first time.

“Oh my goodness,” King said, as she prepared to kill the bird. The bird squawked once as its throat was cut.

“Very good,” Potter said.

“That’s scary,” King responded.

“You did it very well and humanely,” Potter added.

Potter instructed the chefs to pluck out the feathers and then do the butchering. She explained a bit about chicken anatomy to King.

“Some people take off the fat gland, which is right here,” Potter said, pointing to the base of the bird’s tail, which is also known as the oil gland. “If you see chickens preening themselves, they get fat from back there….I actually like the flavor of it. So, you can decide whether or not to take that off.”

“I think we’ll keep it,” King said.

King cut up the chicken and eventually showed another chef how to do it. This was later cooked for the campers.

Terrah King of Champaign (l) shows chef Golda Ewalt of Peoria (r) how to take out a chicken's organs. (Sean Powers/WILL)

For the chefs here at Chef Camp, this was not the first time they had thought about the origins of the food they prepare.

Sarah McVicker-Waters is the head chef at the Garlic Press Market Cafe in Bloomington-Normal. She is raising a couple of chickens and wants to start a small farm where she lives in rural McLean County. McVicker-Waters said she is working to expand the Garlic Press’ local offerings.

“Food is so important, and our food system is so, so essential and the more I can do to help this sort of system work, and to show that it does work on a scale like a café, then honestly, why aren’t we all doing that?” she said.

Chef Camp participants include Chefs Golda Ewalt of Peoria, Sarah McVicker-Waters of Carlock, Camille Spaccapaniccia of Chicago, and Terrah King of Champaign,

Chef Camp participants include chefs Golda Ewalt of Peoria, Sarah McVicker-Waters of Carlock, Camille Spaccapaniccia of Chicago, and Terrah King of Champaign. (Sean Powers/WILL)

That is a question farmer Marty Travis is trying to answer. He and his wife also oversee a food hub, a distribution network that connects area farmers with businesses in Chicago and central Illinois. During the chef camp, the campers helped process food hub orders, packing a cooler with produce destined for restaurants, grocery stores and other customers. From planting to distribution, Travis said he hopes going through the camp helps these chefs better understand and appreciate food.

“These chefs all have the opportunity to make us better farmers,” Travis said. “They can go to other farmers that they work with either at the farmer’s markets or on their own and say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about such and such. I was at a chef camp and I learned about this.’”

These are lessons that Travis hopes will stay with chefs in a constantly changing food industry.