Meet the Farmer
Having a hands-on culinary experience takes on a whole new meaning at 77-suite Nita Lake Lodge in Whistler, British Columbia. There, during the spring and fall, Aura Restaurant Chef Paul Moran, a fourth-generation forager, takes small groups of up to 25 for a morning excursion in the surrounding Whistler Valley, where he teaches them how to search safely for edible plants, shoots, lichens, and mushrooms. Later that day, the groups join the chef for a five-course meal at Aura that is prepared using those same ingredients.
"Foraging is a really healthy activity," says Moran. "When we do the foraging classes, you're going out into the wild, and picking the food you're going to be eating for dinner. It gets people thinking, and takes them back to the times when people used to forage. Over the course of that three-hour walk, you learn a lot, and when you have your meal, you're able to see that progression of how those ingredients get used, what their benefits are, and enjoy the evening."
Michele Davidson, who owns Modern Celebrant, a B.C.-based ceremony specialty company, joined in one of these foraging experiences. She says that even though she considers herself an "avid forest walker and hiker" it led her to see her surroundings differently. "It was so fun and practical to return home with samples of nature's vast abundance for my friends and family; I'm hooked."
Nita Lake Lodge's surrounding valley is home to a bounty of wild ingredients, from the sorrel used for a signature spring sorbet to porcini mushrooms that Moran roasts and combines with local cheese and breadcrumbs for a signature fall entrée.
"Farm-to-table is a great concept, but perhaps, today, it's being taken advantage of by some restaurants," says Moran. "Some of the ingredients they might get from local farms only makes up 10 percent of what's being served on the menu. That's not the case at our restaurant, and especially not when we incorporate these foraging classes." He believes that the entire process is an especially important -- and healthy -- one for groups. "This isn't just an activity; it's also a meal. It opens your mind up to a different world and it's really stimulating."
Having the opportunity to meet the farmer behind your meal's components is another way to develop a farm-to-table group experience. At the Four Seasons Westlake Village in Westlake Village, CA, a brand-new Heirloom Farming Extraordinary Experience Package is giving groups an opportunity to be a part of the entire farm-to-table process. It includes a visit to Philen Pharms, one of the few organic heirloom farms in the country, where they meet with farmer and proprietor Tim Philen, who is more than eager to share his passion for organic farming with visitors.
"The folks from the Four Seasons stopped by and asked me to do something beyond the amenity baskets that we do for them," Philen explains. "We needed to do something where groups can come and really understand how important it is to know where your food is coming from and how it's harvested. When you bite into one of our fruits and you taste the incredible flavor that it has, it's a wonderful thing."
The hotel is also home to the California Health and Longevity Institute (CHLI), which promotes well-being for guests and locals alike. The institute runs its own Wellness Kitchen on the property where groups of up to 18 may participate in a hands-on cooking class with fresh, local ingredients as part of the Heirloom Farming Extraordinary Experience package.
CHLI's director of nutrition, Paulette Lambert, says that wellness is just as important an aspect of farm-to-table cuisine as is flavor, sustainability, and regional culture. "Meeting organizations are sometimes a little afraid to go the wellness route," she says. "But wellness and indulgence can come in the same sentence. You can have phenomenal food and not realize that it's wellness oriented."Local Motion
Farm-to-table F&B is also about engaging the local community and infusing the local culture, something that Wild Dunes Resort in Isle of Palms, SC, demonstrates with one of its newest culinary group experiences. In June, the 1,600-acre oceanfront resort formed a partnership with the Lee Brothers, two James Beard Award-winning cookbook authors and regional Lowcountry cooking experts based in Charleston, SC. Their cookbooks and their article contributions to Bon Appetit
and Travel + Leisure
focus on using local Charleston ingredients to create authentic, hyper-local meals that feature favorites such as artichoke relish, shrimp and grits, oyster pie, chicken purloo, and Huguenot torte.
Together, Matt and Ted Lee are offering special group F&B programs at Wild Dunes that bring that unique local Lowcountry cuisine to life. Programs include demonstration cooking classes, an oyster roast experience hosted by the two brothers, or a special custom dinner.
In June, Brian Ruder, president of New York-based Skylight Counselors, organized an annual retreat for 11 fellow members of the World Presidents Organization at Wild Dunes where they enjoyed a custom dinner hosted and prepared by the Lee Brothers.
"Wherever we go, we try to have something that particularly reflects the place we're going to," says Ruder. "We always want some local feel to what we see, do, or eat."
The dinner with the Lee Brothers, says Ruder, was no exception. "It was a hit. Having them explain what their business is all about, and what the food is all about, and how they've sort of reinvented Southern Lowcountry cooking with their own spin was wonderful," he says. "We had a great conversation with them and it really enhanced the meal to know what they were serving us, and how the evolved and morphed it. Each course had is own special story."
Although Ruder's group didn't participate in the preparation of the meal or in the gathering of ingredients needed for the dinner, Jeffery Payne, director of event management for Wild Dunes, says that all Lee Brothers' experiences can be tailored for each group. "We're willing to completely customize this entire experience -- it's all about having an authentic experience."
Payne says that while there are still many people who are interested in where their food is coming from, he sees the bigger trend in farm-to-table being about the story behind the food. "The story behind particular parts of what you're eating is what matters. People want to know that it's not only local but also know where it's from, and they want to know it's real, and not just a trick of menu writing." Questions or comments? Email [email protected]This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Successful Meetings.