|Farmer Lee Jones|
From the moment I stepped on the property, I felt different. The welcome I received was genuine and by the end of my weekend I had come to believe, somehow, that these folks had known me and I them, all of our lives. They treated me like family. While I was busy thinking very highly of myself, feeling special indeed, I witnessed them offer this same level of hospitality and pureness of human interaction to everyone, famous or not, chef or student, writer or blogger, or guest. This is just who these folks are and I realized how lucky we all were, in this place at this particular moment, to be invited and sharing this with Lee and his Chef's Garden family.
The specialness of this place goes beyond tilling the ground and working it with love to produce some of the most incredible produce you can imagine. This place seems to also till the souls of those that come in contact with it. It nourishes you, fertilizes your mind and spirit, inspiring you always be at your freshest, most flavorful peak. That is the real secret of this place. Lee explained this to me as we talked in the study, surrounded by his history, sitting in high back chairs high above the kitchens below, chefs bustling about readying their entrees for the competition. "The land is special," he began, "due to the glaciers. This had been a lake bed and it's nutrient rich. That's what makes this place special." In Huron, Ohio, the lake winds bring sweet, moist air; the soil, which was formerly lake bottom, is sandy and fertile. This combination offers the perfect micro-climate for "growing vegetables slowly and gently in full accord with nature."
I completely agree that the produce is special and even the land. I disagree, however, with what makes it so. Lake bed aside, someone had to love this land enough to fight for it and lovingly work it to help it produce its bounty. I have come to believe it is the people here at Chef's Garden who make this particular land special. With love, caring and devotion to each other first, with the land in common. And, they do it with people too. I think if you picked up this team and moved them anywhere, they would have the same result. It was my pleasure to sit and discuss with Lee, on this occasion of the celebration's 10 year anniversary, how it, this farm and this unique family came to be what it is today. He brought me back in time.
|The Jones Boys: Bob Sr., Lee & Bob Jr.|
"My parents were nondrinkers, nonsmokers, and didn't miss a day of church in 25 years," Farmer explains proudly, "When they made money, they reinvested back in the farm. When interest rates hit 23 percent and the storm devastated our crops, we started over from almost nothing. I saw my dad very broken spirited," Lee remembers, "I left college, worked 10 years with no paycheck and helped put my brother and sister through college. I can't imagine doing anything else. Working with my dad is amazing."
|Bob Jones, Sr.|
To many chefs, Farmer Lee embodies The Chef's Garden. Perpetually clad in his trademark overalls and a red bow-tie, it is not uncommon to see Farmer Jones at the culinary industry's top shows and events. We spoke about his choice of attire just hours before the festival. "I've been everywhere in my overalls, Iron chef to The James Beard Awards, where everyone was in a tux and I had on my overalls," he paused, "a new pair of course but, they were still overalls." Lee has been featured in numerous national publications, including Bon AppÃ©tit, Cooking Light, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine and The Washington Post. The farm has been featured on The Martha Stewart Show, Food Network's Roker on the Road, CNN Business Unusual, and ABC World News. He was also the first farmer ever
|Lee, Michelle Obama, Robert Irvine|
|The Famous Red Bow-Ties|
|It's True! Just overalls & white shirts.|
It is here, basically in Farmer Lee's front yard that the tents and trappings of the festival take place. It seems fitting, almost like it's just a big ol' barbecue with a few hundred of your closest friends and some world famous chefs and culinary personalities thrown in. This year's headliners were Restaurant Impossible's, Robert Irvine, Top Chef Just Desserts', Johnny Iuzzini, BBC America's Clair Robinson, Madison Cowen from No Kitchen Required and Amanda Freitag from Chopped to lend it some sizzle.
|Johnny Iuzzini, me, Lee, Clair Robinson|
We have all heard the phrases, 'out of the mouths of babes' and 'everything has its start at the head and trickles down." Well, as I prepared for the day, Lee offered his home as my base of operations covering the festival, and as it was a hot day, with my physical limitations, a place to rest and take a break from the festivities. As I got myself situated, behind the island in the kitchen was a cherub faced little girl, about 8 yrs old, with red curly hair, wearing a chef's coat that said "Chef's Garden.' She introduced herself as Mary Grace, Lee's granddaughter. I introduced myself as well and she asked if I would care for something to drink. I replied, "That would be nice, yes please." She then turned her back to me, took something out of her pocket and stood hunched for a few seconds. Then she whirled around and handed me a hand written list, on a small message sized paper on which she had written five or six items to choose from, such as Water, Juice, Coke, etc. I placed my order, which she wrote down on a separate piece of paper and then she proceeded to get my drink and serve it to me, asking, "Would you like anything else?" I said no, thanked her and handed her a dollar, eliciting a big grin, and polite thank you. I later heard that she was telling everyone who would listen about the experience. I guess it was a special to her as it was to me. This, my friends, embodies the spirit of every person I met over the course of this celebration. Warm, engaging, real and well, downright hospitable.
The Chef' Garden
|Chef's Garden Herbs|
|Clair Robinson, Johnny Iuzzini, Madison Cowen|
The Culinary Vegetable Institute
Sitting on approximately 100 acres, the Institute includes a 1,500 square foot state-of-the-art two story Kitchen designed by Mark Stech-Novak with full audio-visual capabilities for demonstrations; a 1426 square foot Dining Room with 22 foot ceilings (capable of seating 90); an Executive Chef Suite with luxury amenities; accommodations for visiting chefs’ teams; a Culinary Library; Root Cellar, Wine Cellar and it also includes an experimental vegetable, forest and herb gardens.
Visiting chefs can utilize the CVI’s facilities and gardens for educational, team building and retreat purposes. With the farm nearby, chefs can experience The Chef’s Garden planting and harvesting methods, pick vegetables themselves and return to the CVI for relaxation or to experiment in the kitchen. Today, the CVI continues its commitment to its chefs, but they have also opened their doors to the community by sharing their facility with corporations, organizations and people who seek a unique venue for the finest in agri-culinary experiences. For more information, visit CVI's website here.
The sharp increase in childhood obesity and diabetes in our nation is nothing short of alarming. It's clear the majority of children today have little or no connection to the food they eat, where it comes from and how it impacts their health. This reality prompted Bob Jones and his wife Barb – along with chefs, nutritionists, doctors, educators and volunteers -- to create and launch the Veggie U program. Since 2003, Veggie U has been committed to changing these trends by reaching out to teachers and children across the country. Located in Milan, Ohio, Veggie U is a national not-for-profit organization that offers an Earth to Table™ science curriculum to fourth grade and special needs classrooms. Their goal is to place this exciting hands-on curriculum in all 93,000 fourth grade classrooms nationwide in an effort to decrease childhood disease and increase youth awareness of healthy food options and the importance of sustainable agriculture. Healthy kids also learn better and become more active contributing members to their families and communities.
Veggie U's Earth to Table™ curriculum recognizes that children would greatly benefit from understanding the connection between what they consume and how that food is grown. Educating children in an engaging, experiential way helps them to learn. Veggie U's science-based program offers a hands-on seed-to-planting-to-harvest experience. A complete grow kit is provided along with a comprehensive teacher's manual written to cover state and national 4th grade science standards. The benchmarks for these standards are included at the beginning of each lesson so that teachers can integrate them into existing curriculum.
|Robert Irvine cooks with Veggie U kids|
As we got ready for the start of the day's festivities, heading out of our cozy space high atop the CVI kitchens into the throngs waiting to greet Lee, he turned to me with an after thought, "Ya know," he smiled putting his arm around my shoulders as we walked, "it's a great place. We have a wonderful team that's dedicated and who keep me going. I can't let them and all the kids down. And, based upon the outpouring from chefs and the culinary establishment, we're blessed to have so many folks who understand our vision. The Farm and these Veggie U Celebrations, as well as our little piece of the earth out here has become world reknown. Pretty cool." I would have to agree, Lee, pretty cool indeed. This place and these people have a new fan and new member of the family and I am blessed and glad to be a part of it. I hope you enjoyed a look at this enigmatic man and his Chef's Garden family. It was my pleasure and I look forward to next year's event and bringing you more of the adventures of Farmer Lee Jones...international man of mystery, intrigue, bow-ties...and squash blossoms.
As always, bon appetit,
Sources; The Chef’s Garden, Farmer Lee Jones, The Jones Family, ulterior epicure