Sundays are usually dark at Blackbird, but one recent humid evening saw the chic Randolph Street spot thronged with diners assembled on behalf of the Land Connection, a downstate-based nonprofit devoted to promoting the growth of organic farming. Benefit attendees feasted on a seven-course meal made chiefly from the products of farmers affiliated with the Land Connection and prepared by a team of Chicago chefs: Dean Zanella of 312 Chicago, Bruce Sherman of North Pond, Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds of the Logan Square cafe Lula, and Blackbird’s own Paul Kahan.
Behind the counter separating Blackbird’s open kitchen from the dining room, the chefs milled around throughout the meal, watching the diners with the slightly purposeless demeanor of an all-star band assembling for an encore at a rock festival. Shuttling quietly back and forth through this scene was Brian Wolff, a cook in Kahan’s kitchen and the driving force behind the event. Wolff, who came to Chicago four years ago, is a regular at the Saturday-morning farmers’ market in Evanston. That’s where he became familiar with Henry’s Farm, the ten-year-old organic operation run by Henry Brockman, brother of Land Connection president and founder Terra Brockman. “His specialty is variety,” says Terra. Henry’s 15 cultivated acres grow an astonishing 400 varieties of vegetables; Wolff remembers scrupulously cleaning one particularly beautiful baby lettuce with a mature whole head no more than four inches around. Unlike most of the producers who supply local restaurants, the farm doesn’t deliver, but several restaurants now send staff up to Evanston to partake of Henry’s bounty.
In the year since it was founded, the Land Connection has taken on an ambitious four-point program. First among these is preserving farmland; in February the organization closed on its first purchase, a 21-acre plot it saved from commercial development. That land should prove useful to the organization’s second mission: mentoring farmers, both by helping those who use conventional methods make a gradual conversion to organic projects and by preparing newcomers to take over farms as their present owners age. (Terra says the average farmer today is 63.) “We want to educate and train new organic farmers using the land we’ve saved as a training ground,” says Terra. “The Land Connection can provide land, equipment, even capital to people–especially young people–curious about whether they can become organic farmers.” The organization’s third goal is to help organic growers gain access to larger markets and “keep food dollars in our communities.” Lastly, says Terra, the group tries to educate the public about organic farming’s role in health, nutrition, and environmental well-being: “What’s working against people’s perception of these problems is the spectacle of plenty that is a contemporary supermarket.”
The support of the chefs participating in the benefit nicely illustrates the connection between sense and organic sensibility. “They know what good food is,” Terra says. “They know it when they see it, they know it when they taste it. If you want the finest ingredients, freshness is crucial to taste.”
Kahan himself is a longtime regular at the city’s markets, but after Wolff introduced him to the organic produce at Henry’s Farm, Blackbird became a major customer. “We think we’re using the best ingredients available–and they come from only 150 miles away,” says Wolff. “At Blackbird, there’s a lot of fellow feeling [with the Land Connection]. It’s about the food, but more than that it’s about doing what you want to do, what you love, and doing it the way you want to do it.”
It took about a year to coordinate the benefit. In addition to setting the event in motion and serving as informal facilitator, Wolff joined Kahan and a group of Blackbird staff and others in Congerville, Illinois, a week before the dinner. Terra Brockman had invited them down to Henry’s Farm to help butcher and prepare the poultry that would be served at the benefit.
“For a lot of us, it was the first time we’d ever been involved in this kind of work,” says Wolff of the daylong expedition. After the ducks had been scalded, defeathered, and dressed, Kahan used a few of them to prepare an impromptu dinner at the farm for everyone who’d participated. “It was an amazing day for a cook like me, an amazing opportunity to see where the food comes from and what it takes to get it to us,” Wolff says. At the Blackbird dinner, “virtually every part of the ducks was used in the meal, even the neck skins, which were used to make cracklings that were served with the salad that was part of the cheese course.”
Before the benefit, Terra delivered freshly harvested produce and dairy to each chef’s kitchen. The three main entrees were the responsibility of the guest chefs: Hammel and Tshilds led off with a slow-roasted sockeye salmon served with baby beets, radicchio, tarragon aioli, and beet vinaigrette. Sherman followed with braised duck terrine, accompanied by the evening’s standout taste sensation (judging from the informal postprandial buzz)–a poached duck egg. Zanella contributed roast suckling pig with braised Swiss chard and pecorino ravioli. Kahan’s kitchen provided the vegetable and cheese courses as well as one of his signature amuses bouches, all of which exhibited the fresh organic ingredients to stellar effect. Blackbird’s pastry chef, Elissa Narow, handled the dessert, a delicate strawberry and vanilla tart.
Terra Brockman hopes the money raised at the benefit will do more for the Land Connection than simply raise the profile of its affiliated farmers as purveyors to elite restaurants; she wants to help diners better understand how the food on their plates gets there. “It’s an extraordinary meal, but it shouldn’t be,” she says. “Local organic food should be a matter of course, not a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
The Evanston farmers’ market runs 7:30 to 1 Saturday mornings through the end of October in the parking lot at Oak and University. The Henry’s Farm stall is near the southeast corner. For more information on the Land Connection, call 309-965-2407.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.