Savor the State: A Night at the Culinary Vegetable Institute

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From the August 2014 edition

Stepping foot into the Culinary Vegetable Institute’s beautifully landscaped lodge is like crossing into a world without dividers between farmer, chef and diner. It’s an attitude evident from the start of the monthly Earth to Table dinner hosted by the CVI, the educational arm of world-renowned The Chef’s Garden. Here, diners, sparkling wine in hand, are welcome to cross the open threshold between dining room and kitchen for a closer look. Chefs Josh Dalton and Silas Caeton—this particular evening’s hosts from Veritas Tavern in Delaware—smile a little frantically as they garnish oblong dishes with micro greens and lotus-root chips using industrial-sized tweezers.

Feeling less intrusive, I wander upstairs for a bird’s-eye view of the show and instead get star-struck by the framed pictures of proprietor/farmer Lee Jones with a culinary who’s who—Thomas Keller, Julia Child, Daniel Boulud (to name a very few). The photos build the surreal mystique about this farm tucked away on the far west side of Cleveland.

At the head of a large community table, Jones, perpetually clad in blue-jean overalls, a white button-down and red bowtie, welcomes guests. The six-course modernist dinner swiftly begins. First, a starter of fresh baby root vegetables with a creamy Snowville ricotta. Then a silky aerated pea soup with salty pork collar. Later, a tender crab garnished with a tiny cucumber, its blossom still attached, prompts Jones to excitedly ask: “Now isn’t that sexy?”

The pace is leisurely but never seems slow. The intent is not to be in and out, but to linger, enjoy the company. Being regaled with Jones’ stories doesn’t hurt, either. In the same breath, the occasional “Iron Chef America” judge will modestly share stories of James Beard awards after-parties (he earned a Beard award himself in 2011), then talk of how the farm was nearly lost 20 years ago. This tangent eventually leads to Jones mentioning that these pinkie-size cucumbers are all the range in Hong Kong.

Yes, I’ve stepped into food-nerd utopia and am clinging onto every conversation. Three hours go by, and I don’t want this dinner to end. But it does, on a sweet note of carrot cake and coffee ice cream, and with a hefty bunch of freshly picked green and white asparagus as a parting gift.

The only way to feel closer to the action is to spend the day cooking with the chefs, which you can do for $350, and then relax and enjoy the dinner that evening. Themes change each month, as do the chefs, who journey from all over the world to host the fundraising dinner. 12304 Old Mudbrook Rd., Milan, 419-499-7500, culinaryvegetableinstitute.com