Story By Joe Stumpe - Photos By Dale Small
A soft sun setting behind a barn. Candles burning on white tablecloths. A cellist playing in the background. The setting was picturesque for Firefly Farm’s inaugural farm-to-table dinner, an ideal background for guests to enjoy the hottest trend in food today.
When professional cooks design a menu, the usual approach is to give diners what they expect -- that is, six to eight ounces of protein, a vegetable and starchy side dish. Then the cook goes about sourcing those ingredients.
Farm-to-table dining stands that notion on its head, starting instead with what foods are produced locally and building the menu around that. It’s not easy, but Wichita chefs and foodies are embracing the notion just like their counterparts around the world.
“It does take extra time and energy and thought to make your menu around local farmers, but I know a ton of local chefs who are trying to,” says Stephanie Hand, one of three cooks who created the Firefly menu.
Firefly - located in east Wichita - grows vegetables, fruits and herbs and other produce for local restaurants and its own pop-up farmers market. The idea of the dinner was to incorporate as much Firefly produce as possible -- you can’t get much more farm-to-table than that -- along with ingredients from other local producers as well.
Armando Minjarez, an artist who also happens to be a talented cook, was the lead creative mind behind the event. He was joined in the kitchen by two professional cooks with artistic streaks: Hand and Donnie Hutchins, owner of Mr. Natural Soul Kitchen. Minjarez used the event to showcase not only his food but also his handmade pottery. To serve the 44 diners, a crew of nearly 20 volunteers acted as waitstaff.
The first course consisted of compotes, spreads and pickles made by Firefire Farm, served with three different cheeses made of sheep’s milk from Elderslie Farms, which hosts farm-to-table dinners itself.
“It was kind of an honor to have their cheese maker attend our dinner,” Hand said.
And the cooks weren’t quite done with them yet. The second course featured a trio of different tomatoes from Firefly filled with those same cheeses, slightly modified into mousse-like mixtures. “One had honey from the farm,” Hand said. “One had a parm crisp sticking out. One had basil oil.”
The third course - pig’s head cake - was all Minjarez’s doing. “He didn’t share his secrets, but I want to know the recipe,” Hand said, calling it “super meaty tender delicious.” The pig’s head, procured from the Douglas Avenue Chop Shop, had been braised until the meat could be formed into crab cake-like patties.
“I think on the actual menu we didn’t call it pig’s head,” Hand said. “I think they didn’t know that’s what they were eating. It was super classical Mexican, but really good.”
Hutchins was in charge of the next course -- wine-braised beef short ribs braised with beets and turnips from Firefly, served with a rustic potato mash from the same source.
Hand supplied the finale - a type of Salvadoran cheesecake served with see-through sesame seed-sugar “glass,” a hibiscus reduction and basil-and-pink peppercorn ice cream crafted just for the dinner by Little Lion Ice Cream of Wichita.
The food came with beer from Hopping Gnome Brewery of Wichita and coffee from Reverie.
Hand said farm-to-table cooking is “super hard” in Wichita.
“Our growing season is finicky. Farmers, they all seem to grow the same thing at the same time. Probably also the consumers are to blame. If the consumers don’t buy it, they can’t afford to grow it next year.”
Nevertheless, dinners like the one at Firefly make it worth the effort.