JOLIET – There’s a reason why the menu for Joliet Junior College’s second “Farm to Fork Market and Dinner” seems a little vague, said Chef Michael McGreal.
When working with local, fresh ingredients, it’s almost impossible to know exactly what ingredients will be accessible until close to the event – possibly even the day of the event, said McGreal, who chairs the JJC culinary arts/ hospitality management department.
Of course, he added, this challenges the skills and flexibility of both the chefs and students in a good, learning-experience way.
“Our fish will be caught that morning to be as fresh as possible. Our produce will be picked by local farmers that morning,” McGreal said. “You can’t say, ‘I want 10 pounds of this variety of lettuce’ when you don’t know what will be available. Tomato farms don’t know which varieties will be ripe.”
Substituting an outdoor gourmet sit-down dinner in September for the traditional Epicurean in November was a gamble when JJC’s culinary arts department hosted the first one last year, McGreal said.
At the appetizer-only Epicurean, everything served was upscale, and nothing was plated, McGreal said. Seating was limited to 100 chairs, but the event attracted 300 people.
“We’d have people standing around the whole night holding their wine glasses and plates of food,” McGreal said.
McGreal had two options: Cut ticket sales by half – less attendance would equal more room for chairs – or move to a larger venue and host a bigger event.
Why not, McGreal said, offer something that allowed the community and students to meet local, hard-working farmers and learn firsthand how their food was produced? Besides, McGreal said, nothing compares with perfectly ripe peaches and sweet corn, which is nearly impossible to obtain when one orders food from far away.
“I’m always stressing that the quality of a meal is only as good as the quality of ingredients used in it,” McGreal said.
Because the event provides money for student scholarships and faculty professional development in the JJC culinary arts program, the major portion of last year’s food was donated, McGreal said.
Students prepared the food in the culinary arts department and carried it outside to the 180 waiting guests, who dined at one large, U-shaped table, McGreal said. The single table encouraged patrons to mingle, instead of breaking away to individual settings and only talking to people they knew, he added.
“If we needed a little extra room, we added a chair and all the guests scooted down,” McGreal said.
This year, McGreal is anticipating 250 people. He’s still waiting for some farms to confirm, but he does know “Farm to Fork” will feature fresh organic trout, along with locally raised pork, beef and chicken. Two local breweries will supply the beer. The wine is coming from Ohio, and the hard cider will be from Michigan.
“It’s hard to get a good selection of wine for the meal, so we had to stretch out past Illinois for that,” McGreal said, “but we did stick with the Midwest.”
It’s not just the menu that’s nuanced. Last year’s inaugural “Farm to Fork” event was a success partly due to cooperative weather, McGreal said, and he hopes for the same this year.
“It was 78 degrees, sunny with a breeze, no mosquitoes or bees,” McGreal said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Culinary Arts Farm to Fork Market and Dinner
WHEN: Sept. 27. Farmers Market is 3:30 to 5 p.m. Hors d’oeuvres reception and chance to meet local farmers is 4 to 5 p.m. Dinner and drinks outdoors will be 5 to 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: On the grounds outside the “A” Building campus cafeteria at Joliet Junior College, 1215 Houbolt Road, Joliet.
TICKETS: $75. Deadline is Sept. 19. Tickets are nonrefundable and available on first-come, first-served basis. Outdoor summer casual or party attire is requested.
RESERVE: Make check payable to JJC Foundation and mail to the above address, “Attention Culinary Arts Department Farm to Fork Dinner.”
MENU: The menu for the second annual “Culinary Arts Farm to Fork Market and Dinner” is:
• Finger Licken’ and Locally Farmed Nibbles and Bites• House Made Charcuterie, Salumi and Artisan Style Cheeses• Fresh, Pickled and Roasted to Perfection Goodness from the Garden• Grilled, Barbecued, Low-and-Slow Cooked Meats, Poultry, Seafood and Delectable Sides• Our Sweet Finale: “The Country Fair”• The evening’s menu will be accompanied by locally produced beers and Midwest wines