Nine years ago, John and Dorothy Priske had a memorable dinner at L'Etoile. "It was like winning an Academy Award," recalls John. The dinner featured the beef from their Fall River farm, Fountain Prairie, in a special, one-night-only menu.
Farm dinners take place at restaurants and sometimes on location at the featured farms. The events connect diners to producers through the work of chefs. "It's just about cultivating these relationships and building the community," explains sous chef John Nodler of Merchant, which is planning to hold such a dinner for one of its smallest produce providers, By George Farm. "For small farmers," explains Nodler, "it gives them a good chance to have their products showcased."
Producer dinners offer visibility to small farms. Jon Steiger and Tyson Fehrman run By George Farm off a one-acre plot at Fountain Prairie Farm, using land provided free of charge for what the Priskes call an "incubator farm."
Merchant co-owner Joshua Berkson has yet to set a date for the By George dinner, but if he can pull it off, it will put Steiger and Fehrman in sight of diners even as the two look for property of their own.
Visibility need not be the only benefit to producers. Fresco Rooftop Restaurant & Lounge will host a "Farmers' Market Dinner" on Sept. 25 featuring a number of its producers. Managing partner Caitlin Suemnicht notes in an email that while the meal will give farmers a chance to talk about their work, it also "gives them a reason to dress up and hit the town for a fancy dinner."
For established farms like Fountain Prairie, the dinners may not feel quite as glamorous as they once did, but the events have social appeal. When the Priskes attended a recent producer dinner at the Dayton Street Grille, they were surprised at what they saw. "Over a hundred people came," says John, "and it was people we knew from farmers' markets."
Producer dinners also challenge a restaurant's culinary staff creatively, as they must take a single producer and feature its products in each step of a multi-course meal.
Harvest Restaurant hosts its Butler Farm Dinner on Oct. 16. Proprietor Tami Lax says they haven't finished the event's menu, but as with last year's dinner menu (still listed as a sample at harvest-restaurant.com), Harvest will try to feature a sheep's milk cheese with each course. The challenge to the staff doesn't stop there, however.
Butler lamb and whey-fed pork will also be featured. "We get the full animal from our producers," says Lax. "One of my chefs is excited. He's going to use a pig's head in a stew that will include every edible part of the animal."
Because of the diverse southern Wisconsin agricultural community, this area has been at the forefront of the national movement toward using more local ingredients. "We have the most diverse set of artisanal food producers in the country around Madison," says Merchant's Berkson.
While Madison is too small to support a large number of white-linen restaurants, local sourcing has spread to menus outside of fine dining. Many casual restaurants feature locally sourced meat in their burgers, for instance. This locavore push into pub fare will continue, Berkson believes. "In the future, you're going to see this all the way down to fast food."
For Fountain Prairie's John Priske, the thrill of a producer dinner is tasting what can be done in the kitchen with a product he is proud of.
"As much as we're artisanal producers," says Priske, "the chefs do such a great job. They're really artisans."
Fresco Farmers' Market Dinner at Fresco Rooftop Restaurant & Lounge, 6 pm bar, 6:30 pm dinner, $60/person, harvest-restaurant.com, 608-255-6075