Culinary Vegetable Institute offers brush with great chefWritten by Amy Campbell | | email@example.com
The first time I attended the Veggie U Food and Wine Celebration at the Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI) in Milan, Ohio, I had won the tickets in a contest. I put “pick me!” in the subject line of my entry e-mail, and couldn’t believe it when they actually did. Because those tickets were bestowed upon me seemingly by magic, the whole event took on a shimmering aura for me from that day on, which is why I was a little giddy as I joined the long line for the shuttle from the parking area to this year’s event a couple of weeks ago — that and the fact that Aarón Sanchez and Amanda Frietag, two of my favorite judges on The Food Network’s “Chopped,” were among the celebrity chefs appearing at the event.
The CVI is the research and development arm of The Chef’s Garden in nearby Huron, Ohio, a.k.a. the Jones Farm, which provides naturally grown vegetables, herbs and microgreens to chefs all over the world. The Veggie U program is an elementary school science curriculum developed and distributed by The Chef’s Garden to teach healthy food choices. The annual Food and Wine Celebration is Veggie U’s only fundraiser, so the organizers do it up right.
Attending the event alone and too excited to keep quiet, I started chatting with the people ahead of me in the shuttle line, Dave and Andrea Lenyo. Residents of Huron, they were attending the Food and Wine Celebration for the first time.
“Our kids did Veggie U in fourth grade,” Andrea explained, “so we know it’s a good program, and we wanted to support it.”
I was excited for them — they were attending for the right reason, and didn’t seem to realize what a great time they were in for. They did, however, have a local’s insight on The Chef’s Garden.
“I remember when the Jones Farm was a place for high school kids to get summer jobs picking vegetables,” Dave said. “They’ve really turned it into something.”
We chatted a little more on our ride to the event, but I lost track of Dave and Andrea as we all made our way off the shuttle and over to the first of four white tents set up among the CVI’s meticulous gardens, where we received our auction bid numbers, programs and wine glasses. We then proceeded to the Grand Tasting Tent and there at the entrance, greeting guests in his overalls and red bowtie, was Farmer Jones.
Lee Jones, head of The Chef’s Garden, is a second-generation farmer and a respected authority on sustainable agriculture who speaks on the topic at culinary events across the country. He’s also the guy you’d cast as Farmer Jones if you were making a children’s show for PBS.
Forty stations were set up around the perimeter of the tent, offering either food or wine, and they were already busy. The protocol was, 1: Wade in and start eating. 2: Repeat. I waded into station seven for some smoked duck salad then moved down the row for a taste of wine. Glass in hand, I was making my way to a cocktail table trying not to drop anything when I saw him: Aarón Sanchez, the considerably handsome guest chef, was coming right toward me just like a regular person.
I don’t know what it is that comes over me in these situations, but shyness, it ain’t.
“Hi, I’m Amy,” I said, stepping squarely in front of him, probably keeping him from the drink he was after. “You’re practically the reason I’m here.”
“Oh, you’re so sweet,” he said very convincingly, at least to me. By the time he added, “Let’s get a picture,” I was already digging for my camera.
It seemed the people around us hadn’t noticed him yet; he wasn’t wearing chef’s whites so he kind of blended in. But then I asked a lady next to me to take the picture, alerting everyone at her table, and we barely got two snaps taken before Chef Sanchez was being distracted by fans from every direction. He was gracious to everyone, did a great job talking up his new show, “Heat Seekers” on the Food Network, but I knew my moment was over when two young women approached, one of whom launched a breathy flirting campaign that was … well, it was a little scary. And I’m not just saying that because she was half my age and still fresh in the stifling heat or because it totally worked. Really — I’m not.
Now, I’ve got 10 years on Aarón Sanchez, easy, but his appeal transcends such boundaries. As he walked on through the crowd, a woman about my mother’s age turned to me and said, “Is he adorable, or what?”
My brief encounter with Chef Aarón came so early in the evening that the food now seemed like a delightful bonus rather than the main event. Everything I had was delicious, but a few dishes stood out. Chef Cesare Avallone of Zinc Brasserie in Sandusky was offering “Watermelon & Heirloom Tomato Ceviche Snow Cones with Wahoo and Shrimp” that were so refreshing I eventually went back for seconds. Right down the row, Chef Demetrios Atheneos of Deagan’s Kitchen in Lakewood proffered “Lobster Nachos with Avocado, Corn, Sweet Soy and Coriander Blooms” that were a real treat. But classic comfort food all dressed up in its Sunday best may have been my favorite: “Roasted Garlic and Tomato Soup, Caramelized Vegetable and White Cheddar Grilled Cheese” from Anna Kim of the Downtown Cleveland Marriott. If it’s not on her menu, it should be.
The longest food line, all night long, was for Jeni’s Ice Cream. The founder of the Columbus-based “scoop shops,” Jeni Britton Bauer, was appearing at the event for a book signing and cooking demo. Her booth in the Grand Tasting Tent was offering four of her unique flavors, and despite the heat, the line snaked through the crowd and often included staff from some of the other booths. Meanwhile, Britton Bauer herself was participating in a side-by-side cooking demo with Chef Govind Armstrong, creator of the 8 oz. Burger Bar restaurants in LA and South Beach, Fla. The chefs used volunteer assistants from the crowd to make backyard mint ice cream and sliders, respectively. Best of all, a Jeni’s Ice Cream employee plied the crowd with samples throughout the presentation.
After her demo, Chef Amanda Freitag told the crowd she was grateful to have been invited, and asked for a round of thank-you applause for Farmer Jones.
“This is my first time in Ohio, and I’m coming back,” Freitag said enthusiastically. “I love it!”
Near the end of the evening, Andrea Lenyo reappeared and I asked her how she liked the event. Her eyes widened a little.
“When we first got here we didn’t know what to expect,” she said, “but this is amazing.”
All I could do was agree.
Amy Campbell is Toledo Free Press Star Food Editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.