The Land Connection is a nonprofit organization that works to build connections between farmers, land, and community through education and outreach. The focus is on regenerative farming practices, improving the lives of farmers, and educating the public on the importance of supporting local food systems. 

Here in C-U, you may know The Land Connection through the Downtown Champaign Tuesday Farmers' Market. For the last five years, the organization has hosted Artisan Cup & Fork, a fundraiser and competition where C-U chefs are paired with farmers and producers to use locally sourced ingredients to make a dish. In the past, there have been special beers at this event, but this year, the event focused on just food: three different dinners and desserts. Read our coverage on previous years' Artisan Cup & Fork events here, here, and here.

In the past, The Land Connection's Artisan Cup & Fork has been held in a venue with hundreds of guests trying little plates from each chef. For this year's event, The Land Connection made some pandemic-appropriate changes to the event. Artisan Cup & Fork 2020 still showcased C-U chefs, but instead of enjoying one evening, guests enjoyed three Thursdays of dinners and desserts from three different locations. Ticketed guests picked up a special carryout dinner and dessert from each of the three participating restaurants: Neil St. Blues, Red Herring, and Wood N' Hog.


Three dinners, three desserts, three Thursdays, three restaurants, and one Artisan Cup & Fork Grand Prize Award winner. Over the last three weeks, I have enjoyed picking up the carryout dinners and desserts from each restaurant, and I have really enjoyed the exclusive (off the menu) meals that these C-U chefs created for this event. 

An exterior of Wood N' Hog with a sandwich board with details on the Artisan Cup & Fork curbside pickup. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Guests of the Artisan Cup & Fork event selected a 15 minute time slot, and on Thursday, guests would arrive in their time window at the outdoor tent in front of that week's restaurant, tell the organizers their name, and have their meals delivered curbside to their car. It was a flawless execution of how to run a large-scale event in COVID times. The organizers and the food runners all wore masks each week. Patrons did not leave their car, and the food was packaged for takeout. 

Two meals from the 2020 Artisan Cup & Fork event: two pink dessert boxes and two meals with several sides. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Night one was dinner from Neil St. Blues and dessert from Hopscotch Bakery + Market.

Dinner from Red Herring on night two of the Artisan Cup & Fork event on a black table with the evening's program. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Night two was a supper and dessert both made by Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant.

Two carryout dinners from Wood N' Hog on night three of 2020 Artisan Cup & Fork event sit on a black table. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Night three was dinner from Wood N' Hog and dessert from Heidi Leuszler.

After each meal, guests rated the meal and dessert on a scale of 1-10 for taste, execution, creativity, presentation, and overall satisfaction.

Now, for the food, unboxed.

Team One | Neil St. Blues and Hopscotch Bakery + Market

Producers
Meat: Triple S Farms
Produce: Sola Gratia Farm and Blue Moon Farm
Dairy: Kilgus Farmstead
Microgreens: Diamond's Homestead

The first food team was Neil St. Blues and Hopscotch Bakery + Market. Chef Gayle Starks and Chef Gavyn Moore of Neil St. Blues made a vegetable gumbo, cornbread, black-eyed pea salad with the main course of chicken and sausage Savannah red rice topped with microgreens and served with French bread.

A dinner from 2020 Artisan Cup & Fork event night one from Neil St. Blues. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The meal was well-balanced with the warm, peppery gumbo against the cold, light black-eyed pea salad and the meaty Savannah red rice. The French bread and cornbread were excellent carb additions.

A Savannah red rice dish with sausage, bacon, and chicken from Neil St. Blues with a side of French bread. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

This chicken and sausage Savannah red rice showcased the stellar cooking skills of the Neil St. Blues chefs but also Andouille sausage and bacon from Triple S Farms and microgreens from Diamond's Homestread. The main course had strong tomato flavors, and almost every bite had some meat in it: sausage, bacon, and chicken. It was a filling dish.

A small bowl of vegetable gumbo from Neil St. Blues. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The vegetable gumbo was my favorite of the meal. It was an intense peppery soup. The soup was thin in texture but packed with okra and peppers from Sola Gratia Farm and onions and bell peppers Blue Moon Farm. The flavor lingers, and I enjoyed that.

A soupy salad of black-eyed peas and garden vegetables from Neil St. Blues. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The black-eyed pea salad was a bit like a chunky soup or salsa with quartered cucumbers, green and red bell peppers, red onion, corn, and lots of black-eyed peas. It was light and bright with the acidity of the dressing on the salad. This salad was so refreshing that it made me wish summer lasted longer.

A tall cornbread on a white plate. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

You need to see how tall this cornbread was. It was everything you want in a cornbread: crumbly but still moist. It was perfect to eat with the vegetable gumbo and the red rice main.

Two sweet potato cakes on a white plate. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Dessert Producers
Grain: Severson Family Farms
Produce: PrariErth Farm
Dairy: Kilgus Farmstead
Flowers: Delight Flower Farm

Dessert was prepared by Kaya Speagle of Hopscotch Bakery + Market: two sweet potato gooey butter cakes, with one topped with meringue, candied pecans, and edible flowers.

The little dessert cakes had a banana bread texture and a not-too-sweet flavor. It was a very fancy dessert, one that made me gasp when I opened the box. The meringue topping was a gooey, drippy, sticky, marshmallow-like topping that tasted amazing. The brown sugar and oat topping was great: crumbly and sweet; the candied pecans were good as well. The edible flowers were beautiful, and I'm not sure if I was supposed to eat them whole, but I did. They didn't have much flavor, and the texture wasn't my favorite. The flowers and petals were really pretty to look at, though.

Team Two | Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant

Producers
Produce: Sola Gratia Farm, Blue Moon Farm, Delight Flower Farm, and Autumn Berry Inspired
Grain: Brian Severson Farm
Mushrooms: Flyway Family Farm
Flowers: Delight Flower Farm

A vegetarian dinner from Red Herring is in a black, plastic carryout container. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The second night of the event was a vegetarian dinner from Red Herring. Chefs Holly Curia, Lo Kolb, Caleb Trevino, Eric Zarnesky, Natan Rosenberg, and Jenny Goodwine whipped up a local mixed greens salad, a side pesto pasta, and an eggplant Parmesan sandwich with a side of tomato sauce.

A homemade sandwich of breaded eggplant with a small cup of orange tomato sauce. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

I have never had an eggplant Parmesan sandwich before, but if Red Herring makes it, I'd have another. This sandwich had breaded eggplant with a cashew "chevre" with spinach and local grilled onions on a homemade bun. The bun was thick on top and thick on the bottom which held the sandwich together well. The eggplant was soft in the middle but had a crispier skin and breading on the outside. My sandwich was still warm, and I enjoyed dipping it in the homemade tomato sauce provided on the side in a little cup. The tomato sauce was more orange than red, and it had the delicate garden tomato flavor that tasted terrific. It was a fantastic sandwich with a really special sauce.

A close up of a small side salad from Red Herring. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The salad from Red Herring was small, but it was still good. It had all sorts of yummy toppings: toasted almonds, candied walnuts, and apple chips. The autumn berry vinaigrette was light and tangy. I liked the texture medley of the crunchy walnuts and the sweet apple pieces atop the local greens.

A small pesto pasta salad with a big, purple edible flower on top. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The side of pesto pasta was made with mushrooms from Flyway Family Farm, Kalamata olives, and topped with an edible flower from Delight Flower Farm. It was a delightful pasta with lots of pesto. I did not eat the flower this time. 

A tiramisu cupcake with frosting fall off the side and a small red flower with large green leaves on top. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Dessert on night two was also made by Red Herring, baked by Jenny Goodwine. This (vegan) tiramisu cupcake was topped with a generous dusting of cocoa powder and a little flower from Delight Flower Farm. The dessert was a vanilla cupcake with a coffee-flavored center. The cupcake had a soft white frosting that reminded me of whipped cream. 

Team Three | Wood N' Hog

Producers
Meat: Slagel Family Farm
Produce: Marcus Miller Family Farm and Sola Gratia Farm
Dairy: Prairie Fruits Farm

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The final night of 2020's Artisan Cup & Fork was a dinner by Wood N' Hog and dessert by Heidi Leuszler. The salad was a cucumber, tomato, and red onion salad with goat-milk feta cheese. The main course was a stricky BBQ chicken with a side of charred cabbage and a slice of sweet Southern cornbread. 

A close up of the sticky BBQ chicken from night three of the Artisan Cup & Fork event. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Chef Michael McDonald served up half a chicken: wing, breast, leg, and thigh for the main course. It was the most tender meat with a light slather of BBQ sauce. The chicken was smoky as one would expect from "All Smoke, No Joke" Wood N' Hog, and it fell right off the bone. This was a seriously generous portion of chicken: between my husband and I, we had an entire chicken. The skin-on chicken pieces were slightly charred on the outside under a layer of sweet BBQ sauce that definitely made my hands sticky and my mouth happy.

A small bowl of cucumber, red onion, and tomato on a black table. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

This small side salad had sliced cucumber, halved tomatoes, and slices of red onion with an herby dressing and feta. The feta cheese was from Prairie Fruits Farm, and it was delicious in a bite with the cold veggies.

A small styrofoam container holds charred purple cabbage. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The cabbage looked a bit odd, but I seriously think it's up there with the BBQ chicken in terms of how much I enjoyed it. It had warm chunks of purple cabbage with some pieces still crisp. There were some peppers in it as well, which gave a light heat that wasn't overpowering.

A rectangular slice of cornbread from Wood N' Hog. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The meal also included a square of cornbread. It was as fluffy and sweet as a vanilla cake with a tasty cornmeal grit. It was very good paired with the smoky, savory chicken.

Inside a white cupcake paper, a phyllo dessert is sliced in half. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Producers
Produce: Red Crib Acres, Berries & Flour Farm, Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains
Dairy: Kilgus Farmstead
Nuts: Crum & Haveland
Grain: Funk Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains
Honey: Bee Fresh Farms

Night three's dessert was a Midwest-inspired, Baklava-style phyllo pastry with paw paw, plantain, pears, and hickory nuts made by Heidi Leuszler. 

This tiny treat packed big flavors with the buttery layers and the sweetness of the paw paw, pear, and plantain. Biting into this, each paper-thin pastry layer cracks and crumbles giving way to the nutty, sugary middle buried somewhere inside all the layers. There was a drizzle of honey that was so good. I'd eat a hundred of these.

An exterior shot of Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant on night two of The Land Connection's Artisan Cup & Fork event. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The Awards

The People's Choice Award winning restaurant and baker was chosen by the guests' scores each week. The winning restaurant was Neil St. Blues, and the winning baker was Hopscotch Bakery + Market.

The Artisan Cup & Fork judging panel took diligent notes each week and compiled their scores at the end of the event. The winners of the Grand Prize Award are Wood N' Hog for restaurant and Hopscotch Bakery + Market for baker. 

The runners up for the People's Choice Award are 2nd Place: Wood N' Hog and Heidi Leuszler and 3rd place: Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant.

The Grand Prize judges awarded the 2nd Place Restaurant to Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant and 3rd Place to Neil St. Blues. For desserts, the 2nd Place Baker was Heidi Leuszler and 3rd Place Baker was Jenny Goodwine of Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant.

This year's Artisan Cup & Fork was a fantastic event, and I think it was a great way to see how talented C-U restaurants and chefs rose to the challenge to provide extraordinary dinners and desserts to event guests in the middle of a pandemic. 

Organizers Taidghin O'Brien, Marketing & Outreach Manager and Jacquelyn Evers, Executive Director of The Land Connection smile with masks on outside Wood N' Hog on night three of the Artisan Cup & Fork event. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.Organizers Taidghin O'Brien, Marketing & Outreach Manager and Jacquelyn Evers, Executive Director of The Land Connection. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Follow The Land Connection on Facebook for more updates about their events.

Producers
Autumn Berry Inspired
Bee Fresh Farms
Berries & Flour Farm
Blue Moon Farm
Delight Flower Farm
Diamond’s Homestead
Flyway Family Farm
Funks Grove Heritate Fruit & Grains
Kilgus Farmstead
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery
PrariErth Farm
Red Crib Acres
Slagel Family Farm
Sola Gratia Farm
Triple S Farms


Top image by Alyssa Buckley.