You might be familiar with The Land Connection through the Champaign Farmers' Market. For the last five years, the organization has hosted the Artisan Cup & Fork, a fundraiser and competition where C-U chefs are paired with farmers and producers, and the chefs use locally sourced ingredients to make a dish.

Usually this event is held in a venue with hundreds of guests trying little plates from each chef. 2020 is not the year for large gatherings, as we know, so The Land Connection has made some pandemic-appropriate changes to the event. This year's Artisan Cup & Fork will still showcase C-U chefs, but instead of enjoying one evening, guests will enjoy three Thursdays in a row, starting next Thursday, September 17th. Ticketed guests will pick up a special carryout dinner and dessert from each of the three participating restaurants: Neil St. Blues on September 17th, Red Herring on September 24th, and Wood N' Hog on October 1st. The menus for the event were announced last week. 

You can find our coverage of previous years here, here, and here


A small plate of food is on a circular, plastic plate with a white plastic fork next to it. Photo by Jessica Hammie.Photo by Jessica Hammie.

Since this year's event is a bit different than previous years' Artisan Cup & Fork, I reached out to The Land Connection's Taidghin O'Brien to chat about what guests can expect this year.

Smile Politely: Can you talk about Artisan Cup & Fork? What is it, and how did it begin?

Taidghin O'Brien: The Artisan Cup & Fork is in its fifth year and began as a way to get our community more involved in local foods. The purpose has always been to highlight local farmers, producers, brewers, and restaurants, and the work they are doing within our food system in a fun and engaging way. The competition aspect of the event not only increased the engagement and interest of our community but pushed the chefs to think outside the box and try to create something exceptional while working with local farmers and producers and local and seasonal ingredients. Our hope is that this event also helps build new markets for our local farmers and producers.

SP: In previous years, it's been an event where folks gather to try the meals. Can you talk about what makes this year's event different?

O'Brien: Typically, we gather about 300 local food lovers at a great location and surround them with five to seven chefs that have created a unique “little plate” using local ingredients that are sourced from the growers and producers on their team.

This year, pretty much everything had to be changed. We had to pare down the number of participating restaurants, as well as the number of attendees due to the complex logistics of transitioning from in-person to a large-scale curbside pick-up. But the changes we needed to make have created a new dynamic for the event and allow us to try some new things. Instead of getting several tiny plates of food, your ticket gets you three full meals on three different nights. You can now safely enjoy your meals wherever you like, which makes the event more kid and family-friendly (no babysitter needed).

SP: How did you select the food vendors: Neil St. Blues, Red Herring, and Wood N' Hog?

O'Brien: As we were reimagining the event during the early stages of the pandemic, we reached out to chefs who had participated in previous years and many of them declined due to uncertainty over the future of their businesses, the restaurant industry in C-U, and large events like this one. So, we began reaching out to new-to-this-event restaurants. Neil St. Blues and Wood N’ Hog (Champaign location) are both located near the Champaign Farmers' Market which gave us the opportunity to work with them, build new relationships, and introduce them to local farmers and producers. Red Herring was on our radar because they are known for working with local producers, and we wanted to build a stronger relationship with them. Heidi Leuszler (of Berries & Flour) will be working alongside Wood N’ Hog to make a dessert for their dish. Heidi has provided dessert for this event the last couple of years, so we knew we wanted to ask her back. Hopscotch Bakery + Market will be making dessert for Neil St. Blues, and Red Herring will be making their own dessert.

SP: What can event participants expect from the three-night event?

O'Brien: Attendees can expect something definitely Outside of Ordinary, to borrow Visit Champaign County’s tagline. They will get great local food, new experiences, and maybe even a few new ideas on how they can support local farms, restaurants, and small businesses going forward. Hopefully, people will try things they’ve never tried before and build new habits and relationships in our community.

SP: What does a ticket include?

O'Brien: Each ticket includes a unique, locally-sourced entree and dessert from each of the three restaurants.

SP: How does the voting work?

O'Brien: Attendees will receive a program with each of the three meals that will include a QR code and link for them to vote online. They will score each dinner and dessert on taste, presentation, use of local ingredients, execution, and overall satisfaction. We ask that everyone vote on the meal by the following Friday at 8:00 p.m. (basically within 24 hours). The popular vote by attendees will decide the winner of the “People’s Choice” award. There will also be a panel of three judges voting on the same categories for the “Judge’s Pick” award. We’ll tabulate scores over the course of the three weeks and announce the winners on October 8th.

SP: The proceeds from this event will go to support the work of The Land Connection. Can you share more about what the fundraising from this event will accomplish?

O'Brien: This year is slightly different, actually. Typically, all of the proceeds would go to support The Land Connection after event expenses were covered, but this year we wanted to financially support the farmers, restaurants, and small business groups with which we partnered. Each restaurant and baker will be paid per plate, which allows them to create their own budget and coordinate their own purchase from local farmers and producers, as well as allocate funds for their time, materials, and overhead costs. The upcharge for the VIP tickets covers the cost of the Local Business Bags put together by Cultivate Illinois and Buy Black Chambana and supports local Black-owned and women-owned businesses. Although the event is a fundraiser to The Land Connection, this year it’s much more of a community event to support local farms, restaurants, and businesses in these strange and constantly changing times.

SP: Is there anything else you'd like to share?

O'Brien: We just want people to feel connected to their food system and local community again and have fun during these stressful times.

A plate of rice gumbo with a side of cornbread from Champaign's Wood N' Hog on a white plate. Photo by Jessica Hammie.Photo by Jessica Hammie.

You can find the menus for each of the three dinners on The Land Connection's website here.

Tickets are $75 each, and for three Thursday evenings, each guest will receive a carryout entree and dessert from a different restaurant. Ticket sales end Sunday, September 13th, so buy your tickets now here

Top image by Catherine Wiesener.