On October 15th, The Land Connection hosted its second annual fundraiser, The Artisan Cup & Fork, at The City Center in Champaign. If you haven’t visited The City Center recently, it is a bit hard to figure out the parking situation because of the construction on Green Street. The search for the entrance to the City Center was rewarded handsomely, though, with a delicious and fun food contest once we were inside. The concept of the Artisan Cup & Fork is that local chefs use local ingredients produced by local farmers to develop one small plate item that showcases the producers they work with. The winning plate is assessed by both the crowd and a panel of judges. All of the funds raised help to support The Land Connection in growing the local C-U food economy and promoting the work of local farmers and producers. This year’s event included five chefs presenting small plates for the contest, a chance to sample the beers and spirits of local breweries and distilleries, coffee from Columbia Street Roastery, and a selection of cakes from Heidi Leuszler of Berries and Flour. We were disappointed to learn that Ramin Karimpour of Pizzeria Antica was unable to compete due to a family emergency, but the remaining four chefs had an excellent slate of offerings and we certainly did not leave hungry.

Upon arrival, we were given a ballot to vote for our favorite dish, ten drink tickets for samples of beer and spirits, and a chance purchase a ticket to participate in the raffle or bottle pull. The event also featured a cash bar, but we felt that the samples were enough to slake our thirst. The atmosphere at The City Center was mostly subdued upon arrival at 5 p.m., but quickly became more lively as more people arrived and the chef stations went into full working mode. A short program started off the night with speakers from The Land Connection and a description of the producers and sponsors involved in the event. The highlight of this presentation was hearing from the farmers who have benefitted from the programs offered by The Land Connection to help local producers get their businesses off the ground and into the local economy.

The judges on the panel represented some of the best of local C-U food culture including chef Alisa DeMarco, chef Drew Starkey of bacaro, and Natalie Kenny Marquez, former director of the Urbana Farmers' Market, along with two nationally known chefs, John Cagle and Dagan Stocks. The energy of the event was palpable once lines started to form at the tasting stations. People were excited to taste and discuss the chef’s creations. The chef stations were located along one wall, and all seemed very busy throughout the night. The brewery and spirits stations were also very busy and the site of some great conversations about local brew culture. It was delightful to see the mix of farmers and farmers’ market supporters chat together throughout the night, often mentioning their favorite producers or products by name. Attendees were very friendly, sharing their opinions of their favorite dish or beer while waiting in line or standing at the bar. Competing chefs had the chance to win a people’s choice award from the ballots of attendees or the judges’ award given out by a panel of five judges.  

Brewers and Distillers

All of the brewers and distillers were local and included Triptych Brewing, Riggs Beer Company, Destihl Brewery, Blind Pig Brewery, Better Days Distilling, and Silver Tree Beer and Spirits. We each decided to start out at the Blind Pig and try their Columbia Street Roastery stout. This is a beer that is frequently featured at Blind Pig's mug nights, so it is one that we have both had and enjoyed before. It is a dark stout with a hint of coffee flavor that gives a smooth and delicious finish. We tasted the American Lager at Riggs next. We appreciated that the beer was smooth and drinkable, but it wasn't our favorite. We thought it would be enjoyed most by those who enjoy domestic beers.

About halfway into us trying the food courses, we decided to try the distilled spirits made by Better Days Distilling, based out of Tilton. One ticket gave us the chance to try each of the four flavors that they had available, which were chocolate, apple pie, brass (whiskey inspired), and agave (tequila inspired). We each agreed that the chocolate and apple pie were delicious and easy to drink by itself. Next, we tried a Wild Sour beer from Destihl that was infused with apricot. This is a beer that we might not think to order regularly, but we really enjoyed it! It was just the right amount of sweet and sour and was not too tart for a sour beer. Lastly, we decided to try Silver Tree Beer and Spirits, who we are based out of Paxton. They make their own vodka and had vodka samples or samples of premade Moscow mules available to try. We decided to try the mule samples as our final drinks for the evening. As we toasted the local food culture, we thought the vodka was smooth and even made the mule sample more refreshing. The vodka was not too strong or overpowering in the drink, which we appreciated.

Team #1: The WheelHouse

Chef Ryan Rogiers led the first team with a smoked hazelnut chicken dish that included local free-range chicken from Bane Family Meats with a squash arancini with Ludwig Farms Creamery Cheese, greens from Blue Moon Organic Farms, and apples provided from the chef’s own tree. The apple, chicken, squash combo tasted like fall in a bowl. The chicken was smoked to perfection with fall-off-the-bone tenderness. This selection was quite good; the flavors were well calibrated and melded well, but avoided the dreaded squash overload many squash and apple dishes seem to suffer from.  The cheese from Ludwig Farms was the highlight of this dish, adding just the right amount of creamy texture to the squash Aracini. This station seemed move a bit slower due the chef personally infusing each portion with hazelnut smoke before serving, but it was worth the wait. It was clear there was careful planning of presentation at this station and the Chef patiently answered questions about his sources and inspiration while serving.  While waiting in line, we were admonished more than once by other attendees for not having made the pilgrimage to St. Joseph at eat at The WheelHouse, an oversight we plan to recitify sooner rather than later. 

Team #2: FIRED!/Smoked

The second team of the Artisan Cup & Fork event was headed by Chef Adam Shallenberger who used to work at Silvercreek, Dublin O'Neil's, and V. Picasso before moving to FIRED!/Smoked. He worked with Meyer Produce, Sugar Grove Family Farms, and Marcoot Jersey Creamery for this event. On his menu was a pork belly that was milk poached and cured with local honey from Two Million Blooms. The dish included kale and yellow wax bean ragout from Meyer Farm, aged gouda cheese from Marcoot, and ground cherries. This dish was the most appealing visually and seemed like it was the more intricate meal of the four dishes that were available at the event. There were also edible flowers that were used to top off the dish and made it very beautiful. While the garnish was nice to look at, it was the taste of the food that was more important to us. The pork belly and gouda cheese were the real stars of the dish. The pork belly was tender and we were given a good portion of it, though it was a little difficult for us to cut with just our forks. The gouda cheese was creamy and melted on to the rest of the dish, making everything it covered more delicious. The kale and bean didn't have as much flavor compared to the pork belly and cheese, but they paired well together. As far as the ground cherries, neither of us really had the chance to try them. Brittany had one on her plate that was more on the side of the dish than in the meal. It was sweet and tart, but she didn't realize what it was and didn't have the opportunity to have it again since there was only one. Jillian ended up not having any ground cherries on her dish. While this was the more complicated dish of the evening, the placing of the food on the dish seemed rushed, though the end result was still nice to look at.

Team #3: V. Picasso

If you are a fan of Asian Fusion in your Central Illinois local farm-to-table cuisine, this was the selection to go for. Chef Leaf Defehr presented a fried chicken and kimchi collard green hand roll. The chicken was provided by Cascade Farm and wrapped in seaweed with sushi rice and kimchi collard greens. While perhaps less complicated in presentation than the other selections, the rolls were delicious and had the whole place chatting about the kimchi collard greens, which were perfection. This station featured a very pretty array of beets shaped as flowers and wooden planks as serving stations for the rolls. Earlier in the night, this station was less crowded and seemed to be moving more quickly than other stations, but towards the end there was a slight line while the chef made rolls to order. Based on conversation in line, that this was because many people visited this station more then once to snag a second delicious kimchi chicken roll.  Based on taste alone, this was our favorite selection of the night.  It was simple and delicious; easy to carry and perfectly portioned for the type of event. I really hope that V. Picasso will add this to their menu, because I think it would definitely be a fan favorite.  

Team #4: Acres Inn

The fourth and final team of the Artisan Cup & Fork event consisted of Chef Jake Haag from Acres Inn. Jake Haag founded and operates The Seasonal Plate, a micro-farm in Cullom, IL and is in the process of opening Acres Inn, a farm-to-table cafe and inn in downtown Pontiac, where he grew up. The Acres Inn team also worked with Crooked Raw Farm, Ruhter Bison, and Marcoot Jersey Creamery. This dish was very appropriate for the fall season since it was had a squash soup base and included bison meatballs form Ruhter Bison, smoked Gouda cheese from Marcoot and the squash, carrots, beets and kale from Crooked Raw Farm. We enjoyed the variety of flavors from this dish. The squash soup was delicious and had almost a sort of nutty flavor to it throughout spoonfuls. The meatball was seasoned well and had a bit of a smoky, peppered taste to it, though it was a little difficult to cut into with just a spoon. The beet had a wonderful flavor on its own and the carrots and kale paired well with the dish as a whole. It was a great autumn dish that brought a lot of new flavor to a squash soup. It was definitely something we never had before and never knew we wanted until trying it for the first time. Now, all squash soups that don't come with a side of bison meatballs will be hard to beat.

Dessert: Berries and Flour

No meal is complete without a sweet coda, and this event definitely provided a nice sweet treat to round out the evening with cakes from Heidi Leuszler from Berries and Flour. The cakes were cute and just the right size for a taste after trying all the selection.  While Heidi was not part of the contest, her key lime, sweet pea, chocolate and maple citrus cakes definitely stole the show. We saw people loading up their plates with cakes pretty early on, and were disappointed to find out that the key lime selection was gone when we made it to the cake table. The other three selections were available however, and we were willing to make the sacrifice to try all three. Our favorite was the chocolate, which was moist and just the right amount of rich. The ganache grapes decoration on top was adorable as well. We also really enjoyed the maple citrus cake, which was sweet and featured just the right amount of candied citrus flavor. The frosting was the highlight of this selection. The sweet pea cake was the one mostly left over at the end of the night. With a somewhat overpowering botanical aftertaste, this might be an acquired taste but it did seem to have some devoted fans. We really enjoyed the cakes from Berries and Flour with the donated coffee from Columbia Street Roastery as a great way to end the evening while we waited for the winner of the contest to be announced.

The winner of the contest was the same for both the people’s choice and the judges: Chef Adam Shallenberger of FIRED!/Smoked won for the second year in a row. The runner up was Chef Ryan Rogiers of The WheelHouse. Honestly, we think everyone who attended “won” a great chance to be part of the excellent local food scene in C-U, meet some great people and try some delicious food while supporting a force for good in our community. This is such a fun event. We really enjoyed ourselves and it was a relaxed environment for trying out some great local food, giving some of our local food community a chance to shine, and supporting a great organization devoted to local food. Chef Adam said it best: Upon hearing that he had won for the second year in a row, he told the crowd the award was, “for the farmers!”  We hope this event will continue to grow and provide fun competition and funding for local farmers.

More information about The Artisan Cup & Fork is available on The Land Connection’s website.

Photos by Brittany Busboom.