Sometimes elegant dining doesn’t have to involve a Michelin rating or even a single star. It just involves a trip to the Garden.
Farm-to-table dining experiences are not exactly new, but the concept’s solid foothold in the culinary world is proof it’s here to stay. The Chicago Botanic Garden is about to embark on its third year of Farm Dinners, featuring Chef Cleetus Friedman.
“This started in 2010 as a joint project between our Community Gardening department, our Horticulture department and Visitor Relations,” says the Garden’s Eliza Fournier. The dinners provide a stage of sorts for Fournier, who manages the Green Youth Farm, an organic farming program for high school-aged kids. From spring through fall, students run the program’s four farms in North Chicago and in the city.
“It’s a job (for these kids), but also a learning opportunity,” says Fournier about the program, which produces 30,000 pounds of produce annually. “And we’re churning out 80 people who have experienced what it’s like—the miracle, hope and joy of growing and eating healthy food.”
Food from the Green Youth Farm is then used by Friedman and his staff to curate a unique dining experience.
So what can visitors expect? First, you’ll cross the bridge to the fruit and vegetable gardens, and see the sun setting over the trees. Following a tour of the garden, guests arrive en masse to the dinner table, with intimate lighting underneath the grape arbor.
The four- or five-course dinner plus wine is served family style, and Fournier promises that while you may arrive on your own, you leave with a new set of friends. “The dinner is very much an interaction, a conversation and an experience with your fellow diners. You’ll leave feeling like you really know the person you just met.”
And according to Fournier, the evening’s bonus is that guests get a chance to learn about the Green Youth Farm and from where the produce they enjoyed came.
This year, three dinners are planned—July 14, August 14 and September 11. While not an inexpensive evening at $200 a ticket, the dinners are a special experience. Fournier says many of the attendees are in celebratory mode, for example, enjoying their birthday or an anniversary.
“It’s such a special experience,” she says. “I can honestly say this is by far my favorite thing we’ve done, the most unique and special … people come out and walk away transformed.”
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