The Land Connection hosted a gorgeous evening of culinary celebration at Bluestem Hall this past weekend called the Artisan Cup & Fork. The annual event serves as a fundraiser for the nonprofit organization. You can read our coverage of previous years’ events: last year’s curbside event, 2019, 2018, 2017, and the inaugural event in 2016.
The Land Connection works to build connections between farmers, the land, and community through outreach and education. During the opening presentation, guests of the Artisan Cup & Fork event learned more about how The Land Connection serves our community with goals to reduce the distance produce travels to get to our plate. Most of our produce is not grown in Illinois, and The Land Connection strives to source local produce by connecting with Illinois vendors and farmers — and to rediscover our connection to food. The event’s video presentation showcased testimonials of several farmers who have been personally impacted by resources from The Land Connection.
Every year, this fundraiser hosts a culinary competition where local chefs are paired with farmers and producers to use locally sourced ingredients to make a dish.
The event was held this past Saturday night at Bluestem Hall in Urbana. The signs directed guests where to go on the gravel road.
Diners who selected the curbside option drove up to a tent to pick up their meals to go.
In years past, attendance has included 250 guests, but this year, in-person tickets were capped at 50 (and sold out). I’d never been to Bluestem Hall before, but the place was stunning. The beautiful grassy views and the wind blowing on the prairie were lovely to behold. Inside, string lights twinkled above, and guests had a choice of where to sit at the tables.
Inside Bluestem Hall, guests were given an event program, name tags, and tickets for food and drinks. Prior to the event, organizers encouraged event guests to be vaccinated or to have a negative COVID test prior to attending the in-person event, and those that provided proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test were entered into a drawing.
Masks were required for guests when walking around and at the tables when not eating or drinking. Compliance was excellent, and everyone I spoke with at my table was vaccinated. This plus the large, airy barn made me feel pretty safe, all things considered.
Diners received a ballot with the names of each team, the name of the dishes, and the names of the producers plus a color coordinated square to use to redeem a dish from each team.
In addition to food tickets, guests were each given four drink tickets. I’ve never been anywhere with more than two drink tickets, and this was just the most wonderful surprise. I started the evening with two mixed drinks from Hendrick House.
Vodka Cocktails from Hendrick House
Hendrick House prepared two specialty cocktails for the evening with Silver Tree Down East vodka which is made in Paxton. The first cocktail was a lemon honey shake-up made with honey from Two Million Blooms, a family-owned, unfiltered, raw honey company in Urbana. I liked this one the best. It was like a lemonade for adults: tart and sweet. The lemons were squeezed fresh for each cocktail, and the honey gave a great sweetness. It was a well balanced cocktail, and with each sip, I enjoyed the evening more.
The second cocktail was fresh apple cider from Curtis Orchard infused with cinnamon, orange, and vodka. Each of the cider cocktails included an exciting moment when the bartender Adam took an orange garnish and lit it on fire — and that was so very awesome. The crisp apple flavor in the Curtis Orchard cider was delightful, and the cinnamon made the drink taste like fall.
There were also some beautifully arranged appetizers at the bar like these Caprese skewers made with Hendrick House Farm tomatoes and basil.
I came for the main attraction: the food competition. I was ready to try the dishes from each competing team.
For tastings of the chef’s dishes, organizers said guests could start in any order, and my table decided to start with Team 2 and try Chef Mubanga Chanda’s dish first.
Chef Mubanga Chanda is the co-owner and chef at Stango Cuisine. She single-handedly served guests her dish: curry lamb in stew with Nshima.
Curry Lamb in Stew with Nshima by Chef Mubanga Chanda
Working with meat from Moore Family Farm, produce from Blue Moon Farm, dairy from Kilgus Farmstead, mushrooms from Flyway Family Farms, and grain from Brian Severson Farm, Chef Chanda created a Zambian dish for guests of the event to enjoy.
This plate had the biggest portion of food out of all the plates at the event, and it was delicious. The greens were masterfully cooked, and they were not bitter at all. This was a surprise (to me) as I always anticipate a bitter bite to spinach, kale, and other greens, but the way Chef Chanda prepared the greens was exceptional. The lamb cube had a wonderful developed flavor, and the mushrooms were plentiful. The Nshima was a perfect rectangle of white cornmeal, and it acted like a sponge soaking up all the amazing flavors from the meat and veg. I thought this was an noteworthy dish.
Next, we tried Team 1’s dish. Chef Leah Bodine of Blue Dragonfly Catering made a sassafras-smoked brisket with pickled onions on a goat cheese laced bun.
Sassafras-Smoked Brisket on a Goat Cheese Laced Bun by Chef Leah Bodine
Chef Bodine worked with meat from Triple S Farms, produce from Sola Gratia Farm, dairy from Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, and grain from Janie’s Mill. The slider sandwich was great. The bun was made from scratch with goat cheese, and it gave a lovely moisture and tang. The bun was so, so soft and outstanding, clearly made with care.
Inside, the brisket was flavorful and coated in a homemade barbeque sauce made with Riggs Beer Company‘s American lager. The pickled onions were crunchy, tangy, and amazing. This sandwich was a complete dish that really showcased Chef Bodine’s talents working with local ingredients.
Pasta filled with a Smoked Pork Farce tossed in Agrodulce by Chefs Ian Nutting & Doug Hodge
We tried the dish from Team 4 next. Some of the Team 4 producers were listed incorrectly in the program, but I am here to report the correct producers as announced by organizers that evening. Working with meat from Allison Centennial Farm, dairy from Ludwig Farmstead Creamery, produce from Honeycreek Farm, and grain from Janie’s Mill, Weird Meat Boyz made three pasta bites filled with a smoked pork farce. Their agnolotti pasta, a pasta square stuffed with fillings like small ravioli, was filled with the most tender, chopped and shredded pork and tossed in a blackberry-habanero-plum agrodulce, a sticky dressing somewhere between a sauce and a condiment. The word comes from Italy, derived from the Italian words for sour (agro) and sweet (dolce).
Handmade by the Boyz, the pasta was warm and had that unique, fresh pasta texture. The Boyz made 180 servings of handmade agnolotti for the event which was pretty impressive. The chopped parsley garnish was a nice touch. The pork was incredible, and the blackberry-habanero-plum agrodulce gave the pasta a pretty pinkish-purple color. For chefs known for making interesting sauces, it comes as no surprise that this agrodulce was outstanding. There was a nice, subtle peppery heat in the sauce, and each bite of this dish was fantastic.
Pork Belly on Cheese-Herb Grits with Merlot Gravy by Chef Curtis McGhee
Lastly, I tried the dish from Team 3: Chef Curtis McGhee of C&C Kitchen. This dish was prepared in the C&C Kitchen food truck parked outside and brought inside to a table in these little containers. Chef McGhee worked with producers Kilgus Farmstead for meat, Meyer Produce for produce, Ludwig Farmstead Creamery for dairy, and for grain both Janie’s Mill and Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains.
Chef McGhee made a change to his menu from braised beef to pork belly for the meat on top of his cheese-herb grits with merlot gravy on a Hot Johnny cake. Readers, I cannot express to you how much I loved this pork belly bite. The whole dish together — and also each individual component — was superb. A Johnny cake was not something I’d had before, and it was a thin corn pancake which a good, simple flavor. Then, there was a dollop of cheesy grits with a super tender piece of pork belly. The pork belly had a bit of crisipiness on the exterior that melted into the soft, fattier part of the pork that was just heavenly. The merlot gravy was smoky, sweet, and had so much flavor. The grits were soft and cheesy, and while I could have eaten much more of that pork belly, I think the portions of each element were perfect. It was a remarkable dish.
Midwest Dream Puffs
I must apologize for the poor lighting as the evening continued, my seat by the window lost the light needed to really photograph how beautiful these Midwest dream puffs were. These puffs were handmade by talented C-U cottage baker Heidi Leuszler who has a passion for native landscapes and foraging for wild foods.
These Midwest dream puffs were a trio of flavors: native elderflower, black raspberry, and local peach. Each of the three puffs were perfectly light and dusted with powdered sugar. The creamy middle inside my first puff was elderflower, and I enjoyed the subtle flavor in the sweet cream. The second one was filled with peach cream, and that combination was a yummy homage to summer with vibrant peach flavor and a sweet whipped cream middle. The final one (and my favorite) was the raspberry as it also had chocolate in it! Both the chocolate and raspberry flavors were equally dominant, and it tasted so very good. Having a variety of flavors made this dessert its own little tasting, and my table had fun picking which puff we liked best.
Flora Luna Mead from Artesia Brewing
I ended the evening with a glass of mead from Artesia Brewing in Thawville, Illinois. Where’s Thawville? It’s about 45 minutes north of C-U. This family-owned brewing company uses farming practices that are focused on maximizing soil health and rebuilding levels of organic matter for fruit trees, beehives, hops, and berries.
Artesia Brewing had two drinks available for the Artisan Cup & Fork: Streaker, a Belgian-style single brew, and Flora Luna, a hibiscus mead made with honey from Artesia’s aperies. The mead had a bright, pretty color, and it was very smooth. There was a bit of a tart hibiscus flavor, but the sweet wine flavor was prominent. It was a big pour, and my date had the Streaker beer which I sampled and thought was great as well.
The event was really well organized, and the vibe was relaxed. With only 50 people in attendance and no formal order to getting the plates from each team, the lines were short to get food. Chefs chatted with guests about their dishes, and the staff at the event were quick to clear empty plates. There were several items up for raffle and a bottle toss for additional cost, and those who won prizes were exuberant celebrators. It was a very fun event.
If you missed it this year, set your calendar for next year or subscribe to The Land Connection newsletter to receive updates about this annual culinary event and all events by The Land Connection.
The 2021 Artisan Cup & Fork Winner
So who won? At the event, the judges announced their pick for winner: Team 4’s Weird Meat Boyz Chefs Ian Nutting & Doug Hodge.
The duo prepared hand-rolled, delicious pasta stuffed with pork, and when it was announced, the barn burst into applause. The Weird Meat Boyz are new to the food scene in C-U, but they have proven they can cook a winning dish.
Judges thought that the vegetarian option made by the Weird Meat Boyz was “perhaps the most flavorful dish of the event.” The team received the highest scores for creativity, and the judges were wowed by the Boyz’s time commitment to hand-rolling pasta.
The People’s Choice Winner of the event is named based on votes from both curbside and in-person event guests. The People’s Choice Winner will be announced today, Monday, September 13th on The Land Connection’s Facebook page, so check over there later today for the announcement.
Allison Centennial Farm
Blue Moon Farm
Brian Severson Farms
Flyway Family Farms
Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains
Honey Creek Farm
Ludwig Farmstead Creamery
Moore Family Farms
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery
Sola Gratia Farm
Triple S Farms