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 four years, the organization has hosted Artisan Cup & Fork, a fundraiser and competition where local chefs are paired with farmers/producers and use locally sourced ingredients to make a dish. There have always been special beers made specifically for this event, but this year brewery participation was formalized and four regional breweries made a special beer.

Last Saturday evening, about 250 attendees visited Bluestem Hall in Urbana. Each attendee got a dish from each chef-producer team, a beer from one of the breweries, and a vote on their favorite for the People’s Choice Award. There was a panel of judges for the food, and a different one for the beer. This year, the grand prize for the chefs and the brewers was the opportunity to participate in Prairie Fruits Farm’s Dinner on the Farm series.

The Artisan Cup has been a little different each year from the number of participating chefs to the venue. This year it was clear that staff and event planners at The Land Connection heard the feedback from years past (both positive and negative) and worked to improve the event for chef-producer teams and attendees alike. The first — and most important, in my opinion — improvement this year was the venue. This is not a dig on the previous venues. Bluestem Hall is clearly meant for these sorts of events. It seemed to me that the setup for the chefs was much more accommodating, with enough space and power for each team to operate comfortably and safely.

Bluestem Hall is gorgeous. It reminds visitors that we live in the flat-flat Midwest, on land that once was a prairie, and is now farmland. The barn is something straight out of Instagram, complete with “string” lights overhead. It felt like the right vibe for a fundraiser celebrating local food systems.

In years past I believe that there were some problems with equal distribution of dishes. This year, every attendee received an envelope with a different colored square of paper; these functioned as dish tickets. When you visited a chef team’s table, you swapped your square for a plate of food. Likewise with beer, each person received four drink tickets to sample each one. This system ensured everyone got to try everything. There was also a cash bar featuring cocktails made with Silver Tree’s Down East vodka, and coffee compliments of Columbia Street Roastery.

The vibe among the attendees was enthusiastic. People were excited to try the dishes and the beer and hang out with their friends, colleagues, and dates. It was a fun crowd.

Where can the Artisan Cup & Fork improve? The most obvious place is in diversifying the event. It’s a glaringly white space. This, of course, is the reality of our community wherein the people who have expendable income to put toward this sort of fundraiser are overwhelmingly white. Our local restauranteurs and chefs are overwhelmingly white. Local producers, farmers, and brewers? Also mostly white, white, and white. We live in the shadows and legacies of sundown towns and institutionalized and systemic racism. I do not bring this up as an indictment of The Land Connection and the Artisan Cup. Instead, I think we (the royal, in general, at SP) need to be more forthright about what sorts of spaces we occupy and how we (the royal, in general, at SP) can work to build a better, more inclusive society. Because the ticket price was relatively affordable, compared to other food events (which tend to go for $100+ per person), there were a lot of young(ish) people there. Women have always been represented among the chefs, which is awesome.

But I think the question we need to continue to ask and try to answer, especially as it relates to food supplies and food economies, is how can we support communities, producers, and chefs of color?

This year’s Artisan Cup & Fork was a wonderful way to spend an evening, support The Land Connection, and celebrate local food producers. If you have a chance to attend the event next year, do so. It’s a fantastic time.

Now, for the food.

There were five food teams, and four breweries. I think the real winner of the night was Diamond’s Homestead micro greens. Just about every chef used some in their dishes. Those little baby greens showed up ready to perform — they were bright and a little crunchy, and delicious little additions, not merely a touch of green garnish. Do yourself a favor and grab some at the farmers’ market.

Team One | Ryan Rogiers

  • Meat: Willow Creek Farm
  • Dairy: Marcoot Jersey Creamery
  • Produce: PrairiErth Farm
  • Grains: Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains
  • Micro greens: Diamond’s Homestead

Slow Roasted Pork and Grits
Slow roasted pork with vegetables, sitting on cheesy grits.

Rogiers is owner and chef of The WheelHouse in St. Joe. If you’ve been to The WheelHouse, you know the food is great. I was expecting nothing less, and I was not disappointed. The grits were perfectly cooked and flavorful, but I didn’t have any vegetables in my dish (unless they were pureed into the dish), save for the micro greens on top. My piece of pork was tender and well seasoned. Rogiers was the Judge’s second choice, coming in as the runner up. This dish was the 2nd runner up for the People’s Choice, but I’d gladly eat it again and again.

Team Two | Leah Bodine

  • Meat: Triple S Farms
  • Dairy: Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery
  • Produce: Sola Gratia
  • Micro greens: Diamond’s Homestead
  • Pears: Meyer Produce

Filete Azul con Pera y Quesa Feta
Caramelized pears, onions, and carrots, topped with Spanish-influenced rubbed filet mignon, garnished with goat cheese feta and radish micro greens.

This was the first dish I tried, and it was a nice way to begin the evening. The filet was perfectly cooked. The “Spanish-influenced” rub was flavorful without being too salty, and offered a bit of heat to a relatively complicated dish. Instead of feta, the dish was topped with blue cheese; blue cheese is a little more aggressive than feta, but with the pears and the beef, worked well. My only complaint about this dish is that my carrots were undercooked and a little too toothsome to be enjoyable. Bodine finished as the People’s Choice 1st runner up.

Team Three | Anne Caye

  • Meat: Harvest Table Foods
  • Dairy: Ludwig Farmstead Creamery
  • Produce: Blue Moon Farm
  • Grains: Funks Grove Heritage Farms & Grains
  • Micro greens: Diamond’s Homestead

Smoked Chicken Tacos
Smoked chicken with street corn, pico de gallo, Kickapoo hard cheese, topped with Daikon micro greens on a homemade Floriani Flint corn tortilla

Caye was the only chef to offer a vegetarian option: instead of chicken, the tacos were made with smoked mushrooms, though I did not try the ‘shrooms. The chicken was nicely cooked and flavorful. The taco was generously stuffed, though it made eating it difficult. The produce was flavorful and fresh — Blue Moon Farm grows good stuff. There was a little bit of heat in the pico or the corn; it was quite welcome. The real winner on this plate, though, was the Kickapoo hard cheese. It was salty and the perfect vehicle to bring together the rest of the ingredients.

Team Four | Kenny Hogue

  • Meat: Kilgus Farmstead
  • Dairy: Ropp Jersey Cheese
  • Produce: Brackett CSA Farm
  • Grains: Cow Creek Farm

Braised Goat Over Polenta
Braised goat over bloody butcher polenta with puffed grains and smoked gouda.

Hogue is a relative newcomer to the area’s food scene, as much of his chef-ing has been elsewhere. Most recently he was the chef de cuisine for Airbnb’s corporate headquarters. Hogue gets an A+ in effort for his dish — no one else used goat, and I don’t think it’s been on the Artisan Cup menu before. Though the dish was ambitious and arguably the most interesting, it fell short on execution. The ingredients just didn’t come together; the flavor wasn’t there. Despite this, I am looking forward to checking out Hogue’s two restaurants in Tuscola: Irma Lou’s Kitchen and Cast Iron Pub.

Team Five | Crystol Smith & Mike Murphy

  • Meat: Moore Family Farms
  • Dairy: Ludwig Farmstead Creamery
  • Produce: Meyer Produce
  • Grains: Janie’s Mill
  • Eggs: Moore Family Farm

Mojo Marinated Cuban Sandwich
Pork shoulder marinated in mojo, on homemade French bread, with Havarti cheese, sweet and spicy picked vegetables, and a cilantro aioli.

This sandwich was everything. It was among the best sandwiches I have ever eaten in my life, no hyperbole. Smith and Murphy are both with the University of Illinois Dining Services — Smith is the head chef at Ikenberry Dining Center, and Murphy is a production chef. This sandwich had the perfect balance of flavor and texture. The homemade bread was amazing, and the ingredient that brought everything together, literally. (Lucky for me, I managed to snag an extra loaf on my way out for the night…thank you!) My notes on this dish are succinct: “Perfect sandwich!” and “Super good.” The pork was so perfectly marinated and cooked and slice, I’m actually a little mad that I can’t have more.

Smith and Murphy were the People’s Choice winner and the judge’s Grand Prize winner. It’s no surprise, really, when you think about it: They regularly serve hundreds of people each day. They know how to make large quantities of something consistently. I cannot wait for their dinner at Prairie Fruits Farm.

Dessert | Heidi Leuszler

Liege Waffle with Midwest Toppings

Dessert was not part of the competition, so there was no voting for this dish in an official capacity. But the lengthy lines for dessert were votes in their own right. Leuszler knows her way around a dessert; they’re always great. I did laugh out loud when I read “Midwest Toppings,” because what in the hell are Midwest toppings? Turns out they are damn good is what they are. This waffle bar offered your choice of syrup(s), hazel or hickory nuts, and powdered sugar or whipped cream. Liege waffles are a little denser than your average waffle; they’re made with a brioche-like dough. These were the perfect vehicles for the toppings. I selected paw paw syrup, hickory nuts, and whipped cream. It was the perfect way to end the night. (Also, if a bottle of that paw paw syrup ends up on my doorstep so I can “review” it for an “article,” I wouldn’t be mad.)

Hand of Fate Brewing Company

Harvest Celebration Saison

Hand of Fate Brewing Company is in Petersburg, IL, which is northwest of Springfield. This saison was brewed with grains and hops and herbs from Illinois producers, and it was delicious. There were some basil notes that made it fresh and earthy. It was supremely drinkable and refreshing. It tasted like drinking a harvest celebration. This beer tied for second place in the People’s Choice award, but was the beer judges’ favorite (and also mine). Hand of Fate will also participate in a Dinner on the Farm event. I’m really looking forward to it.

Lil Beaver

Caramel Corn

You’ve read about Bloomington-based Lil Beaver on Smile Politely before. If you haven’t been to the taproom, it’s just a short drive away, so go. This caramel corn beer was a nice caramel color and sweet. It tasted like caramel corn in the best ways. This was the last beer I sampled and I had it with dessert, which was the most wonderful possible pairing. The waffle and the beer complemented each other perfectly. I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it; Caramel Corn tied for second place in the People’s Choice award.

25 O’Clock Brewing Company

Come-Hithery

Here in C-U, we’re no strangers to 25 O’Clock Brewing. It has been embraced by the C-U beer drinking community in a very short amount of time, for good reason. This farmhouse ale was made with lemon verbena, making for a very lovely and delicious brew. It was so good that it won first place in the People’s Choice award.

Emancipation Brewing Co.

HopPop

The Fairbury, IL brewery brought a perfect summery beer to the Artisan Cup. The American wheat beer started with citrus notes, and finished with hoppy, toasty ones. This is a solid beer to keep on their regular rotation — it’s an easily accessible hoppy brew. HopPop was the judges’ runner up. 

Producers

Photos by Jessica Hammie