2021 Wisconsin Farm to Table dinner will bring sophistication back to the fields

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
A previous dish from a farm-to-table dinner hosted by Sailsbery.

If you plan on going to the 2021 Wisconsin Farm to Table dinner, prepare to eat something a little bit fancier than the average farm meal.

Hosted by Roden Echo Valley Farms in West Bend on Sep. 18, the farm will introduce chef Tyler Sailsbery to guests. Sailsbery owns The Black Sheep, a Whitewater restaurant and accompanying food truck that plans it meals seasonally and sources its ingredients solely from local farms. The chef calls himself a farm kid, having grown up on a family farm, using his experience to shape his own path in the restaurant industry.

"I already had an appreciation for the work that went into what we were eating. It's somebody's life and livelihood. That's what I see when I see those ingredients," Sailsbery said. "We try to make sure that those ingredients stand out on their own. ... I think that we respect the ingredients a little bit differently."

Sailsbery said he doesn't make the final decisions on the menu – the crops do. Whatever is available from local farms at the time is what will be served, he said, leading to seriously creative dishes and pairings that take inspiration from places he travels to. He said he has a special respect for the ingredients he works with because he knows the work that goes into producing them, from butter and cream to vegetables and beef.

This year's dinner will hopefully introduce people from urban areas to a fine-dining experience out on the farm, while also transforming the farm experience for people from rural areas, Sailsbery said. He added that he wants to help educate people on agriculture and farming in any way he can as a chef, which is why he took the opportunity to cook for the event.

"I want them to make the connection to the farm, and that product, and the human being that devotes their life to feeding them. We have such a disconnect from the people that grow our food," Sailsbery said. "It's easy for people to be hard on farmers because they don't know any, they've never met any or they've never seen that life. My goal was to connect them to these people that I think are absolutely amazing."

There's no menu planned for this dinner yet and there likely won't be one until just weeks beforehand, Sailsbery said, because sourcing completely local ingredients is very time-dependent. What's available this month may not be available next month, leading to crunch time for menu design. He said the only things he can consistently rely on from suppliers are beef and cream, and fall harvest vegetables can be especially unpredictable.

Sailsbery said that he also hopes to take out the middleman between the farm and the dinner table not only with this event, but with his own operation. By supporting local farms and sourcing ingredients directly from them, consumers get to eat fresher than ever because the food doesn't have to travel a long way or be frozen before it's cooked.

Chef Tyler Sailsbery

"Food makes a long trip sometimes between the farm and your table, and if we can take out some of those middle steps I think that we can often get a really good product," Sailsbery. "Also, hopefully we can put a little bit more (money) in the farmer's hand because we're getting it directly from them."

Sailsbery enjoys introducing people to new flavors and tasting experiences, and he hopes to do that very thing with the 2021 Farm to Table dinner. He said one recent favorite at The Black Sheep has been grits – a boiled cornmeal dish popular in the southeastern US – that's "modified to fit the northern palate."

Rick Roden, co-owner of Roden Echo Valley Farms, said he's looking forward to welcoming new and familiar faces to the farm for a sit-down dinner unlike anything that's happened on his property before. He said he expects about 150 people to come get a taste of the farm and learn where their food really comes from.

"We want to give them stuff that is produced locally and make it nice, put a little extra twist on it to make it a little more fancy ... (and) make it worthwhile," Roden said. "This is something that we've just never done before that we're excited to be a part of. And who knows, maybe in the future if this turns out well, it's something that we end up doing more of."

This isn't the first time Roden and the other owners of the farm – parents Bob and Cindy and wife Melissa – have welcomed outsiders to their farm. They host birthday parties, 4-H clubs, summer day camps and plenty of other family-friendly activities. Roden's sister Jackie runs Roden Barnyard Adventures, a subsidiary of the farm that hosts the summer camps and, recently, winter sleigh rides. Plus, there's plenty of farm tours to teach kids and adults alike about dairy farming.

Sundae on the Farm is also a popular annual event at Roden Echo Valley Farms, where they serve grilled cheeses, sundaes and cheese samplings in conjunction with the Ozaukee County Dairy Promotion Board. This year's sundae celebration is slated for Sunday, Aug. 22.

Rick Roden loading the corn planter.

The Rodens have had to make some adjustments due to COVID-19. They were slated to host the 2020 Wisconsin Farm to Table Dinner, which was eventually canceled, and they also stopped hosting farm tours for an extended period of time. The sleigh rides became an alternative way to get people on the farm without risking anyone's health, and now the family is back and ready to serve up dinner this September.

"Everybody is required, when they come to the farm, to take a farm tour through the barn – see the cows get milked, where they eat," Roden said. "That is one thing that whoever comes to our farm for any particular event, that's one thing that they have to do. (The) goal is to teach people about agriculture and where their food comes from, that it just doesn't magically appear in the grocery store."

Tickets to the dinner are available for purchase at $100 per person on Eventbrite.