When August Mrozowski opened American Harvest Eatery earlier this year in Springfield, he wanted to focus the menus around locally grown foods.
"That's part of our whole concept," said the restaurant's executive chef, Jordan Coffey. "The awareness of where food comes from has increased in the last few years. The problem of obesity in America and the use of genetically modified seeds have pushed people to stop and think about what they're eating and where it came from."
And that's why an increasing number of restaurants - supermarkets, as well - are offering meats, eggs, honey, dairy products, fruits and vegetables grown in their local areas. Some chefs buy direct from area farms, while others peruse nearby farmers markets for that night's special.
The number of farmers markets nationally increased from 1,755 in 1994 to 6,132 in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Seasonal, well prepared
American Harvest Eatery isn't the kind of restaurant where you'll get huge portions and waddle out the door.
"We don't over-portion. We offer seasonal food, well prepared," said Coffey, who used to cook at Mrozowski's other Springfield restaurant, Augie's Front Burner.
The menu is changed monthly and is designed to highlight foods in season. Among the offerings: garlic and potato soup with a pretzel baguette; baby arugula breakfast salad with a fried market egg and potato croutons; leek and oyster-mushroom potpie; fire-roasted vegetable tacos with charred peppers and onions, quiche with in-season veggies; and chicken and dumplings with organic pea shoots and honey-glazed baby carrots.
The restaurant has a long list of suppliers, including: Bunn Creek Farm in Pleasant Plains (beef); Triple S Farms in Stewardson (chickens); Good Earth Farms in Lynnville (radishes, heirloom tomatoes, microgreens); Gregory's Orchard and Garden in Lynnville (beets, cauliflower, sweet corn, cucumbers, broccoli); Suttill's in Springfield (potatoes, onions); and Veenstra's Vegetables in Rochester and Heck's Harvest in Williamsville (various vegetables).
In the fall, the menu will feature squash, eggplant, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, turnips, collard greens, chile peppers and other seasonal items.
When changing up the menu, Coffey said he and his wife and sous chef, Aurora Coffey, walk the downtown farmers market to get ideas.
"We buy a little of this and little of that, then sit down, taste everything and think, 'What can we do to make it better?' Then we revamp the menu."
Sean Keeley buys a lot of the food he serves at his restaurant, Ross Isaac, at the Old Capitol Farmers Market in downtown Springfield."I go to the farmers market for 99 percent of it," he said.
Among the vendors he buys from: Triple S Farms (sausages, corned beef, pork belly); Veenstra's Vegetables and Heck's Harvest (kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, turnips, heirloom radishes); Gregory's Orchard and Garden (kohlrabi, cucumbers, broccoli, cabbage); and Suttill's (okra, peas and various vegetables).
Keeley also uses produce from his uncle's Springfield vegetable garden. The chef is a big proponent of locally grown foods.
"When I buy at the farmers market, I can see what I'm getting. I can handpick what I want and I can get the amount that suits my menu for that night. If I buy off a truck, I'm not sure I'm getting what I want," he said.
Depending on the season, his menu might include roasted beet and field green salad; garden gazpacho with English peas and fennel; Asian chicken wings with chili sauce over vegetable crudites; chicken sautéed with mushrooms; pasta with seasonal vegetables in light cream sauce; filet mignon with grilled asparagus; and a platter of heirloom and fried green tomatoes dressed with basil vinaigrette.
Keeley italicizes the local foods listed on his menu and includes a directive to go to the farmers market. Diners occasionally mention to him their interest in the restaurant's locally grown ingredients.
"A few of the regulars will ask what I got at the market that day, and then they order that."
Create a demand
Michael Higgins is a familiar face at the Old Capitol Farmers Market. Not only does he present cooking demonstrations there monthly, he's a customer twice a week.
"I stop on my way to work," he said. Maldaner's, the oldest restaurant in Springfield, is located a couple of blocks from the Adams Street market.
As the seasons change, Higgins' customers are reminded of - and ask for - their favorite dishes.
"People notice the seasons. They look forward to our morel mushroom pie in the spring and our tomato plate in the summer. When they see watermelons at the market, they start asking for the watermelon salad," he said.
In addition to vendors at the farmers market, he buys direct from local farms.
The list includes Good Earth Farms (microgreens); Jefferies Orchard in Springfield (purple asparagus, tart cherries); Suttill's (fava beans, peas, beans, cucumbers, zucchini); Baalman's Produce in Hardin (eggplant, heirloom tomatoes); Zoey's Herb Farm in Litchfield (green beans, peppers); Bear Creek Farm and Ranch in Palmer (chickens); and Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery in Champaign (goat cheese). He buys eggs in Havana, shitake mushrooms in Jacksonville and, in winter, hydroponic microgreens in Bloomington.
When the seasons change, so does the menu - at least, part of it."The lamb and the pork and the chicken and the fish are always there. But we'll change what comes with them. When we're finished with rhubarb, we change to peaches, then apples. Then in winter, it swings to beans," said Higgins.
Among the menu items: mesclun greens with toasted walnuts and chopped bacon; warm goat cheese with red pepper coulis and balsamic-dressed greens; beef Wellington with fresh vegetables; grilled boneless pork chop with seasonal fruit compote; seared calves liver with roasted onion and smoked bacon; and grilled pork belly with house-pickled radishes and Bibb lettuce.
In the fall, pumpkins, apples and squash become more prominent on the menu.
Higgins said supporting community farmers gives them the incentive to grow more types of food.
"When we bought the restaurant in 1995," he said, "we started working with farmers to grow heirloom tomatoes. Now people at the market ask for the heirloom tomatoes they ate at Maldaner's. If we make the demand and support it, we start seeing farmers diversify their crops and take chances. When they do that, we all benefit."
Why buy locally grown foods?
American Harvest Eatery
3241 W. Iles Ave., Springfield
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday
1710 S. MacArthur Blvd., Springfield
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
222 S. Sixth St., Springfield
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Story published Friday, September 2, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 5 )