Chef-to-farm dinner

A chef-to-farm dinner at White Gate Farm in 2012. (Lisa Santoro photo / August 14, 2013)

There are hordes of people eating in Connecticut farm fields this summer. They're eating next to pumpkin patches and beside rows of tomatoes, sunflowers, beans and peppers.

And the food they're scarfing down like hunger-crazed locusts was pulled out of the ground just a short while before, or plucked that day from the branches of a nearby orchard, or harvested from local shellfish beds and Long Island Sound's waters.

We're not talking field hands here, 'cause they're also sipping rose wine or sangria and noshing on local high-end cheese, raw oysters and fresh little spring rolls while listening to the music of goats and turkeys and cows.

It's a phenomenon called "chef-to-farm" dinners, and it's become hugely popular with chefs, restaurant owners, farmers and especially diners all over the state.

These locavore extravaganzas can be found at White Gate Farm in East Lyme; at Barberry Hill Farm in Madison and Scott's Farm and Greenhouses in Essex; at Rosedale Farms in Simsbury and Holbrook Farm in Bethel; at Priam Vineyard in Colchester and Millstone Farm in Wilton; and at more than a dozen other locations this summer and fall.

They tend to be mouth-watering experiences involving multi-course feasts with food bursting with the tastes of the season. These evenings are not for the short of cash: per person tickets can range from $60 to more than $200. But that sort of money usually buys you a farm tour, great scenery, and seats in elegant tents in addition to the food.

"The whole farm-to-table movement has exploded in the last five years," says Stephanie Webster, founder of a Westport-based foodie website called CTbites. "And in the last couple of years, [the chef-to-farm concept] has gotten much bigger."

Webster says the farm dinner, where restaurant chefs cook and serve locally grown food on the farms where it's grown, satisfies a whole bunch of different desires.

For folks interested in supporting local farmers or worried about what the Big Agriculture and Big Food industries have done to what we're eating, farm dinners are a way of connecting back to the people and places where their food is grown.

Webster says eating a chef-concocted meal in a tent on a picturesque farm is also "sexier than eating at your local venue where you've dined dozens of times before."

Chefs love these dinners for a lot of reasons as well, not least because they get to cook the freshest possible produce, meat and fish.

"It's great for us when you can get something that's pulled from the earth" just a few hours before, says Nick Verdisco, sous chef at The Schoolhouse at Cannondale in Wilton. The chef-owner of that restaurant, Tim LaBant, does his dinners at Millstone Farm in Wilton.

There is also the refreshing advantage for a chef and his or her staff of moving out of a hot, crowded, frantic restaurant kitchen for a night or two and getting some fresh air.

"Just the change of scenery is huge for us," Verdisco laughs. "You can look out and see goats and pigs and things." And these open-air kitchen events give the diners an opportunity to see exactly how a restaurant meal is prepared. "People like seeing the hands of the people actually producing the food," Verdisco says.

Summer is also a traditionally slow time for restaurants, so staging a farm dinner is a great way to connect with new customers, reconnect with regulars, and make some more money.

"I would say most of these are not philanthropic," says Webster. "They're just dining events."

These farm dinners also offer the farmers who participate a badly needed source of cash.

"Part of our business plan is to stay alive," says Marshall Epstein, who with his wife owns Rosedale Farms and Vineyards in Simsbury. "Farming has been tough the last few years, and we're one of the last working farms in this area."

Rosedale hosts several dinners put on by the popular Max Restaurant Group, which also puts on chef-to-farm events in Lebanon, Coventry, Durham and South Glastonbury.

"It's an asset we can't afford to overlook," says Epstein, who adds that it brings people to the farm who never would have thought to visit except for these dinners.