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Thursday September 18th 2014

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Small Plates, Big Picture

By Jessica Forbes

The subject of food is generally a good, safe conversation starter at an event, particularly if you are striking up conversations with chefs and farmers. Talking about the food will be especially relevant on Sunday at Slow Food Gulf Coast (SFGC)’s second “A Community Cooks” event, which highlights the relationships between local farmers and chefs via a range of tasting dishes.

In 2013, the eat-and-greet event marked the official launch of SFGC, this region’s chapter of Slow Food USA, a part of Slow Food International. As one chapter in a global movement—there are Slow Food chapters in over 150 countries, all promoting ecologically and socially conscious food production—SFGC works to reach the fundamental Slow Food goal of propagating food that is “Good, Clean and Fair,” with members hailing from Baldwin County, Ala. to Walton County, Fla.

Like its parent organizations, SFGC works to connect people to their local food system, and events like “A Community Cooks” is just one of the ways it has found to do so. Everything about the volunteer-based organization is intended to benefit the community as a whole, from farmers to diners to those who need access to fresh produce through food assistance programs.

“It’s a good cause. I think people will be in for a surprise as to what these growers supply, the flavors that are available—like when they taste a real tomato,” Chef Nick Farkus said with a laugh. Farkus is participating as a representative from Pensacola Cooks, a teaching organization that recently added a restaurant to its operation at a new location on Barrancas Avenue.

“A Community Cooks” put fresh, locally grown ingredients in the spotlight as participating chefs create dishes centered on those ingredients. The farmers that provide many of the ingredients also attend the event, making it a rare opportunity for the public to interact with not only the person who created what they’re eating, but also those who grew the vegetables, fruits, herbs and other components of the dish.

“As a chef, you learn so much from every farmer that you talk to,” Farkus said. “As a consumer, to be able to talk to the person that is so passionate about what they’ve done, starting something from the seed and seeing it to fruition, it’s really educational. You learn so much and to support those individuals that have that a passion for their product—it’s always a pleasure to do it.”

Rudy Rudolph is a founding and current board member of SFGC and also co-founded Four Blades of Grass, which is an organization that works to supplement backpack programs in local schools by providing fresh produce to children in need. Flora Bama Farms co-owner Sandy Veilleux is also involved. In addition to his participation with local food-focused non-profits and working at Jackson’s Steakhouse, Rudolph gardens and is participating this year as a grower in “A Community Cooks.”

“I’m working with Jeff [Knott] at Old Hickory Whiskey Bar. He’s going to create cocktails using herbs I grow like chocolate mint, rosemary and lavender,” Rudolph said, who also sells produce from his at-home container garden (which he constructed using repurposed pickle buckets from restaurants) to finance some of Four Blades’ operational costs.

“With Four Blades, our mission is to feed people. We have relationships with farmers already,” Rudolph said when discussing the mission of the two organizations. Four Blades of Grass purchases produce from local growers, which, along with recipes, are included in packages that go home each Friday with local children who rely on the backpack programs for food over weekends. Rudolph and Veilleux are working to keep the program going during the summer and with increased funding, would one day like to start incorporating locally-sourced protein items (such as meat and dairy) in the packages, and even eventually open a food truck-demonstration kitchen that can travel to neighborhoods and show children and their families how to prepare the fresh, seasonal ingredients available at a given time.

“It would be beneficial for everyone,” Rudolph said. “It goes hand in hand with the goal of Slow Food Gulf Coast. There are a lot of local farms producing great produce and protein now.”

Teaching the community how to prepare fresh ingredients is a common goal among SFGC members. Farkus is partnering with Cat McCreery of Heirloom Liberty Gardens, whose specialty is growing and preparing natural, non-genetically modified crops. McCreery planted the herb garden at Pensacola Cooks’ new location and teaches classes there as well, instructing students in ways to incorporate vegetables grown from heirloom seeds in their diet throughout the year.

“Those are seeds that have been on the planet for hundreds of years, thousands of years—whatever it may be—and there is a group of people that salvage those seeds and continue to grow basically plants and herbs that were intended to be here,” Farkus explained.

The culinary creations that Farkus and McCreery have planned for the event showcase both of their food passions. “We do our own handcrafted smoked sausage,” Farkus said of Pensacola Cooks restaurant. “We grind the meat, season it, stuff it and smoke it all on site here. We’re going to do that with a stew of tomatoes, peppers, onions and fresh herbs from her garden.”

Other participating chefs include MariCarmen Josephs of Carmen’s Lunch Bar, who will team with Coldwater Gardens. Chef Chris Sherrill of the Flora Bama Yacht Club will hold cooking demonstrations featuring Lionfish, a species that is regarded as a menace to native marine habitats locally, but which is increasingly being utilized as a food source. Chef Dan Dunn of the Pensacola Beach Hilton, Chef Jack McNulty of Jackson’s Steakhouse, and grower Robert Randel will also take part along with others being confirmed as of press time.

Aside from giving diners a chance to taste and mingle, “A Community Cooks” also helps raise funds for SFGC’s community programs, namely its efforts connecting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) users with local farmers.

Through a grant awarded to SFGC in its first year, the group helped put an extra $3,000 into the local food economy by operating a SNAP (formerly food stamps) incentive program at Palafox Market. Through the program, those using SNAP funds could present their SNAP for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) voucher book and SFGC was able to match their funds with vouchers that they could then use to buy food items from market vendors.

Rudolph said connecting the community to farmer’s markets through SNAP incentives was important to the SFGC board from the outset. “We knew it was one of the things that we needed to prioritize. This is the second year we’ve done it, and we’ve had a lot of success. Both the farmers and the people utilizing the benefits appreciate it,” he said.

Now preparing for its second season of partnering with the Florida Organic Growers Association for the market program, SFGC recently received a SNAP terminal that will allow users to swipe their WIC card and receive tokens to use at the market. If users charge $10 or more at the terminal, SFGC will be able to match the amount charged, up to $20 each week. The program is part of the Slow Food mission to encourage as many community members as possible to visit local farmer’s markets, realize buying local does not mean paying more, and incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables into their meals.

“We’re just trying to promote all things local,” Rudolph said. That includes strengthening the local economy as well, another part of the Slow Food equation. By purchasing and using the food that area farmers grow, those working in restaurants, food programs, and home kitchens strengthen the regional economy by keeping more of their food budget going to growers in the region.

As far as other community events, SFGC is now holding monthly happy hours at Old Hickory Whiskey Bar and will have a continued presence at Palafox Market on Saturdays. For this weekend, however, SFGC members are expecting a Sunday afternoon of good food and making new connections.

“Typically growers are connected to chefs, but I’m excited because I know at the event there will probably be farmers there that I’m not familiar with. We’ll be able to meet them, see what kind of product they carry, and hopefully build a relationship with them so that we can maybe utilize their products as well,” Farkus said.

A COMMUNITY COOKS: A GRAND TASTING OF THE GULF COAST’S FRESHEST LOCAL FOOD
WHEN: 3—5 p.m. Sunday, June 22
WHERE: The Palafox House, 196 N. Palafox St.
COST: $50
DETAILS: facebook.com/SlowFoodGulfCoast