A few years ago MacGregor Mann headed out on a global culinary walkabout.
Mann applied for and was accepted as a station chef at Michelin-starred Noma in Copenhagen. Named the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, it afforded Mann the opportunity to learn from Chef Rene Redzepi. He augments his pantry by foraging in the wild Demark coastlands, forests and fields where Noma's chefs uncover rich, unexpected flavors. Diners book several months in advance, and can pay nearly $1,000 a couple for a wine pairing and tasting menu that includes dishes like fried reindeer moss, radishes served in soil, and live ants with yoghurt. Mann likened his 2012 experience to a “PhD-worthy” sabbatical.
Returning to the states, Mann drove cross country and settled in Idaho, where he took over as Executive Chef at Henry’s Fork Lodge, a premier fly-fishing destination. Located on a high bluff overlooking Henry’s Fork River, the venue offers some of the finest accommodations and dining experiences along with the most diverse fishing programs in the entire Yellowstone Park region. To feed the anglers' appetites, typical favorites include bacon-wrapped trout, New York strip steaks seared directly on the coals, creamy butter beans, and Dutch-oven cornbread dotted with fig jam.
Mann's talent and pedigree were honed at Amada, part of the esteemed Jose Garces group of restaurants. At the award-winning tapas bar in Philadelphia, Mann rose through the ranks of Amada (known nationally in creative Latin cuisine) to become chef de cuisine. He was even featured on Iron Chef America, cooking alongside Iron Chef Garces.
As the sun dipped behind a grove of oak and hickory trees last September, a rising column of smoke caught the corner of my eye as I joined a stream of guests hiking up to a late 1600s bank barn at Haskell Farm. Then the aroma hit me, an intoxicating whiff of slow-roasting meat.
Dressed in a green Garrison Cyclery T-shirt and shorts, chef Bryan Sikora breezily chatted up visitors while manning grill grates laden with meaty racks of spice-rubbed hangar steak and luscious chicken wings preparing a farm-to-table bonanza for 90 fortunate patrons of Haskell's final dinner of the summer.
Sikora understands how to coax the best flavor from the farm's late summer bounty. Gently dressed and lightly grilled, his gorgeous ode to freshly picked vegetables -- green, red and yellow peppers, zucchini, beans, squash and several varieties of corn -- is a platter brimming with colorful, hearty and healthy goodness. The smoky flavor provided just the right accompaniment to the grilled local chicken. Equally pleasing was the hangar steak served with hominy or snugged into taco shells warm off the grill with queso fresco and luscious ripe tomatoes.
Haskell's SIW farm stand is a go-to spot for Sikora during the growing season. Sikora delicately loads up his bounty of veggies just picked that morning-- yellow and green squash, Doc Martin lima beans, heirloom tomatoes, an array of varieties of eggplant, and cherry tomatoes. He transports it all to La Fia where he spills out the still-wet-with-dew veggies atop the kitchen table.
Think about it. What's the best way to enjoy a farm-to-table dining experience? I vote alfresco dining on an actual farm. In mid-September Haskell's Farm, on the outskirts of Chadds Ford, will be staging the last of its three such dining summer adventures.
The son of a former mayor of Wilmington and Delaware Congressman, H. G. Haskell's grandfather bought the former Pyle farm around 1910 and renamed it Hill Girt Farm. For many years it was a working dairy farm. Sections of the massive bank barn-- where the farm dinners are staged-- date back to the 1600’s and the main house to 1816.
Twenty-eight years after its self-service debut, Haskell’s is arguably the best local produce stand in the Brandywine Valley. The late summer bounty of seasonal produce will supply the September 12 farm dinner that features Wilmington chef Bryan Sikora. He is the founder and chef of Wilmington's La Fia, a breezy hybrid bistro on Market Street across from the Queen Theater.
Sikora's menu creations are driven by his dedication to made-from-scratch elements and seasonality. Foodies have taken note in a big way. Earlier this year Sikora was named one of nine semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation awards as the Best Chef, MidAtlantic. The prestigious Beards are often called the Oscars of the culinary world.
Is there a doctor in the house? If you are dining at Domaine Hudson there is a good chance you will meet its new proprietor, Dr. Mike Ross.
Novices to the hospitality industry, Dr. Ross and his wife Beth purchased the popular wine bar and eatery from Tom and Meg Hudson in late 2011. The Rosses have ratcheted up the original owners' culinary tradition and elevated it to one of the best dining experiences in the state.
A man of boundless energy, a typical day for Dr. Ross starts at dawn with a drive from his Chadds Ford home to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Chester County, one of the largest and most sophisticated equine hospitals in the world.
An internationally renowned equine orthopedic surgeon, Ross dons surgical scrubs and heads to the operating theater where a half-ton horse has been anesthetized, winched into the air and then lowered onto the operating table. Over the next hour or so Ross performs meticulous arthroscopic surgery on the horse's injured leg joint. Afterwards the animal is returned to a padded stall to wake up and begin his recovery.
Among a countless list of Ross' patients is the great thoroughbred DaHoss who won the 1996 Breeders' Cup Mile and then in 1998-- a year after Ross' surgery on DaHoss' hind leg-- came back to again win the Breeders' Cup Mile which NBC-TV race broadcaster Tom Durkin dubbed "the greatest comeback since Lazarus." Thanks to Ross' skills over 32 years as a surgeon and professor, countless horses have returned to high-level competition or gone on to have productive lives in second careers.
Think about it. What's the best way to enjoy a farm-to-table dining experience? I vote alfresco dining on an actual farm. This summer Haskells Farm, on the outskirts of Chadds Ford, will be staging three such farm dining adventures.
As the sun dipped below the trees last Friday, a mixed bunch of guests tromped along the land viewing fields of plentiful produce that spread out toward the horizon. They were on their way up to a bank barn that dates back to the 1600s that was festive with arrangements of local wildflowers, strings of twinkling lights and a vintage chandelier. The sounds of crickets, conversation and music ebbed and flowed in the gentle calm of the farm's natural beauty. Friends and family were set to savor a bounty of food harvested just hours before it lands on the plate.
"As a grower, some of the most rewarding things are seeing how the chefs use our products and how creative they are at putting these delicious dishes together," said proprietor H. G. Haskell. "I also enjoy talking with our guests. They are quite curious as to how we're able to grow such a variety of crops and how the farm operates."