To help you experience the fullness of the Culinary Vegetable Institute and what it has to offer to chefs, diners, and other visitors and guests, we want to take you back in time, back before the Culinary Vegetable Institute existed in its present state. In fact, we’ll go back to when it didn’t exist at all, other than in a captivating glimmer in Mr. Bob’s eye.
To make that happen, we invite you to enter our virtual time machine. What it looks like, specifically, is up to you and your imagination – but, because it’s connected to the Culinary Vegetable Institute, you can rest assured it’s got the latest and greatest in cutting-edge equipment and gadgets, welcoming and comfortable, providing you with an experience like nothing you’ve ever experienced before (or likely will experience, ever again!). Plus, no matter how many of you climb into the time machine, two things are certain:
- There is enough room for everyone and for his or her perspectives.
- Each of you will have your own unique and marvelous journey.
Now, folks, let’s step back in time. (Be careful! This first step in the time machine is set a bit high—but that’s okay because, at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, everyone shares a helpful hand.)
Here goes . . .
“Well, Dad,” Farmer Lee said, “the good news is that we’ve got a couple of new chefs who want to tour our farm tomorrow. Fortunately, I was able to get them rooms at a hotel that isn’t too far away.”
“Oh,” Mr. Bob said. “Oh . . . that’s, um, good.”
“Dad?” Farmer Lee said, a bit concerned. “Is something wrong? You seem a bit, I don’t know. A bit distracted.”
“It’s nothing,” Mr. Bob said. “I was just thinking how wonderful it would be if. Well, if. Oh, never mind.”
“Tell me, Dad.”
“Really, Lee. It’s nothing. And, as you know, these fields sure don’t plow themselves.”
“Dad! We’ll get to the fields in a minute. Nothing you think about is ever ‘nothing.’ Nothing!”
“Okay. If you insist. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could build a place where chefs could stay? I mean, build it right here. They could visit us, we could show them what’s growing in our fields in that exact moment in time, and then they could bring the produce back into an incredible kitchen, and just play, play until they got tired. They could sleep here, and then get up to play all over again.”
Wow. Just wow. As you might imagine, as the fields got plowed that day, visions of culinary sugarplums danced in many, many heads in Huron, Ohio.
And that, my friends, is how the seeds of the Culinary Vegetable Institute, affectionately known as the CVI, came to be planted.
“We’d been bringing chefs out to the farm for years,” Farmer Lee explains, “and, after they’d tour the farm, we’d make sure they had nice hotel rooms. But, with Dad’s vision – one we called a one-year plan that took ten years to bring to fruition – we now had a place where the most forward-thinking, open-minded chefs could experience the farm and our amazing produce, while playing with the latest and greatest in tools and toys for chefs, experimenting without limitation and without any expectations over outcomes.”
Lee compares the CVI to a Willy Wonka factory for chefs, a world where pure imagination can—and does—flourish. Willy Wonka’s world, as you might remember, was filled with incredible shapes and sounds and colors and contraptions, and so is the Culinary Vegetable Institute.
And, thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can re-remember what Willa Wonka’s magic was like.
“The reality is that chefs become chefs,” Lee says, “because they love the magic of food, of being creative. But, the more successful they get, the more they find themselves spending time dealing with HR, PR, and just about any and every other acronym dreamed up, leaving little time for what brought them to the craft in the first place. And, when they come to the Culinary Vegetable Institute, they can return to the roots of their passion, to the source of what brought them to this industry in the first place: their ability to create.”
Lee remembers when a very well-known chef brought two sous chefs with him to the CVI. “As they were tasting product,” Lee said, “this amazing chef’s hands were literally shaking. He said that he felt like a kid in a candy shop, saying his mind was ready to explode with new ideas.”
One of the chefs at the CVI, Tristan Acevedo, wholeheartedly understands. “I remember when I first walked into the Culinary Vegetable Institute,” he said, “and I instantly knew that I was in the happiest place on earth. As a line cook, the romance of cooking can quickly get lost in the day-to-day grunge, but the CVI is a unique opportunity, one like no other.”
Reasons why, Tristan says, include the following:
- the respect you receive and the workplace culture
- the luxurious opportunity to really pause and consider all the nuances of an ingredient or process
- the chance to exercise different parts of your brain, to let cooking be an intellectual yet creative pursuit
- the ability to NOT become boxed in
“Cooking, at its highest form,” Tristan says, “is both physically stimulating and mentally tantalizing, and the CVI provides a sort of elevator that allows cooks to reach a level of expressive experimentation that, in other environments, may take 10 to 15 years to achieve.”
And, before we move on, here is what one guest chef, Amanda Cohen from New York City’s award-winning Dirt Candy restaurant, shared with us. Chef Amanda was the first vegetarian chef to appear on Iron Chef America, when she and Chef Masaharu Morimoto went head to head using the unforgettably incredible cruciferous vegetable, broccoli.
Amanda first heard about the CVI when buying fresh vegetables from The Chef’s Garden. “These vegetables are just amazing,” she says, “and we began talking about how I could make my way to the CVI.” And, make it she did, creating a fabulous meal at the CVI.
She has no one particular favorite vegetable from The Chef’s Garden, but she loves the baby versions. “They are teeny, tiny, and so cute that you want to snuggle up with them,” she says, adding that she imagines the miniature vegetables being harvested by adorable, magical elves.
Nuts and Bolts of the CVI’s Creation
We’ll now briefly return to the story of how the CVI came to be.
Farmer Lee notes that the Culinary Vegetable Institute could not have become a reality without the support of numerous amazing chefs, including Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Ed Brown, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and others.
“We’d taken the blueprints for the CVI to New York,” Lee remembers, “and people were blown away by the idea. They lent their names to the project, served on our advisory board, and helped to solicit so much kitchen equipment and more that all was literally donated. Even today, companies that produce for chefs make sure we have the sexiest toys at the CVI, a place that serves as the symbiosis site for chefs and farmers.”
This culinary center was designed so that there are no barriers between the kitchen and the great room, and you’re welcome to stroll into the kitchen at any time. “I must warn you, though,” Lee adds, “if you’re there for more than three minutes, you won’t get kicked out—in fact, you’ll be embraced—but you may also be asked to put on an apron and join in the fun.”
The CVI is a melting pot, one where passionate people meet others who are equally as excited, people who are down to earth and approachable. “I hear so many stories about people who connect when they come together at the CVI in ways I can’t necessarily explain,” Lee adds. “There is just so much in this world that we just don’t understand.”
Popular event series include:
- Vegetable Showcases: These feature one family of vegetables, harvested at the peak of its season, where chefs explore every possible iteration of the plant. Our CVI team will use every part at every stage of its life in preparing flavors, textures and temperatures that are both familiar and wildly inventive.
- Uncorked Food Wine Pairings: This allows us the opportunity to look at the world of food and wine pairing from the perspective of the quintessential vegetable farm. Vegetables are moving toward the center of the plate, with flavors, textures and cooking methods that play a significant role in the overall impression of a dish.
This is also an outstanding venue for weddings, team building retreats, corporate meetings, private dining events from holiday parties to fundraisers and more, research and development retreats, and much more.
Chef Jamie shares just one way he and his team implement a zero-waste policy. “We don’t really peel vegetables. We wash and scrub. If we had peels, hypothetically, we would use them. With all of those peels, we would dehydrate them. That does a couple of things. It lowers the volume for us, it allows us to use them whenever we want to. It does not require a resource like a freezer. They’d be chucked into a bigger bag or box. And, as they increase, that dried peel ─ carrot peel, onion skins, celery peels, garlic root, whatever random parts and pieces ─ end up in what we call our dried mirepoix. And dried mirepoix gets fortified into stocks and broths.”
Now, THAT is zero waste.
Rainbow of Perspectives
The CVI reminds us of the ancient folk tale of India that shared how six men, born blind, had an intense curiosity about elephants. These men were told, according to the Peace Corps, that elephants could “trample forests, carry huge burdens, and frighten young and old with their loud trumpet calls.”
Why, then, did the Rajah allow his beloved daughter to ride such a creature? One decided that the elephant must be a powerful giant, while another said this creature must surely be graceful, gentle enough to allow a princess to ride on its back. The third one warned that the elephant’s horn was so sharp that it could pierce a man’s heart—while a fourth explained that an elephant was really an oversized cow, with tall tales created by people who loved to exaggerate.
The fifth was sure that the elephant was magical, while the sixth one questioned the existence of this animal at all. The village grew tired of their bickering and led the men to an elephant that they could actually touch. That, unfortunately, didn’t end the debate because each of the men touched the elephant in a place that confirmed already-held perspectives.
The man who’d thought the elephant must be a powerful giant touched the immense side of this mammoth-sized animal, confirming his perspective. The man who envisioned a graceful animal touched the elephant’s limber trunk, while the man who warned of a sharp spear touched the pointed tusk. So, both men continued to believe what they originally thought.
The fourth man, who believed an elephant was an oversized cow, touched a leg, confirming his belief. The fifth, who thought the elephant was magical, touched an ear, and imagined a magic carpet flying over mountains, while the sixth–who questioned the existence of the elephant— touched the tail and envisioned a piece of rope.
We’ve discovered that different people appreciate different aspects of the CVI, just as these men did with the elephant – and here’s more interpretations for you to consider.
Chef Jamie Simpson Shares Insights
Yes, he says, the CVI has a world-class kitchen with a dynamite staff and a beautiful event center. Yes, the garden is shaped like Farmer Lee’s bow tie and, yes, the light shines beautifully into the private dining room. Chef Jamie also suggests that sharing feedback from interns at the CVI is illuminating, so here are snippets:
“As a volunteer in my first few visits to the CVI, I loved walking around the corner past the stairs and into the kitchen. It was a moment of anticipation and excitement. I knew that, every time I turned that corner, something different was going on in the kitchen: new faces, new foods, new products, sometimes people I had only read about and dreamt of meeting, with genuine hospitality and warm welcomes. It has always felt like a second home.”
Another intern noted the following, among other stream-of-consciousness impressions: the glow of the greenhouse, morning coffee, the anticipation of people walking around that corner, opportunities to teach and share and exchange thoughts, picking flavors from the front garden, the fireplace, the dinner bell, plating art, the sound of sweeping, rotating frames of bees, muddy boots, muddy pigs, ramp season, morel season, walnut season, asparagus season, tomato season, slow food, shadows, light and more.
“The CVI,” Lee adds, “brings people and their ideas together, like-minded people who share trials and tribulations, and celebrate successes. The potential for collaboration is magnified as people discover new and interesting ways to connect with one another in an environment that isn’t pretentious or uptight. Chefs and other professionals who are under so much pressure in their daily lives unwind in the beauty of nature.”
Finally, we’ll close with thoughts from another CVI chef, Dario Torres.
“Welcome to a place,” Chef Dario says, “where everything is edible. Everything wants to be sampled. The garden is longing to be consumed. Her motto is ‘try me.’ Who knew mere leaves could carry so many flavors?” (Does anyone else notice echoes of Farmer Lee’s Willy Wonka comparison here??)
“Here,” Dario continues, “the potentiality is prized more than the actuality, it is given preference. It is necessary for some sort of actuality to materialize in order to have something to serve. But the potentiality holds sway. Potentiality in two ways: before the creation begins, and once a plate is sent out. Whatever elements went onto that plate still retain their power of potentiality, to be expressed another time, with another dish. But that one tomato can never be set on the table again. Other tomatoes, equal tomatoes, but never the same tomato.
“It’s not a question of whether there is something more. It’s a statement that there is something more, and we are on the chase.”
We Invite You to Join in the Conversation
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