George Pesek may not get full credit for importing the farm-to-fork movement to northern Indiana.
But in the 1990s, there weren’t many Midwestern restaurateurs who believed you could connect a local farm with what was going on the plate in the dining room. Pesek, who had worked in California restaurants, carried the idea to Chicago and Indiana when he moved from Napa Valley in 1996.
When he opened Corndance Cafe in Culver, Ind., in 1999, he was set on doing farm-to-fork. The first few years were rough. Now he’s riding a trend where people want to know more about their food: where it’s grown and how it’s handled.
- RELATED: Traverse City foodie tour offers good company and flavors, Nov. 3, 2014
That’s part of what hooks customers of the cafe and Corndance Tavern and Evil Czech breweries, which Pesek owns and operates with his wife, Tammy. That’s also how a group of people from the Elkhart area on the Dining a la King tour ended up on his farm, at his restaurant and brewery Saturday, May 9. About 20 people participated in the day trip put together by Flavor 574, The Elkhart Truth and Menno Travel Service
The tour started on Rooster Hill Farm, where the Peseks raise bison — big, burly beasts intertwined with American history. They raise the animals on the pasture, have them butchered at Martin’s Processing in Wakarusa and serve them at their restaurants.
“I think it’s the last protein humans haven’t messed with,” he said, noting how other species are genetically modified to make growers more money. “This is the last prehistoric animal we eat.”
- RELATED: New desserts coming to Four Winds Field, May 4, 2015
The animals are resistant to disease and protective of their young. The muscle, which becomes cuts of meat for the plate, doesn’t have fat in it because of the strength the animals maintain. They can live up to 50 years, but they generally live 24 to 28 months on Rooster Hill Farm before being killed humanely and then processed.
At Corndance Cafe for lunch, Pesek and his staff prepared and served bison tenderloin that had been pounded and rolled around asparagus, blue cheese and prosciutto. It was on a demi-glace sauce and plated with a risotto made from American barley. The care taken in raising the animals and preparing the food came through with rich flavors.
The animals had eaten the malted barley that had been used in brewing Evil Czech beer. It’s just part of the way the Peseks do business these days.
- RELATED: Double decker bus to get second life as taco stand at Evil Czech Brewery, Nov. 6, 2014
- RELATED: Small plates a big hit at Evil Czech Brewery, Sept. 8, 2014
“We’ve obviously come a long way,” Pesek told the group at his farm.
Customers in northern Indiana value locally grown food in a different way than they had. It mattered when he said the basil and roasted tomatoes used in the bruschetta came from Kruse Farms in Bristol. Even if not everyone in the group finished the kale salad with garbanzo beans, the diners could appreciate how it was sourced and prepared.
Buying and eating local doesn’t automatically guarantee quality. But Pesek likes the produce he and his staff find at Wakarusa Produce Auction and the relationships they have with 40 regional vendors who grow food for their businesses.
“We need to get back to the local,” said Pesek, 49, who is Czechoslovakian and was dubbed “Evil Czech” by his German mother who didn’t always appreciate his fierce bravado. “California’s going to run out of water. That’s going to be a blessing to the Midwest.”
As prices for California lettuce rise, it’ll be easier for local producers to raise and sell high-quality produce for less money. “It makes absolutely no sense to transport produce 3,000 miles as we do now,” he said.
The group toured the farm, the cafe and the brewery, where head brewer Simon O’Keeffe is working on transforming the small brewery to a facility that specializes in sour ales and barrel-aged beers.
Lakehouse Grille served the group a lovely dessert with strawberries and creme fraiche, and there was also time for walking and shopping in downtown Culver, a town on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee. The town is home to Culver Academy, summertime lake residents and locals.
“This is a nice little town,” said Jack Kobold, who, like most on the bus trip, was visiting of the first time.
There are more towns to explore, more stories to hear. Dining a la King and Flavor 574 will keep planning occasional trips out of the area to hear them. A trip to Portland, Ore., from September 16-21 is in the works, and more details will be released soon.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.