Rural chefs redefine country cooking, farm-to-table dining

meuer-drivewayFarmers used to pitch in as a neighborhood to rebuild a barn or harvest grain, one humid acre after another. Their end-of-day reward was a hearty spread of homemade pickles to pies, enough to feed a threshing crew, as my father used to say.

That obsolete reference to the communal meals of threshing crews, whose work separated grain from straw from one farm to the next, was on my mind while heading to Dave and Leslie Meuer’s 150-acre farm in Calumet County. On their hilltop mix of forest and pasture is a glorious view of Lake Winnebago’s eastern shoreline. Dozens see this after heading up the gravel driveway for a from-scratch farm dinner.

The Meuers’ occasional and seasonal farm-to-table meals are lessons in what stays the same as rural life changes. Diners get acquainted with strangers at long tables set simply but beautifully in a converted shed that typically feeds 80 people in one setting.

A chef and crew serve an artful, multi-course meal whose key ingredients are locally harvested but used in unpredictable ways, far beyond meat and potatoes. For the first of this year’s five farm meals, Kevin Woods of Village Hearthstone, Hilbert (population 1,100), presented six courses, beginning with toast slices topped with chicken liver pate, blueberries, pickled onions, pickled cucumbers, mustard and cheddar.

On the chef’s resume is work at Chicago’s Alinea Restaurant, rated the best in the world for four consecutive years by Elite Traveler readers. It is a three-star Michelin destination. alinearestaurant.com, 312-867-0110

“When we select the chefs, we want people who are creative with local products, who can provide something of a twist” on the familiar, Dave says.

What else? Sheboygan’s 8th Street Ale Haus introduced beer made with the Meuers’ maple syrup. Next up: strawberries from the farm’s you-pick acreage. Pumpkin is the featured ingredient in September. 8thstreetalehaus.com, 920-208-7540

Diners from Minnesota to Illinois find out about the farm dinners, now in their second year, and local residents bring out-of-state family or friends. In the farm shop are works by local artists and artisan products that include the Meuers’ syrup, honey, rolled oats and flour.

A penned area for young farm animals and room for children to run make the farm an attractive destination for field trips, too, especially when autumn arrives and a corn maze is ready for roaming.

Dave Meuer’s great-grandfather settled in the area, and farming is in his blood too. Only the mission and animals have changed. “We did dairying, but in 2008 and 2009, milk prices were terrible,” he notes. Switching to beef cattle and catering to schools and motor coach tours proved more prosperous. Two-mile, 45-minute and narrated hayrides teach about walnut gathering, maple-tree tapping and other rhythms of daily farm life.

“More people want to know where their food came from, how it’s grown and who grew it,” Dave believes. About one-half of this season’s dinner reservations already are filled, despite a ticket increase from $40 in 2014 to $60 this year.

The remaining Farm Flavors dinners at Meuer Farm, N2564 U.S. 151, near Brothertown, are June 18 with chef Alex Shea of The Vintage, Oshkosh; July 16 with Kevin Marsibilio of Marsibilio’s Trattoria, Mayville; Aug. 20 with Chad Kornetzke of Lola’s on the Lake, Elkhart Lake; and Sept. 17 with Jake Miller of Gather Americana, Appleton.

Reservations are required, and a ticket includes tax, gratuity and some type of farm talk or tour. A cash bar opens at 5 p.m., dinner begins at 6 p.m. and the farm activity starts around 7:15 p.m. Meuer Farm is 10 miles west of Chilton. meuerfarm.com, 920-418-2676

Village Hearthstone, 326 W. Main St., Hilbert, busts stereotypes about rural dining in Wisconsin. Rare are deep-fried items on this menu of stepped-up seasonal and comfort foods. A cheeseburger, for example, is dressed with brick cheese and a proprietary sauce. Chicken salad is served on rosemary-onion bread. Brussels sprouts are sautéed in apple cider vinegar with shallots, bacon and pecans. Cabbage salad arrives with smoked salmon, beets, red onions, rye croutons and a dressing of dill with sour cream.

Sally Peck, restaurant manager, says a strong rural heritage is the foundation for these inventive recipes. Reclaimed materials are a décor priority. That means vintage plates from grandma’s era to hardwood flooring and a restored tin ceiling from another downtown building. On walls are photos of everyday life in long-ago Hilbert.

Chef Kevin’s goal is to develop a more intricate menu than he has now and work directly with farmers who will raise the caliber and quantity of poultry and meats that he needs. “We’re inconsistently busy,” he says of his location, which colleague Tracy Darling transformed three years ago from its more predictable small-town fare.

Staff present a hyper-local meal at 6 p.m. July 9 at Sunrise Valley Organics and Natural Health Farm, W4861 Moore Rd., near Stockbridge. Some courses involve fresh alfalfa. Meal cost is $49, which includes tax, gratuity, music and interaction with organic beef and poultry farmers Keith and Rose Moehn (also an acupressure and AromaTouch massage practitioner). In addition to locally grown products, their farm store stocks holistic health items and natural dietary supplements. 920-439-1887

Village Hearthstone is handling the July 9 meal reservations, and the restaurant’s Extreme Go Local Harvest Dinner at 6 p.m. Sept. 22 is a four-course meal for $39. “If it didn’t grow up here, it’s not on the plate,” Kevin promises. His menu changes often, but pizzas baked in a stone oven are perennial favorites. Rhubarb mojitos are a spring cocktail special. villagehearthstone.com, 920-853-3013