Just over an hour from Houston, the route to Animal Farm is a bit peculiar. Instead of a list of written directions or an address to stick into a GPS, I received a hand-drawn map with instructions on how to navigate the dirt roads that included landmarks like cattle guards, ponds and a "little tin house."
It might not have been cutting edge (it's doubtful my phone would have found a signal near rural Belleville, Tex., anyway) but it worked.
To call it lovely is a vast understatement. There's nothing quite like a chef telling you that the produce you're about to eat was picked about an hour before it was served.
Nowadays local farmers are more present than ever in the foodie community. We see their farms listed on local restaurant menus and purchase from them at farmers markets and through CSAs. So combining the farm, some top local chefs and great wines to create an unforgettable outdoor meal is an idea whose idea has come.
With this in mind, a small group of passionate people including designer Dutch Small, Crystal Lee and Uchi director of culinary operations Philip Speer have organized a series of monthly retreats at Animal Farm that will feature "natural beauty and culinary innovation," with some of the best chefs from both Houston and Austin participating.
The first dinner, which took place in October, featured a six-course dinner created by former Roots Bistro chef German Mosquera alongside current executive chef Chandler Rothbard with chocolates from Richard Kaplan of Brown Paper Chocolates, bread from Slow Dough Bread Co. and wine pairings by 13 Celsius' Adele Corrigan.
Calling this event a dinner isn't quite the full story, though. Activities started at 3 p.m., including hors d'oeuvres by the pool (Animal Farm owners Cas and Gita Van Woerden live in this electricity-free retreat full-time after giving up their Houston pied-à-terre two years ago) and a tour of the large organic gardens, chicken coups and more before sitting down to dinner in an open-air, thatched-roof pavilion as the sun set.
To call it lovely is a vast understatement. There's nothing quite like a chef telling you that the produce you're about to eat was picked about an hour before it was served. I swear, you can taste the freshness.
For the second dinner, which takes place on Nov. 24, will feature chefs from Houston's Uchi and Austin's Uchiko including Speer, Kaz Edwards, former Cinq executive chef Jeramie Robison and Jack Yost, who will helm the third Uchi concept next year. Tickets are $175 and available here. Diners who don't want to drive back to Houston after 10 courses with Corrigan's wine pairings have the option to bring equipment and camp out at the farm (there's an enclosed space near the pavilion that was previously used as a yoga retreat) or can book rooms at two nearby bed and breakfasts.
"I'm excited," Speer, says noting that he hopes the series can compete with Outstanding in the Field, which he describes as one of his favorite projects. "Her farm is awesome . . . Once we saw it wheels started turning with cool ideas, fall flavors . . . there's a lot of greens and cool stuff to use."
Speer said that Uchi has been sourcing from Animal Farm for years but that after seeing the size and scope of the operation, they are working with the Van Woerdens to grow specific things for the restaurants. Uchi chefs were inspired by the thatched roofs and furniture of Animal Farm's public spaces and will incorporate a "Balinese theme" into the flavors they use at the dinner.
For those who can't get away during the post-Thanksgiving weekend, Speer says Uchi will likely host another dinner in the spring. In the meantime, Speer and company are lining up chefs from both Houston and Austin (since Animal Farm is roughly in-between the two cities and sells produce to both) to create their own menus.
"It's not necessarily Uchi-themed but will be us hosting with guest chefs," Speer says.
Dates following November's dinner haven't been confirmed yet, so Speer says he isn't ready to release names, but says that he's seen enough interest to keep the series going for well over a year.