A farm-to-table dining experience

photography by Jordan Weiland and Tina Sargeant • featuring Chef Marcos Fernandez

In recent years, the phrase “farm-to-table” has become supplanted firmly on menus of popular restaurants across America — and for good reason. We want to know where our food comes from. Farm-to-table is a dynamic effort to literally bring our food home, from growing, harvesting, selling, and consuming, to mix locality with seasonality. This means regularly changing up the things we eat, harmoniously merging the weather with the growing season. Naturally, Central Florida is the perfect venue for a farm-to-table fare. Many fruits and vegetables can be grown year round, the mild winter climates working in our favor.

Farm-to-table is a way of life, a philosophy of eating and of living. It’s about consuming food in a way that preserves the cultural landscape of an entire community. A true farm-to-table establishment knows the sources that provide the foundation for their menus. They are intimately connected to the farms that raise the beef they serve. They know where that farm is located, what day the shipments arrive, what the livestock are fed, and even — in some cases — the names of the animals that were butchered.

True farm-to-table is an intimate experience. Indigenously produced food shrinks the time it takes to get from the ground onto your plate, then into your mouth. A beet is exponentially tastier when fresh from its roots; a ripe, ruby red grapefruit is best immediately after being plucked from its branch. The farmers who sell at the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market likely picked their wares that morning, or at most the day before. Right now, this time of year, fresh, local food surrounds us just waiting to be devoured.

As part of The Lakelander’s series of Supper Clubs, we endeavored to create a Lakeland farm-to-table experience, to prove that fresh is always better and that it can be done well right here at home. The talented Chef Marcos Fernandez, executive chef at the Lakeland Yacht and Country Club, without hesitation jumped on board and accepted The Lakelander’s challenge to create a fine-dining, locally sourced menu. From the mild balancing characteristics of palate cleansing chilled blueberry soup with hand-picked star fruit granita, to the rich, soul-soothing pumpkin bisque served in a bread boule from the oven of our own local Bread Pedlar, the menu was inherently Lakeland. When all was checked and balanced, 90 percent of our Supper Club’s bounty was grown or raised locally. The remaining 10 percent was made available through canning and freezing, a technique that all native Floridians should have in their repertoire.

In selecting a protein for the menu, Chef Marcos chose duck and goat. He wanted to showcase proteins that don’t usually bring to mind luxurious taste-bud experiences, yet deserve to. In a study of whole-animal cookery, the chef let nothing go to waste. Nearly every course included an element from each animal. Duck breasts were cured for bacon. The legs and thighs were slow cooked in their own fat in order to top beignets. The liver was used to make pâté. A stock was made as an integral cooking agent in a creamy, white-bean risotto. As for the goat, first the milk was used to construct a handmade chèvre, or goat cheese, which was highlighted in two courses: a croquette served with a spicy Peruvian yellow pepper sauce, and a bountiful winter salad of roasted beet, grapefruit, avocado mousse accentuated by lemon basil vinaigrette. The main course consisted of Goat Three Ways. Cabrito al Horno was a sampling of succulent crispy slow roasted shoulder and leg meat laid atop a hidden layer of goat liver rillettes. This was paired with perfectly seared tenderloin, bathed in a deep mahogany demi-glace made from its own stock and a served with a dollop of the manchego-laced creamy risotto. Fries from The Root, my fry cart, were hand cut, double fried to crispy perfection, and served alongside the fourth course. The finale, a cylinder of frozen white chocolate lemongrass mousse atop a moist, dense plank of crème fraîche, refreshed the palate and bid our guests adieu with the most refreshing of sendoffs.
With the menu in place and a plan to execute with perfection, we needed guests. In early fall, The Lakelander invited subscribers to attend the first annual Secret Supper Club, whose location would remain a mystery until the morning of the event. Wanting to maintain an intimate dining experience, the guest list was limited to the first 16 people who replied. The invitations read: “A secret supper, in a secret location. An intimate culinary affair. A social evening at a communal table. The Lakelander’s Secret Supper experience is available for a select few subscribers who welcome a breath of fresh air, stimulating conversation, and clandestine dining in sophisticated style.” The day of the Secret Supper Club, everything seemed to fall into place as perfectly as one could have imagined. With help from several local partners, the stage was set. Premier Party provided tents and generators. The table was perfectly prepared by 2 Sisters Events & Design. Fount, a local acoustic trio, was prepped and ready. Chef Marcos and his team were poised and prepared. At just the time the sun decided to call it quits for the day, the guests arrived. The sunset provided a beautiful backdrop of oranges, pinks, and purples to dance in the distance as guests were greeted with a pre-dinner cocktail — Hibiscus & Blueberry Whiskey Tea — followed by appetizers of Goat Cheese Croquette with Local Honey and Yucca Huancaina, the yucca fresh from the chef ’s own garden. The live acoustic musings of Fount added to the atmosphere and created the perfectly balanced ambiance for an intimate dinner among strangers. Seated under a tent in the middle of a South Lakeland blueberry farm’s rolling hills, the guests began their meal with course one: Duck Rillette. All was going well. The guests were conversing and getting to know each other. Chef Marcos and his team were prepping and cooking in an adjacent tent. The Lakelander staff was close at hand to provide assistance as needed.

Guests continued to enjoy each course as evidenced by the empty plates that circled back to the kitchen.

As the sun slowly sank behind the trees, disappeared beneath the hills, and bid us a fond farewell, ambient white lights twinkled all around. And a stiff breeze rolled in. And the sky turned a tempestuous swirly gray and black. Then the rains came. This time of year, a storm of such proportions is nearly unheard of. Conversely, this is Florida, and no storm is impossible on any given day. Nonetheless, the storm rolled in, and, as with any uninvited guest, it stayed though it was not welcomed. The team scurried to ensure the guests’ experience did not falter. We had to keep the food intact. We hurriedly shored up the seams between the tents by merging those that separated the kitchen from our guests’ more weatherproof outdoor dining room. We moved the prep tables into the center of the workspace to keep them from harm’s way. Amidst all of this commotion, however, Chef Marcos did not flinch. He didn’t stop cooking. And he remained a calm force in the face of immense stress.
After course three, the guests were romantically and unknowingly transported into an instant candlelit experience when the generators blew. The kitchen was left in total darkness. Chef Marcos and I cooked the remainder of the meal on three small butane burners (which we’d brought as part of a just-in-case backup plan, thankfully). The music played on. In the kitchen, the rain began to fall horizontally. The staff was drenched; the food was not. Dishes were plated by the light of handheld devices and under the protection of a smattering of mismatched umbrellas. Yet, Chef Marcos continued to produce stellar food, exceptionally plated, and delivered with aplomb. The guests kept conversing and laughing and eating. For the better part of three courses, the kitchen was without power or light. But, without missing a beat, beautifully prepared and presented fares continued to go out, and the guests continued to enjoy each course as evidenced by the empty plates that circled back to the kitchen. Finally, the storm gave us respite and the lights switched on. We completed the preparation of the main entrée as intended, a nice sear from the flat top that cranked up just in the nick of time. Immediately, as if on cue, after dessert was served, the rain ceased and the cloud coverage subsided into the distance revealing a brilliant full moon making its way through the skyline. The evening certainly did not unfold as we had envisioned, yet it was a memorable experience for all in attendance. The night showcased the best of dining in its purest form, and it all happened right on the farm.