Alltech’s business strategy is to embrace change, not fight it

May 20, 2014

Alltech1Alltech founder and president Pearse Lyons, left, presented the Humanitarian Award to Lopez Lomong at Alltech’s symposium Monday. Lomong was kidnapped by soldiers in his native Sudan at 6, but eventually became two-time Olympic runner. Photo by Tom Eblen

Nobody likes change — it’s human nature. Kentuckians seem especially averse to it, which is ironic considering our heritage.

Two centuries ago, the pioneering risk-takers who came to Kentucky seeking a better life were on the cutting edge of change in America. But their adventurous spirit was soon replaced by a cautious, conservative mindset.

Too many Kentuckians fear innovation, mistrust higher education, deny science and instinctively oppose new ideas and ways of doing things. That is one reason I attend the Alltech Symposium each May. It is always an eye-opener.

The 30th annual Alltech Symposium, which began Sunday and ends Wednesday, brought 1,700 people from 59 nations to Lexington Center. The theme was “What If?”

The discussions — simultaneously translated into four languages — revolved around a question no less audacious than how a world of 9 billion people will feed itself in the year 2050.

Alltech began in a suburban Lexington garage in 1980. The privately held animal nutrition, food and beverage company now has operations in 128 countries and annual sales of $1 billion. The company’s energetic founder and president, Pearse Lyons, who turns 70 in August, has set a sales goal of $4 billion through growth and acquisition during his lifetime.

Lyons is not a native Kentuckian, but perhaps the next closest thing: an Irishman. Alltech has been wildly successful because Lyons and his wife, Deirdre, have used their complementary skills to create a company that tries to embody the strengths and avoid the shortcomings of both cultures.

“Sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemies,” Lyons said, noting that both Kentuckians and the Irish have often been stereotyped as backward.

Alltech’s often-contrarian approach to business is about problem-solving through science, education, innovation, sustainability, creativity, challenging boundaries and anticipating global needs. “We’ve built a business by walking the road less traveled,” he said.

Alltech’s science is based on natural ingredients and processes. That has been controversial, because many corporate agriculture models rely heavily on artificial chemicals. But the strategy has become a plus with consumers who worry about food safety and nutrition.

Lyons said Alltech’s stand against the routine use of antibiotics in food animals has cost it customers, but is simply common sense in light of scientific evidence of the problems caused by antibiotic abuse. “My mum used to say common sense is the rarest sense out there,” he said.

Lyons is equally forthright about the scientific evidence of man’s role in climate change. “The carbon footprint issue is with us to stay,” he said. “Those of us who embrace it will be successful.”

Because he spends so much time traveling around the world, Lyons brings valuable international perspectives to an often insular state. That has made him more open to new ideas, and, he thinks, more cognizant than most Kentuckians of the state’s unrealized economic potential.

Kentucky is already a globally recognized brand, thanks to Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Kentucky Derby and bourbon whiskey. Lyons thinks it is the best state brand in the nation. “The name that resonates, the name that people like, is Kentucky,” he said. “It’s open. It’s warm.”

That has certainly been true for Kentucky Ale, which Alltech began producing in Lexington in 2006 and is now sold in 20 states and four other countries.

Alltech this week unveiled big plans for Eastern Kentucky: a brewery and distillery in Pikeville, whose waste heat and grain byproducts will then be used for raising fish in tanks. Alltech has been studying this at its Nicholasville headquarters.

“The question is this: What are we going to do when we can’t get all those fish from the oceans?” he said. “Where poultry is today, many predict the aquaculture industry will be in five, 10, 15 years, and we propose to be right out there.”

Alltech plans to produce trout, chickens and eggs in Eastern Kentucky and brand them to the region. “We don’t need to be in Kentucky,” Lyons said, noting that 98 percent of Alltech’s revenues come from outside the state. “But Kentucky’s still a great place to do business.”

Alltech embraces big problems, Lyons said, because the flip side of every problem is a business opportunity for solving it.

“I’m a scientist at the end of the day, and scientists look for solutions,” he said. “If we put our heads in the sand, we’re never going to achieve anything.”


National Provisions gives Lexington food scene a new flair

December 9, 2013

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Owner Andrea Sims works behind the counter at National Boulangerie, a bakery that opened last week at the corner of National and Walton Avenues. Sims, an artist, and her husband, restaurant veteran Krim Boughalem, are renovating the former industrial building into sophisticated space with an open feel.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When Andrea Sims moved back to Lexington from New York City with her French husband, Krim Boughalem, they made waves in the local food scene by opening Wine + Market in 2008 and Table Three Ten in 2010.

Their latest venture could be more like a tsunami.

National Boulangerie, a French-inspired bakery, opened last week at the corner of National and Walton avenues. Within six months, they plan to build out the rest of their 16,000-square-foot space with a brasserie restaurant, wine shop, beer garden, grocery and oyster bar under the umbrella name National Provisions.

“Wine + Market was a perfect start for what we want to do, but the space was too small,” Boughalem said. “This is the same thing on a much bigger scale.”

The couple’s goal is to replicate aspects of traditional French cuisine and food systems, but give them a distinctly Kentucky flavor. Through volume buying, doing all of their own cooking and managing the synergies of each business to reduce waste, they hope to keep food quality high and prices affordable.

“We would like to make everything from scratch here, with ingredients from local farmers,” Sims said. “We’re trying to get back to the old-fashioned idea of food.”

131203Boulangerie0078Plans include brewing small batches of their own beer for the beer garden. The wine shop will include a tap so customers can bring their own containers to fill. Boughalem also plans to sell seafood wholesale to other restaurants.

“A traditional French brasserie has a theme, the region where it is located,” he said. “Our theme will be the Bluegrass, so we will mix French bread and pastries with biscuits and gravy, chicken and dumplings.”

National Provisions is housed in a turn-of-the-century industrial building the couple has leased long-term from Walker Properties, which is redeveloping National Avenue as mixed-use commercial zone. This building’s previous uses included a bottling plant and tile shop.

“We had noticed the building driving by and just loved it,” Sims said. “When it came available, we had just opened Table Three Ten and weren’t even settled in there. But we went ahead and got it because the building and location were just perfect for us.”

Only minutes from downtown, National Provisions is nestled between the increasingly affluent Bell Court, Mentelle and Kenwick neighborhoods and the busy corridor where Midland Avenue becomes Winchester Road.

Boughalem, 47, who had nearly two decades of restaurant experience in New York and London before moving to Lexington, spent two years scouring eBay and auctions for used restaurant equipment and fixtures.

The couple has assembled a huge commercial kitchen that will be the engine of their enterprise. Brian Surbaugh, executive chef at Table Three Ten, heads a five-person staff that is getting the kitchen up and running.

Sims, 44, redesigned the cavernous building into elegantly casual space with an open floor plan and lots of natural light. Red steel frames of glass will divide the beer garden and wine shop — and give patrons a full view of the kitchen.

The bakery’s exposed ceiling beams have been painted bright red. Counters and tables were made from pink Norwegian marble bought at a bargain price. Sims spent countless hours painting a faux-marble finish on the walls — an old-world skill she learned while studying art in France.

A year after opening Table Three Ten on West Short Street at Cheapside, the couple sold Wine + Market, at the corner of West Second and Jefferson streets, to Renee and Seth Brewer, who also own the nearby Enoteca wine bar. Boughalem and Sims plan to keep Table Three Ten.

National Boulangerie is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. Once the restaurant, beer garden and wine shop open, operating hours will extend to midnight.

The market will be the most unusual aspect of the couple’s plan. They expect it to open by late spring, selling fresh local meat and produce, fresh seafood and European cheeses, meats and specialty foods.

Boughalem and Sims think they will find plenty of customers, thanks to the growing popularity of fresh, local food and TV cooking shows that are turning more people into “foodies.”

The market also will offer prepared, ready-to-eat meals, which Boughalem thinks will appeal to people who want gourmet food but lack the time or skill to prepare it. “People are getting used to buying more quality,” he said. “For many, good food is a luxury they can afford.”

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John Egerton chronicled the South, from civil rights to barbecue

November 23, 2013

For a young Southern journalist getting started in the 1980s, there was no better role model and mentor than John Egerton, who died unexpectedly last Thursday at his home in Nashville. He was 78.

I got to know John while I was covering Tennessee for The Associated Press. When I started traveling the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he became a friend and valuable resource.

As a freelance journalist since 1971, John’s award-winning books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles chronicled in-depth so many things that fascinated me about Southern history, culture, politics and food.

I often called John for information and advice, which he modestly dispensed in a soft drawl. And I knew that if he was in town whenever I came to Nashville, he would take me to some memorable hole-in-the-wall for a delicious breakfast or lunch.

JohnEgerton-webJohn was born in Atlanta but his family soon moved to Cadiz, Ky.. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, which inducted him into its Journalism Hall of Fame and Hall of Distinguished Alumni. UK Libraries honored him last April with its Award for Intellectual Achievement.

I first knew John through two of his early books, A Mind to Stay Here (1970) and The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America (1974). When we met he had just published Generations: An American Family (1983), the engrossing story of nine generations of Kentucky’s Ledford family.

The book that made Egerton famous was Southern Food, a combination cookbook, travel guide and social history that was named the 1987 book of the year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

John had spent more than a year eating his way across the South without adding much weight to his tall, lanky frame or, he said, raising his cholesterol. His book chronicled the evolution and role of food in Southern culture, including the substantial contribution of black culture.

I wrote one of the first articles about the book, for the Journal-Constitution. We met for the interview at Hap Townes, a long-gone Nashville “meat and three” where musicians, executives and factory workers sat elbow-to-elbow enjoying house specialties that included stewed raisins.

“If I had been braver, I would have called the book The Stomach of the South; I think W.J. Cash would have understood,” he told me, referring to the author of the 1941 classic, The Mind of the South.

John followed Southern Food with, Side Orders: Small Helpings of Southern Cookery and Culture (1990). He helped start the Southern Foodways Alliance, and he edited the first volume of Cornbread Nation 1: The Best of Southern Food Writing (2002). But John was always amused at his fame as a food writer, claiming his only culinary expertise was eating.

He published several other books: a history of Nashville, an exploration of Tennessee’s 19th century utopian communities and a collection of his magazine essays that explored the South’s complexity.

His masterpiece was the 700-page book Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994). It drew on his nearly three decades of reporting on Southern race relations, beginning in 1965 for the magazine Southern Education Report. It won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and it deserved a Pulitzer Prize.

John’s soft voice, gentle humor and modest demeanor masked a moral compass that compelled him to speak out against things he believed were wrong.

When the Tennessee Valley Authority condemned his Trigg County farm and others in the 1960s to build the Land Between the Lakes outdoor recreation area, John became the lead plaintiff in a federal court battle. With Justice William O. Douglas dissenting, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

In 2006, John wrote a book of political satire, Ali Dubyiah and the Forty Thieves. He described it, only half seriously, as his only work of fiction.

John’s most popular writing celebrated what was good about the South, but his biggest contribution as a journalist and historian was his examination of what held the region back: race, class, poverty, inequity and corruption. He was a masterful storyteller who had the courage to not only report facts, but explain what those facts added up to.

 


Chef’s tour highlights growth in Kentucky’s local food culture

October 29, 2013

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Chef Ouita Michel, left, talks with Jean and Leo Keene, who since 1988 have operated Blue Moon Farm in Madison County, which specializes in garlics. Michel said she has bought garlic from them for her restaurants for years. Michel led a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market on Saturday that included Claire Carpenter, second from left. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Ouita Michel doesn’t get to the Lexington Farmers Market much anymore.

Since the acclaimed chef and restaurant entrepreneur became one of the largest buyers of Kentucky vegetables, fruits and meats, her employees do most of the shopping, and many of the 50 local producers she buys from deliver.

The five restaurants she and husband Chris Michel have created since 2001 — Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station Deli and Midway School Bakery in Woodford County, and Windy Corner Market and Smithtown Seafood in Lexington — have bought more than $1 million in Kentucky agricultural products.

Michel credits the flavor and quality of Kentucky food for her restaurants’ success. And that success has helped fuel a local-food renaissance that began in the 1970s with farmers markets and pioneer restaurants such as Alfalfa and Dudley’s.

The Fayette Alliance, a land-use advocacy group, recently asked Michel to give a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market. Michel said it was a good opportunity for her to meet new producers she might want to buy from — and she did meet some.

Many people are now willing to pay a little more for healthier, better-tasting food grown with fewer chemicals. They also like the idea of their money going to local farmers rather than giant corporations.

Kentucky’s local food economy began taking off in 2004, when the tobacco quota buyout program helped finance crop diversification. The state’s Kentucky Proud program then helped market those products.

Whenever possible, Michel said, her restaurants buy local food. For example, the lettuce and tomatoes for Windy Corner’s salads are grown 100 yards up the road at Berries on Bryan Station, a small, family-owned organic farm that also grows okra for Ramsey’s restaurants.

131026OuitaMichel0072About a dozen people showed up Saturday to take Michel’s tour. She walked them from stall to stall, looking for lesser-known vegetables, such as Hubbard squash and Jerusalem artichoke, and explaining how she likes to prepare them.

Michel introduced the group to several of her suppliers, including Eileen O’Donohue of Kentucky Lamb in Washington County, and Ann and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, the state’s largest certified organic farm.

“There is a seasonality to local food,” Michel said, and new techniques such as hoop houses have extended vegetable growing seasons in Kentucky.

Michel develops menus around seasonally available produce. Her restaurants also try to use almost all of the local cattle, chickens and lambs they buy, not just choice cuts.

“We need to eat all of the animal to make it work economically,” she said. “It’s also better for the farmers, and it’s just a more responsible thing to do.”

Michel’s newest restaurant is Smithtown Seafood, next to West Sixth Brewing in the Bread Box building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets. It serves fish and greens grown in an adjoining room by the urban-agriculture non-profit organization FoodChain, which uses a process called aquaponics. Brewery waste is fed to the fish, whose waste fertilizes greens grown under lamps.

“I know the Magic Beans people are here today, and I want to talk with them about buying their coffee for Smithtown,” Michel said at the beginning of her tour. Magic Beans roasts its coffee in a back room of the Bread Box building.

The University of Kentucky has played an important role in developing the local-food economy through its sustainable agriculture and food science programs, Michel said. So have processing plants such as Marksbury Farm Market in Lancaster.

Kentucky needs more commercial kitchen space and contract packaging plants, so farmers can process more of what they grow into high-profit, value-added products such as jellies and sauces, Michel said.

“We could produce a lot of artisanal pork products that could be shipped around the world, like Spanish ham is,” she said. “It’s just a matter of taking these well-known cultural foods that we’ve had in Kentucky for 200 years and developing and promoting them to a wider market.”

State and local officials who make economic development investment decisions too often overlook agriculture while focusing on trendy areas such as high technology, Michel said.

“If we could make some strategic investments in our food economy, we could have tremendous returns,” she said. “Economic development does not just mean guys in a room staring at computers.”

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Kentucky hunger: taking from poor while giving to rich is shameful

September 17, 2013

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The God’s Pantry warehouse on Jaggie Fox Way. The food bank, which also has warehouses in Winchester and Prestonsburg, distributes food to the needy in 50 counties of Central and Eastern Kentucky. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

September is Hunger Action Month, and Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives are marking the occasion by trying to take food from the mouths of poor children, low-wage workers and elderly people.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia is leading an effort to cut $40 billion over the next decade from SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Since the 2008 financial crisis led to a deep recession, the SNAP program has doubled in size, to $80 billion. That money has largely gone to help feed individuals and families who have been unemployed or under-employed.

While Wall Street and corporate America have recovered just fine, many poor and middle-income people continue to struggle. Still, Republican leaders think it’s time to economize by going after the $4.50 average daily SNAP benefit that goes to millions of poor people, including 875,000 Kentuckians.

GOP leaders claim the SNAP program is rife with abuse, yet they have produced little evidence of that beyond isolated media reports of someone buying steak or lobster with food stamps or continuing to claim benefits after cashing a big lottery ticket.

House Republicans seem less concerned about the tens of billions of dollars now wasted on agriculture subsidy programs that largely benefit agribusiness companies and wealthy farmers, including some members of Congress. While the House farm bill this summer left out SNAP funding and cut land conservation efforts, agriculture subsidies for the wealthy were actually increased.

One example of this hypocrisy is U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, a Tennessee Republican and Tea Party favorite who has been a vocal advocate for cutting SNAP. Since 1999, Fincher has collected nearly $3.5 million in government farm subsidies. Other members of his cotton-farming family have received millions more.

The food bank directors and social workers who deal with hunger face-to-face every day have been unanimous in their condemnation of Cantor’s plan, according to news reports.

To get a feel for the local situation, I visited Lexington-based God’s Pantry, a non-profit that supplies food to people in 50 Kentucky counties through a network of warehouses and 300 affiliate churches and charities.

God’s Pantry CEO Marian Guinn said there is no way private charities can begin to make up for drastic cuts in government benefits in this still-recovering economy. Republican criticisms of SNAP are overblown, she said.

“You can always pull out examples of abuse in any situation or any program,” Guinn said. “But we see (SNAP) as a really effective way to get needed resources, but not all the resources that a family needs for their food.”

God’s Pantry gathers food from government commodity programs, plus donations from groceries and the food industry, and buys fresh produce with donations from the public. (Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog group, has consistently given God’s Pantry top ratings for money-management and efficiency.)

God’s Pantry provides food to more than 211,000 people — nearly one in seven — in its 50-county service area each year, Guinn said. Census data shows that about 310,000 people in the region live in poverty.

Statewide, the government estimates that about 715,000 people are “food insecure.” If Congress makes substantial cuts in SNAP, that number will explode.

Guinn said a typical God’s Pantry client is a white woman in her early 40s with one or two children who works part-time and earns $1,000 or less a month. Client households tend to have low levels of education and often are dealing with health problems. Forty-one percent of client households have children, and 18 percent have elderly people.

“Many of these are people who before the recession were living middle-class or lower middle-class lives,” she said.

God’s Pantry clients must be referred by social-service agencies to make sure they have a genuine need.

“The sentiment in Washington is really concerning to us,” said Guinn.

“Because federal programs are very important for us, there certainly are lots of opportunities for advocacy,” Guinn added.

“Advocacy” is a polite way of putting it. I will be more blunt: Call or write your congressman today. Tell him that if he votes to take food away from the poor while shoveling public money to the wealthy, he should be ashamed.

 

How to Help

God’s Pantry

To donate to or volunteer call (859) 255-6592 or go to: Godspantry.org

Greater Lexington CROP-Hunger Walk

3 p.m., Sept. 29, at Second Presbyterian Church, 460 E. Main St. The 3.2-mile walk seeks to raise $30,000 for hunger-relief efforts, with 75 percent going Church World Service and 25 percent to God’s Pantry. Information: Lexcropwalk.blogspot.com.

Contact your Congressman

Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington, (202) 225-4706, Barr.house.gov

Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, (202) 225-4601, Halrogers.house.gov

Rep. Thomas Massie of Vanceburg, (202) 225-3465, Massie.house.gov

 

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Alltech Symposium offers glimpse of the future of food production

May 27, 2013

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José Ignacio Martínez-Valero, left, shaved ham as Lucas Montero served cheese to attendees at Alltech’s annual international symposium in Lexington on Tuesday. They represent Ibericos COVAP, a line of traditional Spanish gourmet products produced by a farmers’ co-op near Córdoba, Spain. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

I spent some time last week at the Alltech Symposium, Lexington’s biggest annual international event that many people have never heard of.

Alltech, the Nicholasville-based animal health and nutrition company, has put on this flashy educational conference for 29 years as a way to strengthen relationships with its customers in 128 countries.

This year’s symposium attracted about 2,000 people from 72 nations, plus about 400 Alltech employees from around the world.

Honestly, animal nutrition is not something I would normally find very interesting. But I leave this event every year fascinated by innovative ideas.

The symposium looks at the future of food and agribusiness from the perspective of natural systems and processes, which has always been Alltech’s approach. That approach has become fashionable in recent years as consumers worry more and more about chemicals and genetically-modified organisms.

This year’s symposium featured several technologies Alltech is working on, such as producing algae for nutritional supplements.

Two years ago, Alltech bought one of the world’s largest algae-making plants, just off Interstate 64 near Winchester. Pearse Lyons, Alltech’s founder and president, said the plant is now producing 10,000 tons of algae a year and is already too small to meet the company’s needs.

Lyons thinks algae could become more popular than fish oil as a major source of docohexaenoic acid, or DHA, a popular nutritional supplement thought to slow the decline of brain function as people age. With the fish oil market now at about $1 billion, Lyons sees opportunity.

The symposium’s theme this year was “Glimpse the future in 2020.” In addition to algae, presentations and panel discussions focused on such topics as growing antibiotic-free poultry, farming at sea, finding financial rewards in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint and learning to embrace regulation.

“Enough is enough,” the regulatory session’s thesis statement said. “If we do not regulate ourselves, the FDA or the European Union will regulate us. Learn how to embrace regulation.”

Alltech thinks successful businesses won’t just come from new ideas and technology. There are big opportunities in better marketing and distribution of high-quality traditional foods that offer nutrition and unique tastes.

My favorite booth at the symposium’s World Market trade show this year was Ibéricos COVAP, a farmers’ cooperative near Córdoba, Spain. Farmers there have for centuries been producing gourmet cured ham from free-range Ibérico pigs that grow fat on acorns from the forests of the Sierra Morena mountains.

The co-op already distributes its products in New York and Los Angeles. Now, it sees opportunity in middle America, beginning with Kentucky, where cured country ham has been a delicacy for generations.

“We are looking for big opportunities we think we have in this area,” said the co-op’s director, Emilio de León y Ponce de León.

Based on how symposium attendees were devouring delicious samples of thin-shaved ham and Spanish cheeses, Ibéricos COVAP may have some opportunities.

Alltech used to offer the symposium as a free or low-cost event for customers. In the past, Lyons said, Alltech absorbed the costs. Now, each person pays hundreds of dollars to attend.

This year’s symposium, which cost more than $1 million to produce, may come close to breaking even, Lyons said. In the future, he added, it could become a profit center. That is because Alltech’s customers find value in the symposium’s educational sessions and networking opportunities.

“What we’re striving to have is a real joint venture with customers — a real meeting of the minds that creates a win-win situation,” said Lyons, an Irish-born entrepreneur who moved to Lexington in 1980 and started Alltech in his garage. “There are huge returns for international business people willing to work together.”

Those opportunities are a big reason Alltech has been expanding its business in recent years from animal nutrition supplements to human nutrition supplements and high-quality food and drink.

The privately held company doesn’t release financial figures, but Lyons said sales this year will approach $1 billion. About 30 percent of that revenue came from acquisitions.

Lyons, who turns 69 on Aug. 3, said he expects the company to make many more acquisitions in his quest to achieve annual revenues of $4 billion in his lifetime.


Seedleaf grows gardens — and gardeners, cooks

October 19, 2011

A seed leaf is the first sign that a plant might take root and flourish. It seemed like an appropriate metaphor for what Ryan Koch hoped to do in Lexington.

Koch’s idea began germinating in 2007, when a farmer donated a garden plot to Communality, a small Christian faith community to which Koch and his wife, Jodie, belonged.

The experience led Koch and others to form Seedleaf, a non-profit organization with this goal: “Nourish communities by growing, cooking, sharing and recycling food.”

Seedleaf now sponsors eight community gardens in the East End and north side neighborhoods, plus one in Gainesway and another at Sayre School. The organization works with 16 restaurants and caterers to collect pre-consumer waste food to turn into compost to nourish those gardens.

Seedleaf also partners with other non-profits to do educational programs aimed at restoring local food culture, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

“I want us to serve as a reminder,” said Koch, a Californian who came to Kentucky to study at Asbury Theological Seminary. “There was a time when we wouldn’t have needed a Seedleaf because people knew how to grow and cook their own food.”

Seedleaf celebrated the end of its fourth growing season last weekend with a picnic Saturday to thank volunteers. Koch estimated that 1,200 volunteers — many of them college students — have helped with gardens and programs.

“We’ve come to be trusted in Lexington as a place where volunteers can come in and be well-used,” he said.

On Sunday, there was another picnic for six young people who completed this summer’s SEEDS program. Service Education and Entrepreneurship in Downtown Spaces is a training program for fifth- through eighth-graders, sponsored by Blue Grass Community Foundation.

Each student spent more than 70 hours working in the gardens and taking classes, said Rebecca Self, Seedleaf’s education director and only other employee. After asking neighbors what kind of produce they would buy, the students planted, raised and harvested vegetables and sold them at the William Wells Brown Community Center. The most popular items: tomatoes, collard greens and green beans.

What the students enjoyed most, though, was learning to cook and eat what they grew. They were taught cooking skills by Self and chef Ouita Michel, who owns the Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station and Windy Corner restaurants.

Twin sisters Rosa and Petra Navarro, 15, said they like fresh vegetables a lot more than they did before their work with SEEDS. So does Jawuan Walker-Brown, 12.

“I really enjoyed myself,” he said “I got to cook and eat — I really like to eat.”

The largest of Seedleaf’s spaces is the London Ferrell Community Garden on East Third Street, between Lexington’s main fire station and the Old Episcopal Burying Ground. The garden is named for a prominent minister in the early 1800s who is the only black person buried in the all-white cemetery next door.

The London Ferrell garden includes 40 plots that neighborhood families can rent for $5 a year. Plus, there are plots for SEEDS participants and a community plot with produce for anyone who helped tend it.

Seedleaf provides meals to Kid’s Café at the East Seventh Street Center, using its produce and food from God’s Pantry.

The organization also teaches cooking classes at the Florence Crittenton Home on West Fourth Street, one of the nation’s oldest shelters for pregnant girls.

“They’re going to have to feed themselves and a baby, and this points them toward independent living,” Koch said.

Koch and Self are pleased with how their seed leaf has flourished, but they have bigger ambitions.

Seedleaf’s annual budget of about $70,000 comes equally from grants, donations and money earned from composting and other services. Koch said he would like to add another staff member or two to help manage the growing corps of volunteers.

In addition to making people healthier and more self-sufficient, learning how to grow and prepare food can promote generosity and neighborliness, Koch said.

“We want to grow more gardens,” he said. “But more than that, we want to grow more gardeners and teach people how to cook. We see a lot of opportunities to partner with people and organizations that are doing good things in Lexington.”

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Friends share love of fresh pasta with Lexington

July 24, 2011

Lesme Romero and Reinaldo Gonzalez became good friends as college students in Cleveland. They had grown up in South America with Spanish fathers and Italian mothers, and both loved good food.

They shared an apartment in the Little Italy neighborhood and worked four years as cooks in some of Cleveland’s best Italian restaurants, where they learned to make fresh pasta.

Romero, 33, earned business degrees and eventually moved to Florida to work in finance. Gonzalez, 37, became an industrial engineer and took a corporate job in Lexington.

During a visit several years ago, Gonzalez took Romero to the Lexington Farmers Market to buy fresh produce. They went back to Gonzalez’s home, made fresh pasta and cooked a delicious meal.

“I remember saying to him, ‘I wish I could do this for a living,’” Romero said after making the pasta. “And his wife, Heather, said, ‘Well, why not?’”

So, in 2009, they started Lexington Pasta. Using a countertop pasta machine, they made samples and took them to restaurants. Bellini’s gave them their first order, for 20 pounds. “It took us 20 hours to make on that little machine,” Romero said. “But we were just excited to have an order.”

Now, the company has more than $50,000 worth of pasta equipment and makes 600 pounds a week. Some of it goes to the best restaurants in Central Kentucky. The rest is sold in specialty stores, at farmers markets and at Lexington Pasta’s tiny downtown shop in a converted two-car garage for $2 for a 4-ounce serving.

Romero manages the company, which has three employees. He makes daily deliveries downtown on a bright red scooter, and he has become a fixture at the farmers market at Cheapside on Saturdays and Southland on Sundays. “I used to have a name,” he said with a laugh. “Now I’m ‘The Pasta Guy.’”

Why eat fresh pasta instead of cheaper stuff that comes dried in a box? Because it tastes better, Romero said.

“It’s the subtle part of the dish that makes the difference,” said Debbie Long, owner of Dudley’s on Short, which uses Lexington Pasta in several dishes. “They have a wonderful product. They are very customer-oriented and they are easy to work with. I think they’re a great addition to our food community.”

Lexington Pasta is made with semolina flour, eggs and flavorings from fresh ingredients, many of which are locally grown, Romero said. The pasta, which keeps in a refrigerator for about 10 days, comes in 10 cuts and 10 flavors, including spinach, cilantro, portobello and chipotle. Fresh egg ravioli comes stuffed with spinach or Parmesan, ricotta and mozzarella cheese.

The company takes orders for gluten-free, whole grain, spicy diablo, lobster and Spanish saffron pasta. Some restaurant chefs have worked with Romero to create specialty pastas for signature dishes.

One way Romero cultivates customers is by offering “Pasta 101″ classes for six to eight people once a week. At the two-hour class, which costs $45, students learn to make pasta and then use it to fix a gourmet dinner. The evening includes Kentucky wines, cheeses and an Italian dessert. The classes are booked up through early September, said Romero, who plans to add a ravioli-making “Pasta 102″ class.

Because of his business education and background, Romero said he is always thinking about ways to grow the company. He has his eye on a pasta machine that would produce 70 pounds an hour, up from his current machine’s 40 pounds.

But Romero said he doesn’t want Lexington Pasta to grow too fast or too big. He likes the feel of his tiny downtown shop, where he knows many of his customers.

“I have felt so welcomed by this neighborhood,” Romero said. “I love what I do. When people come back in the shop and say, ‘That’s the best pasta I’ve had in my life,’ that’s the best reward for me.”

Lexington Pasta

Products: Sold at markets including Shorty’s, Good Foods Coop, The Mouse Trap, and Lexington Farmers Market.

On the menu: Served at Central Kentucky restaurants including Bellini’s, Portofino, Dudley’s, Nick Ryan’s, Azur, Holly Hill Inn, Windy Corner, Alfalfa, Boone Tavern, Columbia’s, Varden’s and Le Deauville.

Where: 227 N. Limestone

Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.

Learn more: (859) 421-1764 or LexingtonPasta.com

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Behind the scenes with the State Fair’s food judges

August 18, 2010

LOUISVILLE — Stephen Lee was explaining the intricacies of the Kentucky State Fair’s culinary competition when a judge interrupted us with an urgent matter: she suspected an apple pie of having a store-bought crust.

This would be a disqualifying offense. Lee, the fair’s culinary superintendent, needed to make a ruling.

“It doesn’t look hand-pinched, let’s put it that way,” judge Barb Veigel told him.

“Either that,” judge Dan Poset added, “or this person worked for Sara Lee.”

Lee (no relation to Sara) agreed that the edges seemed too uniform. “It does look store-bought,” he said. Then he turned the pie over in his hand, so it fell out of the tin plate, and carefully examined the bottom. Finally, he said, “I’m going to take her at her word that it’s homemade, because the bottom looks pushed together.”

The pie didn’t taste good enough to be a winner, anyway, so the judges moved on. After all, Lee’s two dozen volunteer judges had only two days to taste and decide among 4,312 entries in 328 food categories — everything from pies to pickles, cakes to candy, bread and preserves and canned vegetables.

That is because the 106th Kentucky State Fair opens Thursday in Louisville for an 11-day run that is expected to attract more than 620,000 visitors. Some of the first people through the doors will be those who entered the food, art and crafts competitions, and they can’t wait to see if they won a ribbon.

“People take this very seriously, and the emotions run high sometimes,” Lee said of the cooks, bakers and canners who enter each year. “My personal goal is to showcase Kentucky and the talents of its people, and to improve the quality of our food.”

Lee, who has supervised the culinary competition for seven years, ran a Louisville cooking school before retirement. Each year, he and chief judge Valerie Holland assemble a judging panel of food experts: home economists, chefs, dieticians, restaurateurs and caterers.

Three days before the fair opens, the freshly arrived entries are spread out on long rows of tables covered with butcher paper. With knives and forks in hand, the judges work in pairs, tasting their way from one category to the next. Labels hide the contestants’ identities until winners are chosen. Nobody is allowed in the room except judges, staff and the occasional hungry newspaper columnist.

The first day’s judging included pickles, relishes, jellies, jams and canned fruit and vegetables. I was savvy enough to attend the second day, which included candy, bread, 21 categories of cakes and 16 categories of pies. I spent a couple of hours shadowing the cake and pie judges, asking questions and shooting photos. I kept a plastic fork in my shirt pocket, figuring that once the judges’ sugar highs kicked in, they would start saying, “Wow! You should try this!”

In addition to taste, the judges were evaluating each entry on appearance and texture — the flakiness of a pie crust, the complimentary qualities of a cake icing. Did a bourbon cake taste like bourbon without being overpowering? Was a pie filling fresh and firm?

No commercially prepared ingredients, such as store-bought pie crusts, are allowed except in a category for competitors younger than 15. “The idea there is to get kids cooking, even if they have to use a box mix,” Lee said.

Women make most of the cakes and pies, but men bake most of the bread, Lee said. Canning and preserving had been on the wane, but young women are now taking up the tradition.

Lee spends time in the off-season refining the food criteria that appears in the fair’s inch-thick rule book. But people don’t read instructions or follow rules very well — and sometimes they like to cheat. “I had a man enter a sponge cake once and it still had the Kroger label on the bottom,” Lee said. “I think he was testing us.”

When winning entries are chosen, their recipes are scrutinized to make sure they followed the rules. Judges told me that picking the best in each category is often easier than choosing second- and third-place.

Each entry is then prepared for display in long rows of glass cases in the Culinary Hall of the Fairgrounds’ East Wing. Visitors can look, but not taste. “If we could sell this stuff during the fair, we would be millionaires,” Lee said. “Everybody wants a piece.”

Only about two-thirds of each pie and cake, and about four pieces of each batch of cookies, are put on display. The rest are wrapped and taken to the Cathedral of the Assumption’s soup kitchen, which serves 150 lunches to poor people every day.

“That helps everybody feel better about” so much food going uneaten, said Lee, who runs the soup kitchen when he is not on State Fair duty. The baked goods are a treat for soup kitchen clients, who usually are served a lot of bologna. But I wonder if they, too, sometimes grimace the way the culinary judges do.

“I always tell people,” Lee cautioned, “that just because a cake’s in the state fair doesn’t mean it’s good.”

If you go

Kentucky State Fair
When: Aug. 19-29
Where: Fairgrounds, I-65 at I-264, Louisville
Admission: $8, $4 for children 3-12 and seniors 55 and older. Infants free.
Parking: $8
More information: Kystatefair.org

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