National Provisions gives Lexington food scene a new flair

December 9, 2013

131203Boulangerie0093

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.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


New bakery gives National Avenue an international flavor

December 3, 2013

131203Boulangerie0093

Owner Andrea Sims works behind the counter at National Boulangerie, a bakery that opened last week at the corner of National and Walton Avenues. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

131203Boulangerie0100I spent the morning at National Boulangerie, a new French-inspired bakery at Walton and National avenues. It was opened this week by Krim Boughalem and Andrea Sims, the husband-and-wife team that started Wine+Market on West Second Street and sold it to open Table Three Ten restaurant on Short Street near Cheapside.

The bakery is fabulous, but it is just the beginning. The couple have leased and are renovating 16,000 square feet of space in a turn-of-the-century industrial building. Within a few months, they plan to add a brasserie restaurant, wine shop, beer garden and international grocery with an oyster bar. The complex will reflect their experience with food in France and New York, plus a lot of Kentucky influence.

Here is National Boulangerie’s Facebook page. Stop by and try it, and read my column about it in next week’s Business Monday.


Lexington has come a long way in just a few years

December 2, 2013

Lexington changed a lot between the time I went away to college in 1976 and returned in 1998. But I think it has changed even more profoundly since then.

The earlier changes were mostly physical — vast tracks of rural land turned into subdivisions and strip malls. Recent changes have been more about attitudes.

Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., talked about some of those attitudes in his interview with Tom Martin. They discussed how Lexington can attract innovative talent for the 21st-century economy.

Kimel understands the power of innovation and ideas better than anyone I know. If you haven’t read the interview yet, grab a highlighter and mark the attitudes he mentions.

Here are some I noted: Self-starter. Creative problem-solving. Imagination. Tolerance for risk and failure. Embracing diversity.

Lexington isn’t as open to new ideas as it needs to be, but it has made considerable progress. This city is less buttoned-down than it was just a few years ago, and that has made it a much more interesting place to live, work and play.

I don’t know why it happened, but I have a few hunches. One is that technology has empowered more people, making it easier for them to innovate and succeed. At the same time, social media has made it easier for them to connect with one another.

Technology has made the structures of Lexington power and influence younger and more diverse. People feel less pressure to conform, less need to seek “permission.” This is especially true in arts and culture, which are leading indicators of social and economic shifts.

131108Mural0025For example, consider the positive buzz created recently when a Brazilian artist was invited to paint a giant, psychedelic Abe Lincoln mural on a big blank wall downtown. It is an amazing piece of art, sure to become a Lexington icon.

Had that happened a decade or two ago, many of Lexington’s powers-that-be would have scoffed. Most likely, such a mural would never have happened at all.

The mere suggestion of it would have spawned high-level discussions where caution would have outweighed creativity. If anything at all resulted, it would have been a “safe” mural that would neither offend nor inspire anyone — perhaps a pretty field of horses, none of which would be blue.

A Lexington Tattoo Project in the 1990s? No way.

Lexington’s economic creativity can be found in low-rent office space all over town. For example, there are dozens of innovative technology companies such as Cirrus Mio, Medmovie and Float Money, plus biotech firms whose market niches are as hard to understand as their names are to pronounce. There are two tech startup incubators on Main Street, Awesome Inc. and Base 163.

Of course, all innovation isn’t high-tech. Sometimes, it’s simply looking around at what makes a place unique and wonderful and finding new ways to develop and market it. Alltech gets it. So do chef Ouita Michel and the “Kentucky for Kentucky” guys. The once-stodgy bourbon industry has become a hotbed of innovation, and business is booming as a result.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of new Lexington creativity:

Four young entrepreneurs wanted to start a craft brewery. But they didn’t just want to sell beer; they wanted to build community. Their West Sixth Brewery has been wildly successful by breaking all of the old “rules.”

Rather than locate in an affluent suburb, they bought an abandoned 1920s bread factory in a transitional northside neighborhood. An old-style developer would have bulldozed the factory and built a faux-fancy brewpub. Instead, these guys hired Lexington developer Holly Wiedemann, a master at turning old buildings into cool, functional spaces.

The once-abandoned factory, now called The Bread Box, houses West Sixth’s brewery and pub, plus other tenants including artist studios, a nonprofit bicycle shop, a coffee-roaster, a women’s roller derby team and a seafood restaurant.

Smithtown Seafood gets some of its fish from Food Chain, an urban agriculture nonprofit that raises them in tanks in the next room. Brewery waste is fed to the fish and fish waste fertilizes greens grown under artificial lights and served in the restaurant. Win, win, win.

The Bread Box is an example of innovative talent in action, and it creates the kind of community where innovative, talented people can see there is opportunity to realize their own dreams.  


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

October 29, 2013

131026OuitaMichel0136

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.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 

 

 


Wendell Berry partners with college on sustainable farm program

October 1, 2013

130920BerryAg0094Jonas Hurley, right, owner of River Run Farm & Pottery in Washington County, shows students in St. Catharine College’s new Berry Farming Program his array of solar panels, which provide about 60 percent of his farm’s power and should pay for themselves within a dozen years. In the center is the Berry program’s director, Leah Bayens. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

SPRINGFIELD — Agriculture economists have been sounding a death knell for the American family farm for decades. Since World War II, farming has been all about machinery, chemicals and the idea of “get big or get out.”

More recently, though, the sustainable-agriculture movement has shown an alternative path. It is based on creating new markets and innovative farming techniques rooted in the wisdom of nature.

The movement has been fueled by consumers who want fresher, tastier produce and meat that isn’t sprayed with chemicals and pumped full of hormones. Many consumers are willing to pay more for better quality.

Sustainably produced local food nourishes communities as well as bodies. Many farm families want to stay on their land, finding that the rewards are worth the hard work. They also want to make sure the land isn’t poisoned and eroded, so future generations can keep farming.

With its fertile soil, temperate climate and central location, Kentucky would seem to be a great place to capitalize on this trend. Plus, Kentucky is the home of writer Wendell Berry, one of the global gurus of sustainable agriculture.

This fall, St. Catharine College, a Catholic school founded by the Dominican Sisters in Washington County, started offering bachelor’s degrees in farming and ecological agrarianism.

St. Catharine’s Berry Farming Program incorporates Berry’s sustainability philosophies and was developed in conjunction with his family’s Berry Center in the Henry County town of New Castle.

(Berry’s alma mater, The University of Kentucky, where he taught English for many years, has developed a respected sustainable agriculture program. But Berry had a very public breakup with UK in December 2009, when he withdrew his papers after the university named the new basketball players’ dormitory Wildcat Coal Lodge in return for millions of dollars in coal industry donations.)

Assistant Professor Leah Bayens developed St. Catharine’s four-year Berry Farming Program, which combines interdisciplinary study in agriculture, ecology, business, marketing and community leadership with hands-on farm internships.

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Bayens launched the program this fall with four students in the introductory class, which uses as a supplementary text Berry’s landmark 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which helped spark the sustainability movement.

Three international students will join the program in January, thanks to scholarships from Eleanor Bingham Miller, whose Louisville family once owned The Courier-Journal. Bayens will choose those students from the more than 60 applicants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America, where sustainable agriculture is desperately needed.

The Berry Farming Program’s first four students represent an interesting mix of the sons and daughters of Kentucky farm families.

Freshman Marshall Berry is Wendell Berry’s grandson, and he is trying to figure out whether he wants to make a career of farming, as his father, Den Berry, did. Does he feel any family pressure? Maybe a little, he said.

“I know I want to live and work on a farm,” said freshman Winifred Chevront, who grew up on a Taylor County farm. “I think this could help me achieve my goals.”

Pamela Mudd, a junior who transferred here after studying food science at UK, comes from a large Washington County farming family.

“I want to get some new ideas for keeping our family farm in the family,” she said.

Jacob Settle, a junior, comes from a Washington County farm family and has built a regionally successful freezer-beef business with his brother, Jordan. Rising Sons Beef sells locally bred, born and raised beef that is free of antibiotics, steroids and hormones.

Bayens has taken her class on several field trips to see area farms. Last month, I joined them on a tour of Jonas and Julie Hurley’s River Run Farm & Pottery near Springfield.

The Hurleys raise sorghum and vegetables, hogs, chickens, goats, turkeys, ducks and sheep. They also have a dairy cow and a llama. They produce almost all of the food they and their two young sons eat, selling the surplus at a local farmer’s market. Jonas Hurley also sells his pottery and teaches classes.

A few months ago, Hurley installed solar panels that produce about 60 percent of his farm’s power. The $14,000 investment should pay for itself within 12 years, he said.

“I want the students to get opportunities to meet, mingle and work side by side with different kinds of farmers so they can see what kinds of creativity and inventiveness are at work,” Bayens said. “There is a lot of opportunity out there for farmers willing to find it.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 


‘Hippie’ restaurant Alfalfa celebrates 40 years of good food

April 23, 2013

Alfalfa1

 Alfalfa Restaurant moved into the Downtown Arts Center on Main Street a decade ago, decorating its wall with the sign letters from the original location on South Limestone Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

The way restaurants come and go, this one would seem like a long shot. A group of idealistic 20-somethings with little money and no experience wanted to serve wholesome food at reasonable prices.

Short of chairs on opening day in April 1973, they offered free meals to customers who donated them.

“We had an unusual business plan at first: six partners and two menu items,” said Art Howard, one of the original partners. “I wouldn’t recommend that now.”

Alfalfa Restaurant not only survived, it became a local institution that is now one of Lexington’s oldest restaurants. Current and former customers and employees are invited to a 40th anniversary party, 4 to 10 p.m. April 28 at the current location, 141 East Main Street.

“We’ve basically tried to have fun with the place,” said Jake Gibbs, an off-and-on minority owner who started washing dishes as a graduate student in 1979 and now tries to manage Alfalfa as well as a reluctant capitalist can.

“We don’t do a huge business,” Gibbs said. “We roughly break even every year.”

Artie Howard cooks during Alfalfa's early days. Herald-Leader photo.

Artie Howard cooks during Alfalfa’s early days.

Making money was never the main goal. Alfalfa, after all, was started by what the restaurant’s website calls “hippie-type” young people with what was then a novel interest in healthy, locally produced food.

“We were pretty much ahead of our time,” said Howard, who sold his interest in Alfalfa a few years later, became a chef and, since 1995, has owned The Ketch Seafood Grill on Regency Road.

“They bought real vegetables from real local farmers before it was cool,” said Rona Roberts, a regular Alfalfa customer since 1973 who now writes the food blog Savoring Kentucky. “They have a lot of distinctive food; they’ve never given up on making everything themselves.”

When Alfalfa opened at 557 South Limestone, near the University of Kentucky, it was financed with $2,000 that Howard inherited from a grandmother and $100 or $200 kicked in by each of the other five partners, he said.

The restaurant’s name was the result of a desperate brainstorming session as opening day neared. Howard can’t remember who came up with “Alfalfa,” but he said it might have been less a reference to the forage legume than to a character from the 1930s Our Gang comedies, then in TV reruns.

Howard had been interested in starting a bakery, so he became the baker, setting a standard for fresh-baked, whole-grain bread that baker Tom Martin has kept going for the past 35 years.

Partner Leslie Bower, who had trained at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in France, was the first head cook. (She was murdered in 1979 when she stopped in Georgia to ask directions.)

The restaurant’s most notorious employee was a cook in 1974 known as Lena Paley. Soon after she abruptly left town, Alfalfa employees recognized her on an FBI “wanted” poster as Susan Saxe, an accomplice in a 1970 Boston bank robbery in which a police officer was killed. Captured in 1975, Saxe pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was paroled in 1982.

Jake Gibbs, who manages the restaurant, began as a dishwashing graduate student in 1979.

Jake Gibbs, who manages the restaurant, began as a dishwashing graduate student in 1979.

Alfalfa left its original home a decade ago and moved into the Downtown Arts Center on Main Street. Gibbs said the restaurant is negotiating for another 10-year lease.

All of the original partners left Alfalfa long ago, and there have been several owners over the years who started as employees of the restaurant. They included Marina Ubaldi, Jeff Gitlin and Gibbs, who teaches history at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

Jim Happ, the main owner since 2004, also is CEO of Labcon North America, a California-based manufacturer of sustainable laboratory materials. He and his wife, Betsey, met while working at Alfalfa. They named their daughter for Helen Alexander, who has been a cook there for 25 years.

Like previous owners, Happ and Gibbs have tried to maintain the quality and variety of Alfalfa’s health-conscious food, as well as the family atmosphere for both customers and employees.

“Alfalfa’s is such a nice family,” said Lexington artist John Lackey. He and his wife, Jenny, both worked at the restaurant, as did their son, Quinn, 21. Their younger son, Dylan, 17, works there now.

“It’s a labor of love,” Lackey said of Alfalfa. “It’s just such a great, interesting collection of people; the right balance of service and insanity.”

130421Alfalfa1974-Mendes002

Alfalfa staff members photographed in 1974, the year after the restaurant opened. Among the owners at the time were, left to right, Marina McCulloch (wearing hat), Leslie Bower (front left in dark shirt), Artie Howard (tallest in back,  with beard), Lucia Walls (front right in dark shirt) and Ann “Panny” Hobson (right center).  Photo by Guy Mendes

 


Conference reflects on issues raised in landmark Wendell Berry book

April 9, 2013

130406BerryConf-TE0351

Wendell Berry, right, joined conference attendees on a tour Saturday of the farm at St. Catharine College in Washington County. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Wendell Berry is a true conservative. He believes in conservation, the idea that God gave us the Earth to sustain our lives and the responsibility to care for it so it can sustain the lives of future generations.

Four decades ago, the writer and farmer was alarmed by the methods and economics of modern farming and mining, which were (and still are) destroying land, water and rural communities. So he wrote his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, which has become an international classic.

That book and Berry’s subsequent work did much to spark the sustainable agriculture and local food movements, just as Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring in 1962 helped spark the environmental movement.

So it was no surprise that 300 people from 35 states and several foreign countries came to Louisville and Springfield last weekend for a sold-out conference revisiting the book. Well-known speakers discussed both progress and challenges, and they pondered this question: What will it take to resettle America?

The conference was organized by the Berry Center in Henry County, which is run by Mary Berry Smith to promote the philosophy of her father, as well as her uncle and late grandfather, both farmers, lawyers and conservationists named John Berry.

On Saturday, the conference was at St. Catharine College in Springfield, where the Berry Center has just begun a partnership to create undergraduate degree programs in ecological agriculture. The Catholic college campus includes an 800-acre farm the Dominican Sisters of Peace have operated since 1822.

The conference included an on-stage interview of Berry by veteran journalist Bill Moyers, who will use it on one of his Public Broadcasting System programs. Other speakers included Bill McKibben, the best-selling author and climate change activist; Wes Jackson, a MacArthur “genius” award winner and founder of The Land Institute, a leading sustainable agriculture organization; and Vandana Shiva, a renowned author, scientist and environmentalist in India.

In his interview with Moyers, Berry blamed many of today’s ecological problems on industrialization, unbridled capitalism and political systems that favor wealthy corporations, which make big political contributions to reap far bigger returns in taxpayer subsidies and lax regulation.

“There’s no justification for the permanent destruction of the world,” Berry said. “It’s not economically defensible. It’s not defensible in any terms.”

Berry, 78, lamented that the three and a half decades since his book’s publication have been marked by further environmental degradation, from strip mining and soil erosion to water pollution and accelerating climate change.

“It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that is not in danger,” he said.

Berry noted that black willows no longer grow beside his Henry County farm on the banks of the Kentucky River, 13 miles from where it empties into the Ohio River, but still flourish just upriver on the Ohio. There seems to be something in the Kentucky River’s water they can no longer tolerate.

“If the willows can’t continue to live there, how can I be sure that I can continue to live there?” he asked.

Berry, a lifelong Baptist, said the unholy alliance between corporate capitalism and many conservative Christians is “a feat which should astonish us all.”

“A great mistake of Christianity is speaking of the Holy Land as only one place,” he said. “There are no sacred and unsacred places; only sacred and desecrated places.”

But Berry noted that many faith communities are beginning to heed the Bible’s call to environmental stewardship and justice. That gives him hope, as does the growing popularity of organic food, local farmers markets and the sustainable agriculture movement.

“I don’t like to talk about the future, because it doesn’t exist and nobody knows anything about it,” Berry said. “The problems are big, but there are no big solutions.”

Berry said he thinks “resettling America” will require enough people living on and being able to earn a living from the land to take care of it. That will take individual initiative, better government policies and the political will to deal with urgent global threats such as climate change. Can it succeed?

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not,” Berry said. “We only have a right to ask what’s the right thing to do and do it.”

130406BerryConf-TE0207

Journalist Bill Moyers, left, and writer Wendell Berry autograph books after Moyers filmed an interview with Berry. It was part of a two-day conference revisiting Berry’s landmark 1977 book, “The Unsettling of America.”  Photo by Tom Eblen


UK sets public forums tomorrow and April 18 on food outsourcing

April 8, 2013

The University of Kentucky officials have scheduled two public forums to gather opinions as they decide whether to outsource food service operations. I wrote about the issue in my column Sunday.

The first forum will be 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. tomorrow evening (Tuesday, April 9) in the Worsham Theater at the Student Center. The second forum will be 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on April 18 at the William T. Young Library’s  UK Athletics Auditorium.

To read my Sunday column, click here. To read more about UK’s goals and process, click here.

 


Love of great coffee put Magic Beans friends back in business

April 8, 2013

130302MagicBeans-TE0048

Shuyler Warren, left, and Keith Hautala of Magic Beans Coffee Roasters follow the progress of a batch of roasting beans. Their roaster uses hot air, and the temperature can be calibrated to within 1 degree Fahrenheit.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

For some people, a great cup of coffee is worth a little extra trouble and expense. Keith Hautala and Schuyler Warren are two of those people, and they hope more Kentuckians will be, too.

Last December, the friends started Magic Beans Coffee Roasters, which uses a high-tech process to produce fresh, precisely roasted single-source coffees from around the world.

Bags of the whole-bean coffee are sold at Sunrise Bakery, Wine + Market, Town Branch Market and West Sixth Brewery. Brewed coffee will be on the menu of County Club restaurant, which opens later this month at 555 Jefferson St.

Magic Beans also will sell beans at the Lexington Farmers Market at Cheapside on Saturdays, beginning April 13. The company has a Kickstarter.com campaign under way to raise money for a brewed-to-order coffee bar at its market booth.

“We’re trying to convert people,” Hautala said. “We’re trying to create demand for something among coffee drinkers who are, by and large, satisfied with the coffee they’re buying from Starbucks or the grocery store.”

130302MagicBeans-TE0058Hautala said that when he moved to Lexington in 1999, “I discovered there wasn’t much in the way of coffee options.”

He missed the fresh coffee available in California’s San Francisco Bay area, where he grew up.

So he started a coffee shop called Magic Beans near the University of Kentucky campus. Warren, 37, was then an undergraduate working at a nearby restaurant and they became friends.

The coffee shop struggled and closed after a couple of years. Hautala became a copy editor at the Herald-Leader and now works for UK public relations.

Warren moved to Oregon for a decade before returning to Lexington, where he works in recycling programs for Bluegrass Pride.

“I also got spoiled by all the coffee options on the West Coast,” said Warren, who reconnected with Hautala and told him, “We’ve got to re-imagine Magic Beans as a roasting-only operation.”

They knew what they needed: A fluid-bed roaster patented by Michael Sivetz, an Oregon man who was a guru of coffee roasting for decades before his death last year at age 90. The only other Sivetz roaster they know of in Kentucky is used by Heine Brothers’ Coffee in Louisville. Hautala and Warren found a used one for sale online and borrowed from their retirement accounts to buy it.

They have installed the roaster in a small, dungeon-like room they rent inside the Bread Box at West Sixth and Jefferson streets, the former bread bakery that houses West Sixth Brewery and several other tenants.

Each Saturday, Hautala and Warren roast only as much coffee as they expect to sell the next week.

130302MagicBeans0077A Sivetz roaster floats the beans on a bed of super-heated air until they are evenly cooked to a temperature that can be controlled to within 1 degree Fahrenheit. Hautala said the process preserves flavors often lost in conventional steel-drum roasting. Each bag of Magic Beans is marked with the roasting date.

“There’s a huge difference in coffee that was roasted today and coffee that was roasted a week ago,” he said. “As time goes on, there’s sort of diminishing returns.”

The coffee Magic Beans buys from a Minnesota-based company is imported fresh, and each variety can be traced to the farm where it was grown.

“For single-origin coffees, you’re able to highlight the individual characteristics of the beans themselves as opposed to the roast,” Warren said. “We really believe that great coffee is made on the farm. We’re only the last step in the process.”

Magic Beans’ buying method means it doesn’t always offer the same coffees. From month to month, coffee may come from Central America, Africa or Indonesia, depending on the best variety available at a given time.

“If you’re the kind of person who likes something different and likes to buy seasonally, that’s appealing,” Hautala said.

All Magic Beans coffees sell for $12 per 12-ounce bag — about $5 more than premium whole-bean grocery coffee and about the same as Starbucks. But Hautala said Magic Beans is two or three dollars a bag cheaper than coffee from similar specialty roasters elsewhere.

The friends say their business is off to a good start, but they don’t plan to quit their day jobs.

“It is a labor of love for us right now,” Hautala said. “We’re not going to be taking on Starbucks anytime soon.”


UK food service decision: what is best for Kentucky in the long run?

April 6, 2013

The University of Kentucky raised eyebrows last year when it decided to outsource housing to a private company. Now, it is considering doing the same with food service.

These are tough questions, but, after years of declining state support, UK needs to be asking them. What are the right answers?

By all accounts, UK Dining Services is well-managed. It pays for itself and provides good food and jobs. So why consider outsourcing? It is not about saving money, UK spokesman Jay Blanton said.

As with the decision to outsource housing in a 50-year deal with Memphis-based Education Realty Trust, this possible deal is more about raising capital. Lots of it.

“A business partner potentially could pop tens of millions of dollars into infrastructure improvements,” Blanton said.

UK needs capital because it has a lot of catching up to do on infrastructure. The General Assembly has always been stingy about letting UK borrow money for new and improved buildings, even when it could generate revenues to repay the debt.

But there are other considerations, too, Blanton said. Might a giant food service corporation be able to offer more variety and convenience at less cost?

“The question becomes what are the core competencies we have?” he said. “What are the things we do best as an institution, and then what are the things that need to be done as services to students that might be best facilitated with a partner?

“We’re not going to give up course delivery and instruction; we do that better than anybody else,” he added. “But are we the best entity to build a residence hall? Are we the best entity to provide food service? Or is that better facilitated through a partner? It’s worthwhile to at least ask the question.”

There are other issues, too. Dining Services has become a key player in supporting Kentucky’s budding local food movement. This year it will buy more than $1 million worth of “Kentucky Proud” products.

UK Dining Services is just the kind of partner UK’s College of Agriculture needs to help Kentucky farmers develop more sustainable production methods that in the long run will provide the state with more healthy food and stronger local economies.

As a land-grant university, UK’s mission extends beyond the classroom. The university has a responsibility to help show Kentucky the way forward by supporting innovation that will improve quality of life. That is a big reason some students, faculty and citizens have objected to outsourcing.

UK officials said last week that they will consider proposals from food service corporations, hold public meetings and make a decision by the end of the year about whether or not to outsource.

But, in response to the concerns, UK officials said that if they do outsource, they will protect current employees’ jobs and set criteria for vendors. That would include a mandatory commitment to partner with the Kentucky Proud program to buy locally produced food.

Those assurances are commendable, but are they good enough? That depends on how the criteria are set, and how well UK officials follow through during the decades this contract is likely to last.

Tens of millions of dollars in up-front capital is a powerful incentive. But any company offering that kind of capital to UK will want to find ways to get its money back, plus a healthy profit.

In many ways, UK’s outsourcing of housing made sense. UK will quickly get a more adequate supply of good, on-campus housing. But some critics worry that the housing will be too expensive for students. Others worry about the quality of the new residence halls.

Those critics say UK should have negotiated for more durable and energy-efficient construction, which would then have saved money in the long run through lower operating costs. Plus, at the end of the contract, UK would inherit buildings with more potential for future use.

Whichever way UK decides to go on food service, a real commitment to supporting local, healthy and sustainable food production is critical for Kentucky’s future.

As UK officials consider all of the implications of this long-term decision, they should keep this question in mind: Will a corporation care more about what is best for Kentucky or what is best for its shareholders?


Food Chain: non-profit aims to strengthen local food economy

July 8, 2012

Rebecca Self, executive director of Food Chain.  Photo by Tom Eblen

When her husband and his partners were planning West Sixth Brewing Co. last year, Rebecca Self realized the 90,000-square-foot former bakery they bought to house it — now known as The Bread Box — could help her achieve some entrepreneurial dreams.

She was then education director of Seedleaf, a Lexington non-profit organization that develops community gardens and teaches people in low-income neighborhoods about sustainable agriculture and nutritious food.

Self was passionate about Seedleaf’s mission, but she wanted to take it a few steps further. So she assembled a board of directors and staff to create a new non-profit, Food Chain. The goal is to demonstrate indoor food production and preparation in urban Lexington and teach sustainable agriculture skills to youth and adults.

“We’re trying to reimagine the local food economy by rethinking the urban spaces we have,” said Self, 33, a graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

By late fall, Food Chain will launch its first project: A huge, windowless room beside the brewery will become Kentucky’s first indoor aquaponics farm, where fish and plants grow together using the same water in a closed loop.

Here’s how it works: Waste grain from the brewery is fed to fish, mostly tilapia, which grow in tanks. Water with the fish’s waste flows through long troughs, where greens, herbs and other food plants grow in a medium under artificial light by absorbing nutrients in that waste and, in the process, cleaning the water.

Once the system is up and running, Food Chain will harvest 240 plants each week and 125 pounds of fish per month, Self said. The system also will produce 120 pounds a year of freshwater prawns, which grow in the troughs where plants are raised.

Renowned chef and restaurant entrepreneur Ouita Michel of Midway, who is on Food Chain’s board, plans to open a fish-and-chips restaurant in the building to serve the tilapia in West Sixth Brewery’s taproom. The fish and greens’ trip from tank to kitchen to plate will be only a few yards, Self said.

Excess greens will be sold to other local restaurants.”We don’t want to go toe-to-toe with in-field farmers, so we’ll grow lettuces and mixed greens primarily off-cycle,” she said. “What we think is probably going to be one of our bigger products are what’s called microgreens, which are the stage before baby greens.”

Those immature plants are packed with nutrition and sell for high prices; restaurants want them, but they are hard for soil-based farmers to grow.

Students from the University of Kentucky’s sustainable agriculture program helped build a small demonstration aquaponics system, where greens, herbs and large-mouth bass are being raised. The full-scale system will be built during the next few months with help from Kentucky State University aquaculture students.

Food Chain has raised more than $60,000 of the $113,000 cost of renovating the space and buying and installing equipment, Self said. That money came mostly from local donations. The organization now is applying for agriculture development grants and planning fund-raisers.

Food Chain expects the sale of greens and fish to cover most operating costs, but the group will continue seeking grants and donations to fund educational programs. Once the aquaponics farm is up and running, Self plans to begin using more brewery waste to grow mushrooms in the basement for sale.

Then Food Chain will put hoop houses on the building’s roof to grow vegetables and create a vermaculture demonstration, where worms break down organic waste into fertilizer.

Food Chain’s third phase will be construction of a certified commercial kitchen in the building. It will be used to teach people how to prepare and preserve the fresh food they grow. The kitchen also will be available for use by entrepreneurs who want to process their locally grown food into jams, pickles, sauces, pesto and other products for sale.

Food Chain will create a few jobs itself, but its main goal is to provide training in sustainable agriculture techniques that will allow people to create their own jobs and businesses, and strengthen Central Kentucky’s local food economy.

“What we’re trying to do is educate and market,” Self said. “We think we’re going to help impact a lot of jobs regionally as people come here to learn and then go off and start doing this on their own.”


Plant to Plate teaches healthy eating habits

May 9, 2012

Students in the Plant to Plate program at the Family Care Center’s alternative high school began this spring by planting vegetables in donated bourbon barrels in the center’s courtyard.  Photo by Ken Gish

 

Sharon Aguilar said her 15-year-old brother likes to eat fast food, but she wants something better for herself and her 1-year-old daughter, Isabel.

So she is learning to buy and cook fresh food. She is even trying to grow lettuce in a little plot outside her family’s apartment, although a rabbit seems to be getting most of it.

Aguilar, 18, read recently that she and her peers might not live as long as their parents because of poor nutrition. “I don’t want that for my daughter,” she said. “Maybe I can make things different for her generation.”

Aguilar’s interest in nutrition was sparked by Plant to Plate, a service project organized by members of this year’s class of Leadership Lexington. The 33-year-old leadership development program, sponsored by Commerce Lexington, helps local professionals become more familiar with different aspects of the community.

“We started out with the idea of trying to do something with gardening, nutrition and students,” said class member Kenneth Gish, an attorney with the firm Stites & Harbison.

In the process of exploring options, the class discovered Lexington’s Family Care Center, which provides education and social services to try to help families become self-sufficient. Its programs include an alternative high school for young mothers and pregnant teens.

Leadership Lexington class members spent the fall and winter organizing Plant to Plate and enlisting the help of people and companies to make it happen. They launched the effort in February with a series of presentations for the girls about nutrition, shopping for food and gardening. They were given by dietician Judy Lawson, Alexa Arnold of the Lexington Farmers Market and organic farmer Sandy Canon.

Several of the school’s two dozen students got to attend the Bluegrass Local Food Summit, organized each March by community garden activist Jim Embry. “He’s my role model now,” Aguilar said.

Leadership Lexington class members helped the girls plant container gardens in the Family Care Center’s courtyard using half bourbon barrels donated by Buffalo Trace Distillery, soil given by Southern States, plants and tools from Fayette Seed, compost from Gunston Farms and garden hoses from Chevy Chase Hardware.

“It has been great to see the willingness of people in the community to get involved in this,” Gish said. “It was a fun process.”

The day I visited, the girls were getting lessons in healthy cooking from Jeremy Ashby, executive chef at Azur restaurant in Beaumont Centre, and Sylvia Lovely, the restaurant’s owner. They do a radio show about food, Sunny Side Up, each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLAP-630 AM.

“One of the things we want to talk about is that local is better,” Ashby said as he told of good sources for locally grown food. He taught the students to properly cut vegetables and prepare a simple but delicious meal of almond-crusted chicken, carrots sautéed with thyme, corn bread, and macaroni and cheese.

Aguilar said she had never been a fan of broccoli, but she still might try the mac-and-cheese recipe at home. Her daughter already likes fresh vegetables better than she does, she admitted.

“It’s not as hard as I thought it was to eat healthy,” she said when asked what she has learned. “And it tastes better. I don’t like canned spinach, but I like fresh spinach.”

Plant to Plate has made a difference, said Joanna Rodes, director of the Family Care Center, which is run by the city’s Division of Family Services.

“I’m pleasantly surprised at how much they have enjoyed it,” she said of the students. “I hear them talking more about cooking at home and making healthy choices for their children.”

Rodes hopes to build on many aspects of the Plant to Plate experience, from cooking classes to growing vegetables. But it will take more volunteer efforts from individuals, companies or groups like Leadership Lexington.

“We’ve lost a lot of resources,” she said. “So we just can’t do it without people who want to do good things.”

For one thing, Rodes said, the students’ excitement about container gardening makes her think a much larger garden on the center’s grounds could be successful — if volunteers were willing to help.

“I feel that we could take any of these avenues and go 100 miles,” she said.

Jeremy Ashby, executive chef at Azur restaurant, shows Sharon Agular how to use a chef’s knife to julienne carrots. Photo by Tom Eblen

Jovanna Martinez, left, and Sharon Agular learn to cook almond-crusted chicken during a cooking class led by Jeremy Ashby, executive chef at Azur restaurant. Photo by Tom Eblen


Local food guru Jim Embry a model of activism; UK’s John Stempel on the state of the world

January 18, 2012

As the Unity Breakfast began Monday morning in Heritage Hall, Jim Embry was working the room.

Lean, fit and hard to miss in his colorful clothing and gray dreadlocks, Embry was quickly moving from table to table, handling out leaflets to promote his annual Bluegrass Local Food Summit, March 22 to 24 at Crestwood Christian Church.

Breakfast was followed by inspirational speakers and award presentations. But when Embry’s name was called as one of two Unity Award winners — along with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Bluegrass — he was gone. A son accepted the award for him.

“I have to leave by 8:15 to catch a 9 o’clock flight,” Embry had told me as he rushed from table to table, handing out leaflets to the breakfast’s 1,400 attendees. “I’m speaking this afternoon at Yale.”

It was classic Jim Embry. Who has time to rest on laurels when there is a world out there in need of improvement?

Embry, 62, was the featured speaker Monday afternoon in New Haven, Conn., at a master’s tea, sponsored by Yale University’s Pierson College and the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

Jim Embry, left, talks with Richard Knittel of Versailles in October, as they both joined Occupy Wall Street protesters on Main Street in Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

Embry now spends most of his time promoting sustainable living and locally grown food. But the Richmond native has been an activist since age 10, when his mother was president of the Covington chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. He grew up attending civil rights events.

As state youth chairman of the NAACP, he helped organize the 1964 March on Frankfort, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Embry went on to become president of the University of Kentucky’s Black Student Union. While he was in college, a summer job in New York City sparked his interest in health and food justice. In 1971, he helped found Lexington’s Good Foods Co-op.

After a four-year stint in Detroit as director of the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, Embry returned to Lexington in 2005 and founded the Sustainable Commun ities Network (Sustainlex.org). He has helped develop more than 30 community gardens and taught school garden workshops for more than 300 teachers.

Embry’s other passions range from the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice to the Interfaith Alliance and Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden. Later this year, he plans to publish his autobiography, Black and Green, and a book of photographs, Through the Lens of a Sacred Earth Activist.

“I come from a long lineage of activists, so I don’t know any better,” he said.

Outlook for 2012

John D. Stempel, retired director of UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, doesn’t so much try to improve the world as understand it.

He spent 24 years as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, including a four-year stint in the U.S. embassy in Iran before the 1979 revolution.

Stempel gave his annual State of the World speech to the Lexington Rotary Club earlier this month, saying he expects this year to be even more turbulent than last year. Among his concerns:

■ The likelihood that European debt and American politics will hamper economic recovery.

■ The possibility of cyber attacks on critical U.S. infrastructure. “Our illusion of invincibility serves us poorly,” he said.

■ The potential for an Iranian nuclear crisis, increasing instability in Pakistan and tensions between India and Pakistan.

■ Iraq’s future. “The violent sectarianism the U.S. takeover and occupation provoked has already begun to transform Iraq from a nastily ruled balancer of Iran into a traumatized society under extensive Iranian influence. Not a good trade-off.”

Stempel said he worries about a “crisis of global governance that impedes common-sense solutions to common challenges like climate change, energy and food costs and availability, plus the imbalance between expanding human needs and the limited capacity of the world’s ecosystem to satisfy them.”

The U.S. presidential election is unlikely to help, he said.

“An administration that has delivered on only a precious few of the major promises it made to achieve election in 2008 seeks re-election against an opposition that seems more intent on repealing the 20th century than addressing the real and pressing challenges of the 21st,” Stempel said. “No one expects a serious discussion of the challenges now facing either the United States or the world.”


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.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:


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

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:


Coming to Lex Farmers Market: Fresh, local books

June 7, 2010

In addition to local food, you will soon be able to buy local books at the Lexington Farmers Market. And, in true market fashion, you will be buying them from the authors.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and The Morris Book Shop are partnering with the market to create a Homegrown Authors booth, to be staffed by local authors from 9 a.m. to noon each Saturday at Cheapside.

The booth will begin June 12 with the Carnegie Center’s writer in residence, Neil Chethik, author of FatherLoss and VoiceMale; and market vendor Abigail Keam of Abigail’s Honey. She has written a murder mystery, Death by a Honeybee.

Other Homegrown Authors booths are planned for June 19, July 10 and July 24.

“We’re hoping people will support their local writers just as they support their local farmers,” Chethik said.


Trying to turn Creative Cities ideas into action

April 18, 2010

The Creative Cities Summit a week ago generated a lot of energy. But it was nothing compared to what I felt Saturday at an all-day session called Now What, Lexington?

Perhaps that’s because this gathering was about putting the ideas, inspirations and passion generated by the Creative Cities Summit into specific ideas and plans for improving Lexington.

For starters, it was remarkable that nearly 200 people would spend at least part of a picture-perfect spring Saturday inside the Carnegie Center talking, when they could just as easily have been at Keeneland or a half-dozen other community events.

Several city officials and candidates were there, as well as a legislator and several technology entrepreneurs and community activists. A few University of Kentucky students came, saying they hope to make Lexington their permanent home.

The crowd ranged in age from 20-something to 70-something. It skewed young, though — an encouraging mosaic of faces that represent Lexington’s emerging leadership.

Now What, Lexington? was organized by a new civic group called Progress Lex. The free “unconference,” underwritten by local business sponsors, provided a forum for anyone to propose a topic and gather a group to discuss it. The only requirement was that the 30 or so breakout sessions conclude with action steps. Detailed notes from the sessions will soon be posted at: www.nowwhatlexington.org.

In the sessions I attended, there was remarkably little grousing about what’s wrong with Lexington and a lot of talk about the city’s potential.

A common theme was the importance of a well-designed downtown, from good architecture to the elimination of one-way streets. The CentrePointe fiasco prompted several discussions about the need for design guidelines for new downtown development and a review panel with design professionals that is insulated from politics.

Several people noted that whatever is built on the now-vacant CentrePointe block will shape Lexington and its image for a century or more. “If we mess this up, Lexington has lost a great opportunity,” dentist Wes Coffman said.

Phil Holoubek, a downtown developer and strong advocate for design guidelines, said Lexington must plan for and invest in infrastructure to make sure downtown is developed appropriately. He urged citizens to demand that CVS design the pharmacy it plans to build on a downtown site he partially owns so it fits in with the urban landscape. “It’s very good for downtown to have CVS, but I don’t have any control over what it will look like,” he said.

Other discussions were focused on job creation, economic development, high-tech entrepreneurship and environmental sustainability. There were ideas for retaining bright young people, as well as engaging senior citizens, who will make up an increasingly large percentage of the population over the next two decades. Lisa Adkins, director of the Bluegrass Community Foundation, led a session on this question: “What if every child in Lexington had a mentor?”

Plans were made for using technology to better connect citizens and identify and share resources.

“There’s no need to re-invent the wheel,” said Rebecca Self, education director for the community garden organization Seedleaf. “A lot of these things are being done in Lexington already; we just have to put them together.”

There was talk about how to create the infrastructure for a stronger local food economy — one that benefits low-income residents as well as the people who can afford to shop at the Lexington Farmers Market, which two blocks away was enjoying its first Saturday in the new Cheapside market house.

Anthony Wright, the city’s economic development director, actively participated in a group that discussed how Lexington could replicate the model for arts-inspired youth education and job training for poor people pioneered in Pittsburgh by Bill Strickland, who was a speaker at the Creative Cities Summit.

Participants in many of the groups talked about economic shifts that are radically changing community development models. “We’re in a new age with new forms of collaboration,” said Sherry Maddock, who started the London Ferrill Community Garden on East Third Street. “Government is a partner, but it’s not about government doing everything.”

“It has really been energizing,” entrepreneur Griffin Van Meter said during the wrap-up session. “It really emphasizes why Lexington is such a great city.”

And why it can become even better.

Click on each thumbnail to see full photo:


Think global, act local with food choices

March 20, 2010

Do you ever worry about where your next meal is coming from? Maybe you should.

I don’t mean how you will pay for it, although that seems to be a concern for more and more people these days.

I mean literally where it’s coming from, what’s in it and whether the food and the methods used to produce it are good for your body, your community and your environment.

Those issues brought more than 100 people to Crestwood Christian Church last Thursday and Friday for the Bluegrass Food Security Summit. Organized by community activist and local dynamo Jim Embry, the summit was a place for farmers, educators, social workers, government bureaucrats and even clergy to talk about how to make this region better-fed and more environmentally sustainable.

The scientific and economic revolution that reshaped American agriculture after World War II did a lot of good, and a lot of bad. Many family farms were replaced by industrial agriculture that could produce more food cheaper and more efficiently. But cheap food has had other costs.

Pesticides and herbicides have contaminated soil and water. Overuse of antibiotics in animals has led to drug-resistant infections in people. Industrially processed food and fast-food culture have caused a decline in nutrition among many segments of the population.

Cheaply produced meat, vegetables and fruits are trucked great distances to market — something that will be less possible as oil supplies diminish and prices rise.

Controlled-feeding animal operations — such as the hog and chicken farms that plague many parts of rural Kentucky — produce huge amounts of waste that pollute groundwater and create an unbearable stench for miles around.

Things are changing, though, as more people seek healthier and tastier foods. Kentucky is making more progress than many states, thanks to wise investment of tobacco settlement money in agricultural diversification. And the family farm is being re-invented in many parts of the state, thanks to groups like the Community Farm Alliance, which is celebrating its 25th year.

Kentucky has seen tremendous growth recently in organic and naturally produced meat and produce, much of it on small, family-owned farms that sell through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) plans. The University of Kentucky now even has an organic farm and CSA operation — and a degree program in sustainable agriculture.

Co-op groceries that focus on fresh, locally produced food are becoming more popular. Lexington’s Good Foods Co-op on Southland Drive now has nearly 5,200 owners.

There also has been a lot of emphasis on starting school and neighborhood gardens, a focus of such organizations as Seedleaf (www.seedleaf.org) and Embry’s Sustainable Communities Network (www.sustainlex.org).

In Lexington, gardens have been created in many neighborhoods, at Bryan Station High School, the Chrysalis House program for women with substance-abuse problems, the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program and Employment Solutions, a company that provides vocational training to unemployed people.

Outside Lexington, many organizations are working to promote local food alternatives and environmental stewardship. One notable example is Sustainable Berea (www.sustainableberea.org), which offers workshops in gardening and related skills and helps people in the Madison County community plant berry bushes and fruit trees.

“It’s an issue of stewardship,” the Rev. Kory Wilcoxson, senior pastor at Crestwood Christian, said at the summit’s opening session. “When you read the Bible, the world was started in a garden.”

Many of Lexington’s community gardens have a strong emphasis on participation by children and youth, and there were many of them at the summit’s opening dinner and program Thursday evening. Embry believes that children are the key to steering society back to the local food and sustainability ethics that were the norm in America until the late 20th century.

“The great work of this century is to restore the sacredness of the earth and its connections to ourselves,” Embry said. “It means we have to find new ways of doing things. We don’t want our children to inherit the problems we created.”


Tall flowers, big vegetables and local food

July 24, 2009

Cheyenne Olson of Berea recently sent me this photo of a giant sunflower in her garden. She said she has no idea how it got that big, but notes that it falls a bit short of the world record, a 25-foot sunflower grown in Norway in 1986.

If you want to ask Olson about her sunflower, she’ll be at the Third Annual 100-mile Potluck and Auction at Berea Community School on Sunday from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The event is sponsored by Sustainable Berea and the Berea Farmers Market.

Admission to the potluck is free, but bring a dish made with ingredients produced within 100 miles of Berea. Also, bring the recipe for inclusion in a cookbook of recipes from the first three annual potlucks that will be published in October.

The auction includes a variety of items related to local food. And it features seven of the ever-popular rain barrels painted by Berea-area artists. The auction benefits Sustainable Berea, an non-profit environmental organization. An auction booklet is on the group’s Web site.

Tall flowers, giant produce and big fish have long been a photographic staple of local newspapers. So, in that spirit, email me a photo of your outstanding specimen from this summer and I’ll post it on my blog. (No PhotoShop creations or wide-angle lens distortions, please. I can tell.)


Idea Festival speaker profiled in New York Times

July 6, 2009

The New York Times Magazine on Sunday profiled Will Allen, the urban gardening guru and local food supersalesman who will speak this fall in Louisville at the annual Idea Festival.

Allen, 60, a former pro basketball player, is the brain behind Growing Power farm, which provides nutritious local food and jobs for inner city residents of Milwaukee, Wisc. Allen’s work has brought him one of the famous $500,000 “genius” awards from the MacArthur Foundation and other honors.

Allen will speak at the Idea Festival on Saturday, Sept. 26, at 8:45 a.m. at the Kentucky Center. Click here for more information. Click here to read the New York Times Magazine profile by Elizabeth Royte.