the culinary vegetable institute

Thanks to farmer Lee Jones and his wife, Mary, we had the opportunity last weekend to attend one of the dinners at the Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI). It was the Trinchero Family Estates wine dinner.

I was somewhat familiar with CVI and The Chef’s Garden, both from local chefs and various articles I’ve read, but have never been. By way of background, The Chef’s Garden is a sustainable farm in Huron that responsibly grows  the largest selection of heirloom and specialty vegetables, micro greens, herbs and edible flowers available anywhere in the United States. With over 600 varieties, they practice field to plate in 24 hours. They work with chefs from all over the country, including Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter (Trotter actually broke ground on the center) and of course many of our local chefs. The Institute evolved from this practice and was first proposed by Lee’s father, Bob. The Institutes’s purpose is to provide a place for the farmer and chef to come together and collaborate. While still working closely with chefs (it also serves as a retreat for many chefs and a test kitchen), it’s also open to the public for special dinners, wine tastings and cooking classes.

The space, dubbed a culinary education center, is a beautiful and rather cozy lodge. All the timber beams and all other wood inside is reclaimed wood right from the farm. Even the stone on the over-sized fireplace is from their land. And the focal point of this retreat: a 1,500 square foot state-of-the-art kitchen any chef would covet. The rustic institute is surrounded by the working farm.

Our dinner, prepared by a team of chefs including several high school students that are part of area school’s culinary vocation programs, featured numerous items picked that morning. The menu included:

creme of pumpkin soup shooters with truffle oil
shaved Brussels sprouts slaw on sourdough crostini w/ pecorino & roasted walnut oil
butternut squash and blue cheese flan w/ sauteed shrimp & micro marjoram
chef’s garden baby greens w/ gorgonzola, walnuts & warm figs in a sherry vinaigrette
sauteed diver scallop on fennel with mascarpone risotto
sage-rubbed pork tenderloin with sweet potato and apple spoonbread
poached pears w/ hazelnut cake, amaretto cream & cinnamon caramel sauce

Each dish was paired with an accompanying wine. Of all the wines we sampled, my favorite (and only one we purchased that night), was the 2007 Trinchero Napa Valley Meritage. The other wines were nice, but given the choice nothing I’d probably order out.

As for the dinner, with the exception of the dessert (a bit dry and somewhat bland overall) each dish was incredibly flavorful, beautifully presented and simply delicious. My favorites included the scallop, flan and Brussels sprouts appetizer. My only complaint is that I would have liked more of each dish. Though given the number of courses, each was portioned properly and adequately spaced.

The evening itself lasted a few hours  and we were encouraged to explore the Institute (the private chef’s room, library featuring many books donated by chefs, kitchen, etc.). It was a wonderful night that was as informative as it was delicious. CVI, as well as The Chef’s Garden, is truly an amazing operation that we are fortunate to have right in our backyard. This post doesn’t do it justice and just hints at all that’s going on just a quick hour away.

If you have the opportunity, check out one of their specialty dinners. In addition to the wine tasting dinners, which typically cost $85 per person, CVI features Earth-to-Table dinners that are served family style and cost $55 per person. Here’s a look at the December dinner with Chef Lee Anne Wong.

As for farmer Lee Jones, what an interesting individual! His signature look is actually trademarked and he never wears anything else other than his white shirt, overalls and one of his 12 red bow ties. Ever – regardless of occasion. Look for much more on him in an upcoming Q&A.

One final thing I learned. The vegetables and herbs that were once only available to top chefs, are now available to all of us. For an annual $30 membership (which goes directly to help fund Veggie U, a teaching program that educates fourth graders on eating smart) your order is placed online and delivered right to your door. Visit here to join and learn more.


  1. Posted November 23, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    We’re so happy that you finally made it out to an event. All of us on the farm are big fans of your site for Cleveland food bytes.

  2. Dave
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the review. I’ve been considering going to one for a while now. We just bought a vita mix and it came with a free box of produce from CVI. Can’t wait to sample them.