The 250-Mile Challenge: Green Feast Chefs Cook with All Local Foods

Reader Contribution by Ann Nguyen and The Ecology Center
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Once a year, at a historic farmhouse located on Orange County’s last remaining family-run organic farm, a group of 225 guests gather at a long communal table for an end-of-summer harvest feast. As dusk settles, café lights and candles illuminate a long table filled with fresh baked bread, piquant wine, fragrant platters, and lively conversations.

Green Feast not only harkens to a simpler past, it is also a testament to what we as a community still crave today – honest food that connects us to each other and to the land. Over the last six years, Green Feast has quickly become a hallmark event in Southern California, drawing the region’s best chefs, farmers, artisans, and makers. The network continues to grow as new chefs and purveyors participate.

Working to preserve its agrarian roots, The Ecology Center’s Green Feast celebration is about reinvesting in local agriculture, inspiring connection to the land, fostering community and working together towards a common vision — a healthy and sustainable future for all.

Putting theory into practice, Green Feast challenges Southern California’s best chefs and purveyors to work collaboratively to create a truly sustainable meal. The chefs and purveyors must ensure each ingredient, from the vegetables to the meats, and even the flour and sugar, are locally and ethically sourced. Green Feast boasts a menu of regional foods found within 250 miles of San Juan Capistrano, where Green Feast takes place.

Chefs who take the challenge begin their planning months in advance. In June, the chefs gather at The Ecology Center to pick up a vetted sourcing list of local farmers, bakers, ranchers, cheese mongers, beekeepers, fishermen, vintners, and artisans.

While the choices seem vast in California, finding what will be available during the fall season when Green Feast takes place is much more difficult. This is because sustainable farmers are not driven solely by the market’s demands. They focus on good farming practices like growing crops that build soil or that are well suited to the region’s climate. As a result, a number of factors from drought to pests may have influence on crop availability.

Watch Grub Tribe’s interviews with the chefs for more stories on the making of the 250-mile meal.

As chefs engage in these conversations with the local community about seasonality, crop rotation, and fish migration, the menu will begin to take shape. This is a drastically different approach than most restaurants are used to, which begins with menu design, regardless of what will be in season. The limitation is also a source of innovation. Maybe chefs won’t find melons this year, but instead, there are heirloom tarbais beans, peaches, and wild stinging nettle.

Vegetables and protein are actually the easy part of sourcing locally. The tougher challenge is finding the staple ingredients — flour, sugar, salt — all within 250 miles. Chefs Kerri Cacciata and Debra Sims replaced cane sugar with date sugar and made their own gelatin using pig’s feet from Cook’s Pig Ranch.

While food certainly takes center stage at Green Feast, it is much more than a dining experience. Green Feast pays homage to the bounty and abundance that the earth offers and the people who work to sustain it. Held outdoors at The Ecology Center — a vibrant garden and community gathering ground where once was an unused dirt lot and rustic farmhouse — Green Feast generates funds that supports the nonprofit’s mission of eco-education.

The Ecology Center’s programs teach hands-on sustainable skills to the community, empowering everyone to grow organic gardens, improve water stewardship, conserve energy, reduce waste, and create low-impact shelter. Through leading by example, The Ecology Center shows that it is possible to create a sustainable environment that preserves the past while cultivating the future.

(Top) Photo by Scott Sporleder: Green Feast guests are seated outdoors at two long rows of tables next to San Juan Capistrano’s oldest wooden structure, a historic farmhouse built in 1878.

(Second) Photo by Mariusz Jeglinski: Behind-the-scenes of Chef Debra Sims of Maro Wood Grill and Chef Kerri Cacciata, Chef-in-Residence at The Ecology Center and owner of Local Tastes Better preparing the dessert course, Tri Color Olive Oil Carrot Cake, Goat Cheese & Fennel Panna Cotta, Fig Tartlette.

(Third) Photo by Michelle Montgomery: Volunteer, Jeff Davis, places a plate of fresh harvest vegetables on the table.

(Bottom) Photo by Michelle Montgomery: Evan Marks, The Ecology Center’s founder, poses with Green Feast volunteers. Green Feast is primarily organized and facilitated by volunteers.

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