The Land Connection held its third Artisan Cup & Fork event on Saturday, September 15th, at the Broadway Food Hall in Urbana. If you haven’t heard of The Land Connection before or know what they do, their main goal is to “...increase the number of farmers so our communities will always have locally produced foods available. We do this by helping local farmers develop deep sustainability in their stewardship of the environment, holistic farm and business planning, and networks where they can collaborate on production and marketing strategies,” as stated by the Executive Director, Jacquelyn Evers.

The event and fundraiser showcases creations from regional chefs, whose ingredients are sourced from a variety of local farms, plus a handful of local breweries who pair their libations to the food being served. The result is a culinary smorgasbord and an enjoyable fundraiser, with hundreds in attendance.

I was pleased to see what a highly attended event it turned out to be. I arrived just as it began at 6 p.m. and the registration line was already snaking out the door. Being an open space, Broadway Food Hall was an ideal setting for the food and drink tables, as they lined the perimeter of the hall, allowing people to mingle and sit at the dining tables in the main space.

In addition to the number of friendly faces who greeted us at registration, we also had the chance to purchase raffle tickets for a variety of prizes and bid on a grand prize through silent auction. Each guest was also given a wristband (this is a 21-and-up event only) and a program with an enclosed ballot. At the end of the evening, the food competition would announce a winning dish from the attendees (People’s Choice) and receive an official win from a panel of judges.

I started with the dish prepared by Chef Adam Shallenberger (of Fired!/Smoked), the defending champion. He served a trio of pork roulade with ratatouille, grits, and 5-alarm gouda fritters, supplied by Sugar Grove Family Farm, Meyer Produce, and Marcoot Jersey Creamery. The components were flavorful (tomato and smoke were the strongest), but not everything was consumable in one tidy bite. For example, I could get a bite of fritter with the soft inner ring of the pork roulade but I was unable to get a small piece of the ring of pork/bacon that surrounded it, based on the challenge it presented of cutting it with plastic cutlery. It remained on my plate until I got to it at the end, along with most of the fritter. All that said, the presentation was lovely.

Next, I sampled the dish from Chefs Jordan and Aurora Coffey (American Harvest Eatery in Springfield), who served lamb meatballs with charred eggplant and chevre hummus, Adobo chili and tomato broth, herb and onion salsa, and housemade labneh, the ingredients of which were provided by Base Camp Farm, Harvest & Blooms Farm, and Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery. This was one of the handful of tables who offered a vegetarian option to the meat, substituting rice for the meatball. If you love lamb, you would probably go gaga for this meatball. It was not my personal favorite, but I heard plenty of people raving about it; it was served with a piece of fresh mint leaf and I will say, its accompaniments were outstanding. The goat cheese hummus with pickled veggies was one of the best things I ate all night. If I served that at a party, it would be the first thing to disappear.

Following, I had the pork shoulder tostada with vegetable ceviche, poblana crema and cheddar, prepared by chef Ryan Rogiers of The WheelHouse. The suppliers for this dish were Kilgus Farmstead, Sola Gratia Farm, and Marcoot Jersey Creamery. (Not officially on the team but listed was Spence Farm, who provided the Blue Hopi Corn Masa for the tostada.) Chef Rogiers served a still warm tostada that held all of its toppings, making it easy to eat with one hand and no utensils. This dish was a delicious blend of crispy and creamy, with the right hit of acid. There was a hint of cinnamon in the dish, as well, which normally I would be averse to, but it was not overpowering and worked well. Out of the three I had tried so far, this one rose to the top of my list.

The next dish I tried came from Triple S Farms, Willow Creek Farm, Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, and Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains and was created by Chef Leaf DeFehr of V. Picasso. It was Chashu pork belly with tomato, pear Dashi, and “Black Goat" croquettes. I normally do not gravitate towards broths but as subtle as some of the flavors were, they all came through and provided a layer of flavors that all worked well together. The pork belly had an incredibly soft, buttery texture. The sprinkling of greens throughout provided a brightness to the dish. I wouldn’t have objected to a pinch more salt but overall (it was one of the healthier dishes of the night) and it felt like a little hug going down, as it was served nice and warm. I was a bit skeptical, initially, but it easily moved to my second favorite, at least in the order I was trying everything.

Picking up dish number five out of eight, I sampled the “Kickapoo” smoked chicken with cheese sauce, cherry compote, and “PrairE” sweet potato hash, created by Chef Mark Cannon of Black Dog Smoke & Ale House in Urbana. Sources of this dish hailed from Harvest Table Foods, PrairiErth Farm, and Ludwig Farmstead Creamery. There was a vegetarian/vegan option for this one, which was smoked seitan (a cooked wheat gluten) with compote and hash. The chicken had an incredibly rich, smoky flavor, as you would expect from a place that can boast they serve some of the best barbecue in the nation. The cheese sauce in and of itself was just okay for me; it was served melted on top of the chicken, which helped. Both the chicken and hash were served warm, while the cherry compote was intentionally served cold. The acidity was a necessary addition, to be sure, although its flavor did not stand out for me the way others did in the competition. The sweet potato hash I received was soft and served with cooked onions and peppers, but when I compared notes with another attendee, the hash she received was quite raw, so there was a bit of a consistency issue.

Moving on: I tried a pork and pear braciole with bacon-loaded pak choy and kale, caramelized onion, smoked Moonglo cheese, and roasted cherry tomato with chevre cream sauce, the ingredients of which were supplied by Moore Family Farms, Brackett Farm, and Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery and prepared by Chef Jordan Baldarotta of Baldarotta’s Porketta & Sicilian Sausage.This dish was served hot but was altogether not overly appetizing, at least from a plating standpoint. Ultimately, the pork needed a bit more seasoning and the kale got a bit lost in flavor but it added a touch of green to this largely yellow-ish creation. All that said, when it came to what I think was the small scoop of mashed potatoes on the side, they were phenomenal and some of the best I have had served outside of homemade. They had the right amount of chunk, salt, and fat to them.

The penultimate dish I picked up was created by Chef Anne Caye, a personal chef and caterer, who made a brisket slider with mozzarella, pepper giardiniera, and radish microgreens with ingredients from Cow Creek Farms, The Seasonal Plate, Ludwig Farmstead Creamery, The Mill at Janie’s Farm, and Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains. (Not officially on the team but also listed was Flyway Family Farm.) The brisket slider was incredibly spicy and also served hot. It stood out for its punch of flavor and presentation. I was not able to eat all of my pickled peppery toppings due to the level of heat, but what I did try was delicious. I felt a lingering fire in my belly for a while after consuming this one. The melted mozzarella on top added a terrific gooey texture plus some needed fat to aid with the spiciness. The vegetarian alternative was swapping out the brisket for chestnut mushrooms. For me, this dish edged out the tostada and I picked it as my favorite.

The final dish I tried, and the most challenging to obtain, as it seemed as though there were some preparation issues taking place, was the steak tartare slider with polenta, pickled shishitos, tomato garlic confit, and chips made by Chef Jacob Paul of Haute Boxx, with ingredients obtained from Broken “K” Ranch, BlueMoon Farm, and Marcoot Jersey Creamery. The famed Haute Boxx chips were not part of the final dish; instead, I think the polenta was deep fried to provide the crunch and texture. I was a bit nervous about eating the steak tartare, as I normally avoid undercooked beef. However, this was plated in an amuse-bouche size, which worked to its advantage. The doneness of the steak was not noticeable when eaten all at once with the rest of the elements and they all worked very well together. The standout was the fried polenta/crispy part, as it was a perfectly seasoned, salty, cheesy bite.

If this sounds like a ton of food, you would be right. Though each dish was petite, they added up to a large eight-course meal. Plus, there were plenty of drinks to be had, although I only tried one small tasting provided by Destihl (the Imperial Belgian Whitbier). The beer was in limited quantity and separate tickets were being sold for the beer tasting. Several small desserts made by Heidi Leuszler also lined one wall, and were included with the cost of admission.

It should be noted that generally, this event is not for picky eaters or those with food sensitivities, as meat, dairy, and gluten are plentiful. Otherwise, this event is a wonderful way to get to know local chefs and familiarize oneself with the local farms and suppliers in Illinois, not to mention it raises money for a terrific local organization in Champaign-Urbana.

The winner of the food competition? Taking both the People’s Choice and the judges’ votes were Jordan and Aurora Coffey of American Harvest Eatery out of Springfield. Their dish was the lamb meatball with the incredible hummus and pickled veggies.

If you missed out, fear not: this is quickly becoming the culinary event to prioritize on your calendar come next year.

Photos by Zoe Valentine