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TV chef Emeril Lagasse in Vermont

By Sally Pollak | Burlington Free Press

photo
GLENN RUSSELL, Free Press

Chef Emeril Lagasse (right) accepts a toast after preparing a dinner from local ingredients at the Lakeview Inn in Greensboro.

photo
GLENN RUSSELL, Free Press

Chef Emeril Lagasse (right) looks on as local farmers and producers serve themselves a dinner he prepared from local ingredients at the Lakeview Inn in Greensboro on Thursday September 17, 2009.

GREENSBORO — At his cheese shop in Manhattan, chef Emeril Lagasse likes to buy a certain blue cheese made in Vermont. He and his kids look for the Vermont blue on weekend shopping trips, Lagasse said.

So it was a pretty great thing for Lagasse, whose culinary exploits include TV cooking shows, to find himself on location last week at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro. Lagasse was making Bayley Hazen blue with artisan cheesemakers Mateo and Andy Kehler when he had a kind of Epicurean epiphany.

“Holy mackerel,” Lagasse thought. “I’m making the cheese I buy in New York. I totally get the connection. It’s come full circle.”

Full circle also describes the agriculture and food community, its relationships and intentions, that brought Lagasse to the Northeast Kingdom to shoot episodes for “Emeril Green,” his Planet Green broadcast. The show, usually shot in a Whole Foods store in Fairfax, Va., highlights local ingredients, organic food and healthful eating.

Lagasse, 49, traveled to the Northeast Kingdom to the tell the stories of farmers, chefs, food producers and entrepreneurs whose work is in the forefront of Vermont’s local, sustainable food system. The weeklong visit centered around the food and farm community that is taking root and growing in and around Hardwick.

A group of 30-something farmers, producers and entrepreneurs are growing and producing food, creating value-added products, building a diverse agricultural network, and working to strengthen the viability of the area through an ag-centered local economy.

They engage in a variety of collaborative efforts: from lending each other money to sharing a pickup-full of pork; from exchanging ideas about marketing to trading meals for glassware at Claire’s, a Hardwick restaurant.

“I’m impressed a lot, but I’m really impressed here,” Lagasse said. “It’s just really impressive what this area is doing, what these guys are contributing. It’s a region of the country that is incredibly agriculturally friendly.”

Lagasse visited several local businesses to learn about these efforts, shoot scenes on location, cook with local ingredients and chefs, and tell the stories of the people behind the tofu, potatoes and cheese.

“Tom turned us onto Pete,” Lagasse said. “Pete turned us onto Andrew. Andrew turned us onto Andy.

Lagasse was naming the “young pioneers” he met on his Vermont food trip, people who will be featured on his broadcast. He was talking in the farmyard of Pete’s Greens, where he made pickles in the farmhouse kitchen and interviewed farmer Pete Johnson in his road-side farmstand.

“This is probably one of the best-kept secrets on the planet,” Lagasse said. “It’s an amazing full circle what these young pioneers have made.

“Mostly in life, people are very competitive. Here, they’re all connected, and they’re all wishing each other well. It starts with the seeds. It goes to the soil and the harvest.”

Capturing community

The Kingdom-based shows, three half-hour segments and one-hour special, are scheduled for broadcast on Planet Green, a Discovery Communications network, in January, according to the show.

At High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Lagasse and his crew visited trial growing fields, three acres in which vegetable varieties are grown and tested for certain characteristics. High Mowing president Tom Stearns, who is president of the board of Hardwick nonprofit the Center for a Sustainable Economy, was instrumental in coordinating the Lagasse-in-the-Kingdom extravaganza.

He calls the area’s interlaced businesses, their common interests and mutual support, the “Hardwick Agriculture Revolution.”

“It’s a community of businesses and organizations and individuals that are working collectively to build a healthy, 21st-century food system,” Stearns said. “We all want to see farming thrive, we all want to eat better food, and we all want to make sure that people of lower income and people who are hungry have access to the best quality food, as well.”

Lagasse spent time at Vermont Soy in Hardwick to learn about soy milk production and to make tofu with co-owner Andrew Meyer. The “Emeril Green” Vermont broadcasts will help get information, and perhaps inspiration, to people interested in the Hardwick projects.

“There’s a level of inspiring entrepreneurs to do what they really dream of doing,” Meyer said.

At the finale feast at the Lakeview Inn, a garden-style gourmet meal to celebrate the bounty and thank the locals, Lagasse served panna cotta made from Hardwick soy. It was one of about a dozen dishes at the backyard banquet prepared with down-the-road ingredients, from beets to greens to chicken.

Collaborative efforts

Crew member Brian Snell, a 51-year-old freelance grip from Baltimore, said he usually does his job on the set, and pays little attention to the content of the production, the people being filmed, the stories they tell.

The production that unfolded last week in the Northeast Kingdom was of a different order, Snell said. He found himself listening, learning and interested in the topics being explored.

“The whole thing has been fascinating to me,” Snell said. “I want to hear what happens next. Vermont is doing something no one else is doing, as far as I can see. Or if they’re doing it, they’re not doing it in my neighborhood.”

Snell said he was impressed by the collaborative and supportive nature of the business ventures, the intelligence and kindness of the farmers and food producers, and the organic production methods.

“It’s like the way they did it in the old days,” Snell said.

An important way the businesses support each other is through monthly meetings, where people share ideas, raise concerns, discuss problems big and small that might be of mutual interest, and offer solutions, said Meyer, co-owner of Vermont Soy.

They also help each other out financially, with $450,000 to $500,000 in loans that have circulated among a certain group of businesses, he said. The loans are made by verbal contract. They’re honored, Meyer said.

The Tuesday meetings grew out of less formal gatherings, with friends, farmers and others hanging out, drinking beer and discovering they have common interests and enjoy trading ideas, said Andy Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm. Their shared interests concern not only farming and food supply, but a commitment to live in the Northeast Kingdom and raise families there.

“It is a deliberate choice,” Kehler said.

Hanging out over beers, they talked about farming, staffing, growth, organization and finances, marketing and branding, he said.

“That was really the beginning of a collaborative process that has made something that is greater than the sum of its parts,” Kehler said. “We’re excited to add more.”

Contact Sally Pollak at [email protected] or 660-1859

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