Turner Farm’s New Chef Provides Vital Link Between Fields and Kitchen
When Turner Farm established a new state-of-the-art Teaching Kitchen in a rehabilitated barn last fall, Cincinnati’s largest certified organic farm signaled its intention to enter the battle against the healthcare crisis facing the nation.
“Our focus is more than just growing food,” Executive Director Robert Edmiston told news reporters before the official launch of the Teaching Kitchen in 2016. “We believe in growing quality food, understanding our relationships to foods and how they are produced, being informed about healthy lifestyle choices, and from there taking ownership of our individual health and wellness. We are trying to encourage people to take ownership of their health.”
To further this philosophy of personal stewardship, Turner Farm has brought in Stephanie Michalak to serve as Chef and Culinary Manager.
A native of Connecticut, Stephanie is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, where she earned degrees in Culinary Arts and Culinary Arts Management. She also earned a masters degree in Food Studies from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.
She has travelled extensively to further her culinary knowledge, including work-study trips to Germany and immersion in sustainable agriculture in India.
As Turner Farm’s Chef and Culinary Manager, she is at the helm of the state-of-the-art Teaching Kitchen, serving as its educational program coordinator and providing the vital link between those wanting to learn about nutrition and stewardship of the land.
We recently sat down with the newest member of the Turner Farm team to get her perspective on her job, the broader vision of American food culture, and what Turner Farm’s community members can expect now that she’s taken over the helm of one of the nation’s premier teaching kitchens.
Turner Farm: How does a Chef/Culinary Manager fit into the overall mission of Turner Farm?
While my official title is Chef and Culinary manager, this label is a little nebulous because my role extends beyond just simply cooking and managing the Turner Farm Teaching Kitchen.
I think that a chef fits perfectly within the overall mission of Turner Farm. I remember reading the organization’s mission statement before starting and the first few sentences encapsulate both what happens on the farm and what is—and will be much more frequently—occurring in the kitchen:
Drawing lessons from our rural heritage to help build a positive future, demonstrating that local, organic, low impact food production grows healthy communities and healthy ecosystems. Turner Farm operations promote connections between people of all ages and the land that feeds them, in body, mind, and spirit. Through education and example, we nurture understanding of the rhythms of nature, and our place in the natural world, fostering recognition of personal responsibility for stewardship of the land, ourselves and development of a nurturing community.
I honestly do not feel like I’m the only one who can see how this little snippet encompasses the whole kitchen alongside the farm. It facilitates the need for a chef to help re-connect others to all of the hard work that goes into keeping soil healthy, raising vivacious animals, and growing beautiful produce. Ultimately, my role becomes one of a liaison, advocate, and educator.
So you’re serving as the connection between the kitchen and the fields of Turner Farm?
Essentially, yes. More importantly though, the Teaching Kitchen, along with myself and those that participate in the space, become a connection between the fields and the homes in which Turner Farm is able to reach. The kitchen allows Turner Farm to connect more people not only back to our fields, but to other local growing spaces, producers, and their surrounding community. The kitchen essentially becomes a louder voice and an advocate for fostering the connections between consumers, producers, and our Earth. I suppose it also helps that I intend on reiterating and articulating this vital interdependence that we all are a part of so that more individuals can participate within this larger discussion. We want as many people as possible armed with the knowledge of to positively impact their own lives as well as those around them and the planet we live on.
Furthermore, the kitchen provides an open space for curiosity, while helping others build culinary confidence and competency that they can hopefully use in their own lives to better nourish themselves and those around them.
The temptation is to use the term “farm-to-table” to describe your place on the Turner Farm team. But that doesn’t seem to cover it.
Honestly, it’s a little convoluted for me. “Farm-to-table” is in some ways amazing and in the purest sense absolutely necessary for everyone. The ethos of the movement is, I believe at least, also one of its strengths. “Farm-to-table” is ideologically meant to minimize the chain of purchase while re-emphasizing and re-establishing an intimate relationship between producer and consumer. It is meant to help purchasers have more transparency and a better understanding of where their food comes from as well as how it is produced and by whom.
However, the term “farm-to-table” can also be seen as a trendy buzzword since there is not always an honest parameter as to how far those farms really need to be from said table. Sometimes marketing is used to skew the image of certain products and make them appear to be a part of this movement without much validity or proof –essentially hoodwinking trusting purchasers.
Additionally, “farm-to-table” can be seen as a luxury to many who currently live in food deserts and/or lack the purchasing power and ability to support for this type of food. Personally, this is a huge issue because it insinuates that those who have perhaps the worst situation in regards to accessibility and nutritionally sound foods also do not have an adequate amount of advocacy and generally are subjected to a more frequently marginalized voice.
Ultimately, I do hope that with more urban gardens and supporters of the ideology behind “farm-to-table” principles are able to help foster a stronger sense of food-sovereignty within all neighborhoods. “Farm-to-table” should not just be considered a fad but an honest attempt at demystifying where our food comes from and creating healthier communities.
What changes can the farm’s customers and community expect as you settle into your role?
As I settle into my role, the farm’s customers and community can expect to see many more events taking place in and around the kitchen. I plan on providing a wide variety of culinary classes that are fun, engaging, and focused on helping participants gain culinary confidence and competence to help better nourish themselves.
With more classes taking place on the farm, I’m hoping it allots more individuals an opportunity to experience and enjoy Turner Farm, but also helps them gain knowledge and build a stronger connection to their food. I also intend on collaborating with our urban farming initiatives and outreach to the greater community of Cincinnati to offer culinary classes off-site to those who may not otherwise have a chance to drive out to the farm and help others fully reap the benefits of growing their own produce.
Similarly, I envision the kitchen having a stronger presence online to provide individuals with recipes and inspiration for what to do with various products, like kohlrabi or beet greens. My position is honestly an amazing opportunity to help so many others get enthusiastic about nutritious, vibrant dishes, find a stronger link to those that produce food, and perhaps get more individuals and families excited to go back in their own kitchens.
What are your thoughts on the Teaching Kitchen movement?
It’s honestly a dream come true in many ways and perhaps one outlet that can help revamp people’s relationship with food. I am thrilled that there are a plethora of other institutions, groups, and individuals recognizing that cooking (and more specifically, healthy cooking) is a skill that is not common knowledge anymore and needs to be addressed.
Lifestyles do not always facilitate a positive environment around food or the ability to learn how to cook while growing up… It’s not like anyone really enjoys not knowing how to feed themselves or their loved ones. People want to know how to make at least a few things so they do not always feel obligated to go out to eat. I believe that teaching kitchens can re-engage individuals and reinvigorate healthy relationships with not only cooking and eating, but within families and communities themselves.
The movement is much more than just a trend; it’s hopefully a refocusing on the importance of skill-based competencies. I look forward to being a part of the movement and seeing how it unfolds and develops.
A large part of Turner Farm’s mission can be summed up as stewardship for the land and stewardship for the individual person. How do you plan to further that mission?
Well, how I see this manifesting in the context of the kitchen and developing culinary-centric courses is that with a better understanding and grasp of culinary skills, people will feel like they have a stronger grasp and sense of power on what they personally can control in their own lives when it comes to food–like the foods they consume, where and who they purchase food from, and what they feel comfortable cooking.
I am a firm believer that knowledge is power, but without gaining a sense of confidence to actually enact on something you know, it is a little difficult to feel like you have a personal responsibility to either yourself, or the world. For example—and perhaps this is a little too simple, but hopefully it gets the point across—if you know what a “healthy” meal for yourself or your family would be, but you personally do not know how to cook, or simply do not feel comfortable cooking, then it is a little challenging to enact on what you know. My hope is that the Teaching Kitchen will allow people to feel like cooking is not so much a chore or an anxiety-ridden activity, but something to embrace and enjoy as a process of learning.