Inspired by Outstanding in the Field, a now-national farm-based dinner series aimed at reconnecting diners to the land and origins of their food, Stewart spent three years carving a bucolic outdoor dining spot out of one of the farm’s hillsides, painting his vision like a Dutch Golden Age artist with an excavator. Then he built a stone grill, a wood-fired oven (with assistance from Mark Frommeyer of Blue Oven Bakery) and a space level enough for people to sit and eat at a communal table, surrounded by trees and rolling farmland.
On a recent Saturday, Chef Ryan Santos of Please, a mobile dining pop-up, uses pages from old copies of CityBeat to light a fire in Stewart’s grill. Santos moves quietly and efficiently between trays of colorful but gnarled carrots, turning them gently over the brick-lined grates as the afternoon warms and a neighbor’s dog lies nearby, napping in the pea gravel. As Santos meticulously works with foods grown on the premises in which they are to be served, Stewart’s vision seems to walk that fine line between genius and craziness.
There’s some of each of those qualities, plus healthy doses of creativity and hard work, in Please at Carriage House Farm, the farm-to-table dinner series running three weekends each month this summer at Carriage House. It’s a collaboration between Santos, Stewart and Carriage House Farm Garden Manager Kate Cook — each contributing plenty of passion to this labor of love.
Guests are scheduled to arrive in about six hours. By then, the gnarled carrots will be cool and tossed in dressing based on yogurt that Santos cultured from Snowville Creamery cream and seasoned with chamomile and fennel. The table will be set. Out of the crazy genius and creative sweat, magic will happen under the trees.
“Dinners begin with guests arriving in the garden,” Santos says. “From there, they’re free to roam and wander the gardens and surrounding bridal trails or head straight for the table, open their beverages and relax. … The dining area is up on a hill overlooking the entire farm, shaded by trees surrounding the area; it’s really magical.”
Pop-up dinners have been a dining phenomenon for a while, and Santos was one of the pioneers of the concept in Cincinnati. Pop-ups are under-the-radar, chef-prepared dinners that aren’t fixed to one brick-and-mortar location. They’re a cross between a dinner party and a restaurant, sparked with an air of being “in the know” and seasoned with a barely legal thrill. Social media makes this sort of event dining possible. It connects chefs, diners and settings together efficiently and makes the logistics — from promotion to reservations and payment — fairly seamless.
Santos began cooking pop-up dinners in the Brush Factory studios in Brighton in 2011, and then moved headquarters to a friend’s apartment in Liberty Hill. He eventually outgrew that space and began using the StreetPops storefront at the north end of Main Street this past January when StreetPops was closed for the winter.
A graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, Santos originally set out to be a graphic designer. But after moving back home to Cleveland after school and taking a job under Chef Nolan Konkoski at the French-inspired Tartine Bistro, Santos says he found a passion and wanted to do and learn “anything and everything” in the kitchen.
After two years at Tartine, he moved to Salt of the Earth in Pittsburgh, working under Chef Kevin Sousa, then traveled from L.A. to Virginia, working under various chefs he admired. After tiring of the nomadic lifestyle, he stopped in Cincinnati for a summer to try his hand at pop-up dinners under the Please moniker. He planned to move on again but, to his surprise, the dinners caught on and he’s been doing them for two years now.
But that’s not to say Santos doesn’t continue to travel and learn. His passion recently took him overseas to Belgium, where he was to intern at In De Wulf, a restaurant that Diners Club named one of the world’s 50 best. Santos only stayed in Belgium for two weeks and chooses not to discuss why he left, but he brought back with him an appreciation for the approach to food at In De Wulf. Santos characterizes this approach as modern, creative and rustic — things important to him personally as a chef and which reinforced his belief that things must be kept “organic and simple.”
Santos had held one pop-up dinner at Carriage House in November before he left for Europe, and he knew that this was what he’d continue to do when he returned.
“They were one of the first local farms that embraced what I was trying to do when I moved back to Cincinnati two years ago,” Santos says, “even if I didn’t really know what I was doing.
On the Farm
This past year, Santos worked with Cook, whose primary responsibility is the garden at the farm, to plan crops that would support his dinner menus.
“We sat down in the winter and scheduled a growing plan for the whole year,” Santos says. “Not only would I have access to the usual ingredients they grow, but they’d grow things specifically for me — special herbs, vegetables, and things that I have trouble finding locally, love to use or just wanted to play around with.”
Carriage House Farm combines conventional and non-certified organic operations in order to achieve a viable, financially stable operation. The dinners are part of that business plan now, too. Carriage House is a registered Ohio Century Farm — it’s been around since 1855. Ninety acres of the farm lie in conservation easement and can only be used as a farm or a park and can never be developed. And it’s a family farm — Stewart’s mom works with Cook in the garden and his dad runs the soybean, hay and other conventional crops that fill the fields closest to the Miami River. Stewart focuses his time on the significant honey operation and on growing staple crops like cornmeal, black turtle beans and buckwheat.
The economics are interesting. According to Stewart, while there’s a higher yield bush to bushel of conventional crops to non-certified organic crops, there’s a higher gross income for the non-certified organic operation: $1,500 per acre versus $1,050 per acre. But the labor costs on the conventional fields are only about 8 percent of the yield compared to about 45 percent on the non-certified organic fields.
Cook is a “big bird and bug geek,” promoting habitat for pollinators through crop diversity, allowing predator insects to keep pests in check without sprays. Her passion for companion planting and good organic garden practices, along with Stewart’s, has helped make Carriage House Farm a two-time winner of Edible Ohio Valley’s Local Hero Award and winner of the 2012 Made: In America “American Treasures” award.
“This is a healthy, creative space for me,” Cook says. “I love working with Ryan (Santos) to plan what we should plant. The dinner planning brought more diversity, so we have a healthier farm. The demand for variety makes for a better space and is giving me loads more experience.”
“Dealing with chefs is my favorite part of the farm world,” Stewart says. “Seeing the awesome dishes they create from the food we grow is real synergy.”
The farm dinners have an immediacy that energizes all three individuals — Santos, Cook and Stewart. Every ingredient used, with the possible exception of the cooking oil and maybe some citrus and salt, is traceable directly to its origins. Meat for the dinners comes from the Dean Family Farm in Georgetown or Napoleon Ridge Farm; dairy comes from Snowville Creamery; and local ingredients Carriage House doesn’t grow come from places like Shagbark Farm in Athens, Running Creek Farm in Mount Healthy or Wind Dance Farm in Indiana.
So that’s where the ingredients come from. But what about inspiration?
“From my design background, a dish may be inspired by a color or a color scheme. More often than not, working so closely with both Carriage House and other farms, going to the physical location of the farm, spending time with the farmers and seeing where things grow inspire dishes most,” Santos says. “Especially out at Carriage House, I find myself coming up with dishes for the next weekend or next month simply by being there, walking through the garden, tasting things, seeing how things look, how they’re shaped and how they might work with other ingredients.”
For a recent farm dinner, Santos prepared eight small courses, starting with a bite-sized radish “macaron” and kale cannoli. The whole wheat bread, made from the farm’s wheat and baked in the wood-fired oven, was spread with butter that Santos made from Snowville Creamery cream cultured with heirloom buttermilk culture.
“In Belgium, the restaurant was so far from everything — about two and a half hours by train from Brussels — that they made everything themselves,” Santos says. “They made their own vinegar. Now, I think, ‘What can I start fermenting now to use later?’ I make my own pantry supplies. It’s not realistic on a full-sized scale, but it is one of the things now that makes this farm series so special. I can go full force on having my hand in every detail.”
Santos recently made vinegar from local brewery Fifty West’s beer to make an IPA-vinaigrette to serve over fresh-picked asparagus, garnished with hop leaves and hop shoots. He described a “chicken and egg” dish — buttermilk-brined chicken that he grilled over wood, served with a sauce made from sous-vide egg and chicken demi-glace, garnished with shaved egg yolk. The main course, a dry-aged ribeye, was served with roasted kohlrabi and ripe and unripe mulberries, sauced with fermented juice of wild mustard root. Then there were two desserts: dandelion petal jelly, dandelion root crumble, dandelion root ice cream and dandelion petal mousse; and strawberries with sweet woodruff and red clover ice.
“At the farm, we are powerless, so there’s no more foams made from hand blenders,” Santos says. “It’s simplified the food in a way, but it’s been a challenge to continue to do creative, interesting modern food without all the tools of modern cooking — all require electricity.”
How does he know when to stop?
“It’s hard!” he says. “It’s like a candy store, all the variety in the garden. I want to showcase the ingredients. I focus on what’s at its best right now.”
The guest experience
Santos grills cucumbers as he talks about his work. The sun is directly overhead, and it’s truly warm by the brick hearth. Santos claims that it cools off in the evening, and most of the time guests linger around a campfire. It’s a beautiful setting, but it’s about a 20-mile trek west of most Cincinnatians’ geographic comfort zone. Yet Santos assures that people make the journey — the dinners, which seat 13, are fully reserved through July.
The guests are a mix of regulars and newcomers, strangers and friends every month. Diners from downtown look at it as an excuse for an adventure in the country — a mini vacation. Some have been coming for two years. One couple drives down every month from Detroit, and some from Ann Arbor, Mich. Chefs, like Santos’ friend Jose Salazar, come out to help him put the meals together.
Staffed by a loyal all-volunteer team, most of the servers, sous and helpers at Please have been with Santos since the beginning, including John Hogan, who Santos says plays the crucial function of Front of House. “If it wasn’t for John, these pop-ups would have ended a long time ago,” Santos says.
The evident passion of all parties involved is what makes it an enjoyable evening. “People come pre-relaxed,” Santos jokes. “They know they are not going to get pushed out at the end of the night. We’re not turning the table. And that takes some of the pressure off me, too. If a course takes a few extra minutes, even 10 or 15, people have another glass of wine and enjoy the atmosphere. It isn’t a big deal.”
He knows that some people will never come out to the country to dine. Some don’t like the drive. Some don’t like committing ahead of time to a dinner where you’re not exactly sure what you’re going to get. While Santos never promises an exact menu, he accommodates allergies, religious restrictions and dietary preferences. One weekend of the month is vegetarian, and vegans are welcome. During the omnivore dinners, there are options for pescetarians.
There’s an immediacy to the setting that’s rewarding for Santos — he simply turns around to face the diners and gauge their reactions to his dishes. On a recent night, guest Korey Ketterman reported that the staff at her first farm to table dinner was “phenomenal.”
“The food was also great,” she says, “a lot of pairings, flavors, food elements that were all new to me. The explanations of some of the dishes made me hesitant to try, but there was really no reason not to because everything (Santos) put on the table in front of us was amazing.”
Santos takes that praise to heart. He talks about the future and imagines that soon it will include a “real” restaurant, a fixed location with only small luxuries like electricity and running water.
But for now?
“On the farm, I try not to look too far into the future. I just enjoy — and appreciate — the time here.”
Maija Zummo contributed reporting to this story. Visit pleasecincinnati.com to sign-up for upcoming Please dinners.