Our farm to table dinner went down like a house on fire. I don’t know if that’s actually possible? But that feeling- house on fire + it’s going down = exactly what this dinner felt like.
Our guests left fat and happy, a salute to what is delicious about Southern eating, with a flourish of modern and sassy.
The sunny, 72 degrees weather created an ideal environment for time outside, dropping slowly into the low 60s. This was not so cool as to freeze people, but just cool enough to encourage them on their merry way as the night wound down. Because we were tired and feet were sore.
The ambience was lovely, and I can say it myself because I was nothing to do with it. Leah made it beautiful. A dear and beloved friend from church, Leah is the person you hand yards of burlap, some twinkle lights in jars, some autumnal gourds, and a bit of raffia and ask, “could you help? Please?” And then beautiful things happen.
I’m setting a stage for you now, with the people, the food, the weather, and the décor, but it’s not the stage you might expect. I’m not going to talk to you about hosting, or cooking, or farming, or any combination of these things. I want to talk to you about Chef Jessica. Because Jessica was the only unknown factor in this equation for a truly beautiful evening and Jessica rocked it.
Here’s how we got Jessica. Jim (my farmer) and I planned this second farm to table dinner months ago. We set the date, checked with the chef we hoped would come back, and set to close the outdoors tents for that time. We worked with our chef to start a menu, with a general plan of what we’d have planted. Our chef considered what cut of beef, and decided: ribs. We sorted out cows to get to the butcher, and organized setting aside enough ribs for a dinner of forty. Time, effort, and careful consideration went into this meal. We literally spent more time planning this dinner than we did our wedding reception.
A week ago Monday, our sweet, sweet chef sent us a surprising, and sad text. A dear family friend had passed unexpectedly. Try as he might, our guy could not help his friend’s grieving family, and give his all to our meal. Something had to give, and because he’s got his priorities in order, it was our dinner. He gave us optional dates, and he also included, “or I could ask Jessica to step in?”
Chef Jessica we knew too. Jessica was his sous chef for our first dinner. Jessica is a former farmer, who just this year started her food truck, Sister South Foods, and is taking Southern food to a new level with her PB&J (pork belly and jelly) and her pimento grilled cheeses. When she sous-ed (is that a thing?) our first dinner, they were one well-oiled machine working seamlessly to make a feast for our guests.
We wanted to work with out chef. He’s an amazing person and incredibly skilled. Also, and not incidentally, we had sold out this dinner. We had actually over-sold out this dinner, going 6 tickets over our initial limit. Canceling on that many folks, and tossing up that hail Mary they could reschedule for 3 weeks from now didn’t seem risky, so much as throwing money back at them.
I messaged Jessica and her response was, along the lines of, yep, I just talked to your chef, he told me what was up, do you want to give me a call?
The next line: “But yeah I’m up for it!”
That was that. On Monday afternoon we were down one chef for our 50-person farm-to-table dinner happening that following Sunday. Monday evening, we were back up to one chef. Tuesday morning Jessica, Jim, and I did a 15 minute phone call, running through the basics: what we were growing, the meat we planned, head count, time frame, all of it. We hung up, Jim and I whipped up a quick list of vegetables, fruit, meats, and other farm products we had, shot that to her, and by that night she had us a menu.
It’s exactly the menu Jessica cooked, y’all. She and her calm and collected helper, Aaron, drove out to the farm Thursday, getting a lay of the land, and masses of beef ribs to take back to Knoxville to prep. There were some texts flying back and forth, jokes about Fred Flintstone size rib bones, possible use of a table saw, and a few actual plans made regarding delivery of items she still needed, mostly more ribs.
Sunday Jessica and Aaron were at the farm by 11am. At 5pm, guests were arriving, and they were plating appetizers. Dinner kicked off at 6pm, and Away. We. Went.
The food left them groaning. It left them smiling. It left them asking for to-go boxes, and asking was that ok to ask for in the first place? Jessica came out, to much applause and fanfare. That was a lady smiling and possibly a little teary. In a week’s time she pulled together an astonishing meal for about 50 people and it was, basically, flawless.
At the end of the night, when she and I were exchanging heartfelt thanks and gratitude to one another, she said, “Can I tell you something? I didn’t want to say this before but, until tonight, I’d never cooked ribs in my life.”
That is what I want to share tonight. Until that night Jessica had never cooked ribs before. She went from having cooked no ribs to cooking 90 lbs of ribs for a paying audience. . . in one evening.
What is the word for that? Plucky? That doesn’t cover it. Gutsy? Fearless? Heroic?
Here’s my thought: Jessica was scared, and she did it anyway. She had never done this before – this one particular thing, and it was a BIG particular thing. We’re a beef and vegetables farm. We’re showcasing our vegetables, but we are a beef farm in the south and people are coming for their meat. The dinner hinged on the meat.
She’d never done this, but she had done all these other things. She’d worked on a farm, and run her own farm, and CSA, she’d worked for some strong chefs, and this year she started her food truck. There was a whole bag of her tricks, and skills she could lean into. When we asked, a week out, if she’d like to run this 50-person farm-to-table dinner, oh and here are these ribs you’ll be cooking, Jessica said: I’m up for it! Like. A. Boss.
If you could do with a little encouragement this week, I’d ask you to think about Jessica, who was plucky, gutsy, fearless, and, certainly to our stranded selves, completely heroic. If the ingredients are new, and the stakes are high, could you be up for it? Considering the skills you have, the lessons you’ve learned, the life you’ve lived, is it possible this stretch isn’t the impossible stretch you see it to be?
I’ve hesitated and held back so often in my life. For me, it’s taken age, and the passage of time to be bolder. Perhaps, though I’ve not thought about it until now, it’s also taken developing my own bag of tricks, and skills to believe: I’m up for it.
So often, I’ve lived as though I can’t start this new thing, until I’ve already done this new thing. It sounds like something from Lewis Carroll that the Mad Hatter might have riddled at Alice. I hope today, you’re starting the new thing exactly where you are, with exactly what you have. You can be up for it. You can take on those ribs. We all can. They’re just ribs. They’re a part of the meal, but they’re not the feast. I’m hoping for you today, if you’re feeling frozen, or stuck, or intimidated by a new opportunity, you decide you’re up for it. Like a chef.