MANATEE -- The Dinner Bell Supper Club is designed to bring people to the farm. Literally.
Geraldson Community Farm's operations manager Christa Leonard saw a gap in Southwest Florida's farming culture and the community's connections to farmers, and she decided to do something about it.
To bridge the gap, Leonard brings together a local volunteer chef and an area "guest farm" to prepare supper for about 20 guests each month. For about $50 a plate, the group dines in Geraldson's farm barn, transformed for one night from a place where veggies are harvested and cleaned to a cozy, intimate setting meant to create connections.
The club highlights and elevates locally sourced produce, dairy and meats through an ever-changing monthly menu based on what's grown and available.
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Leonard has worked as a manager at the community-supported agriculture farm for almost five years. When she's not digging in the dirt, she's working to promote area food producers. Eating food grown within miles of home helps the local economy and reduces food transport costs. It also contributes to a healthy lifestyle, she said. She hopes the supper club can help others realize the benefits of eating local.
"I wanted to make a difference in the way people view local food, and their understanding of what it takes to make a movement happen," Leonard said. "At most farm dinners, there isn't a connection to the farm or the chef other than people eating the food. The supper club changes that by allowing guests to sit, eat and converse with the farmer that grew or raised the food, as well as the chef who cooked it."
Grove Ladder farm, based in Sarasota, will contribute to the next supper club on Jan. 31. Chickens raised at Grove Ladder are fed organic, soy-free grain and are given access to green grass, clean water and sunshine, said Tim Clarkson, owner of Grove Ladder.
The combination of care techniques used at Grove Ladder "makes the flavor profile completely different than what you will find at the grocery store," Clarkson said. Geraldson helped
Grove Ladder take off as a community-supported farm, and supporting Leonard's mission to link up with other area farms is important to Clarkson.
"Up north people work as a collaborative; helping each other better a movement," Leonard said of the kind of farm network she hopes to create. "My goal is to see that happen in the Gulf Coast. Working against each other doesn't move anything forward."
This month, Leonard invites local chef Derek Barnes to the farm to cook a "Southern Comfort" menu for the supper.
Barnes opened Derek's on Manatee Avenue after working for four years in the kitchen at Emeril's of New Orleans. Though sourcing from local producers is difficult in the summer, when Florida's growing season shuts down, Barnes said it's important to support local farmers when possible.
"When I can buy local, I do buy local," Barnes said. Leonard's passion for farming and providing the community with good food enticed him to help with the Dinner Bell Supper Club.
"That's really important for me, plus just contributing to the local farm. It makes sense," he said.
Barnes isn't the only area chef hoping to bring local food into his restaurant. Gerard Jesse, executive chef at the Seafood Shack in Cortez, has brought more locally sourced fare on to the Seafood Shack's menu since his arrival about a year ago.
Leonard said Jesse will likely star as a guest chef for future Dinner Bell suppers.
Bringing food grown and produced in the area to diners' plates is important to Jesse for several reasons.
"It's about health benefits and learning to eat right," Jesse said. "And it helps put the connection between chef and farm back together."
Clarkson echoed Jesse's sentiments.
"It's supporting other local businesses, and you're keeping your money in the local community," Clarkson said. "Being educated and able to talk to the person who grew your food is invaluable."
Tickets for the Jan. 31 BYOB supper club are $50 and available for purchase online at universe.com/events/dinner-bell-supper-club-southern-comfort-tickets-bradenton-QLRDV5.
Proceeds from the tickets pay for food from contributing farms, other ingredients for the supper and Geraldson fundraising.
Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter @jayohday.