It doesn't get any more fresh than this for a chef: preparing a meal straight from the fields right behind you.
There’s never a dull moment at Prairie Gardens. The first thing I see as I enter the self-styled “adventure farm,” just outside of Bon Accord and a 45-minute drive northeast of Edmonton, is a list of dozens of family-friendly activities, from corn mazes to puppet shows to pumpkin bowling.
But Prairie Gardens is first and foremost a working farm, and it’s that ultra-fresh food that fuels its most intriguing event: Each summer, Albertans travel from far and wide to sit in the fields — literally — and eat a unique gourmet meal that’s been grown and cooked onsite.
Tam Andersen's horticultural background means the farm-to-fork dinners are not only delicious but educational.
These “farm-to-fork” dinners are the brainchild of Blair Lebsack, who has been redefining Alberta cuisine at RGE RD since 2013. But even before he had a restaurant, Lebsack would tour the province, partnering with individual farms and whipping up five-course meals out of whatever ingredients were ready to be picked that morning. For the past five years, he’s partnered with Prairie Gardens’ owners Tam and Terry Andersen, partly because he loves the space, and partly because Tam’s background as a horticulturalist gives him new insight when it comes to sourcing new ingredients and flavours.
Together, they’ve pushed the concept of “farm to table” one step further: not just giving diners a description of where their food comes from, but literally leading us around the farm and showing us first hand.
On a brilliantly sunny afternoon in August, I join approximately 75 others for hors d’oeuvres, our small talk soundtracked by birdsong and the distant bleating of goats from the Prairie Gardens petting zoo. From there it’s a one-minute drive out to the fields, where we all take seats at one enormous communal table, in a corner so freshly mowed that we step over rows of hay that haven’t yet had a chance to be baled.
The menu at the farm-to-fork dinners is a constantly moving target, with certain ingredients and ideas not pinned down until literally hours before they show up on diners’ plates. Tonight is no exception. Earlier this morning, Tam took Lebsack for a walk in a field to show him some black radishes he could use in tonight’s salad. But he was equally drawn to a nearby flowering weed, called goosefoot. “Can you eat this?” he asked her. It turned out you could — which is why it’s on our plates now, as a colourful garnish to the zucchini flan and bison tenderloin.
Mostly, though, the feeling here is re-establishing that connection between what we eat and the land that supplied it. As the courses are brought out, each more delicious than the last (and each accompanied by a tasty local alcohol, naturally), Tam regales us with stories about the history of her farm and the food in front of us — most of which was grown and picked within eyeshot of our table. The baby corn in the succotash, for instance, comes from a field I can just about reach out and touch. When Tam announces that we are the first to eat this year’s crop, the entire table lets out a celebratory cheer.
Diners get the exclusive first taste of a crop, like just-picked baby corn at Praire Gardens' farm-to-fork long table dinners.
“My job,” she says, “is to build that sense of community and camaraderie. Strangers come together, have a feast, and leave as friends. That happens every dinner.”
The sun has just about disappeared behind the corn stalks by the time we’ve all scraped the last drizzles of honey pudding and currants from our dessert plates. We reluctantly put down our forks and end the evening with a hearty round of applause — for Lebsack, Tam, and the kitchen staff, of course, but also for the farm itself, whose contributions none of us are going to soon forget.