Bare Knuckle Farm Is Outstanding In The Field

August 10, 2011 at 4:55 pm

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Last week, I trekked up to Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, Michigan, located at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, to attend Outstanding in the Field’s farm dinner with Paul Virant (of Vie and Perennial Virant).  For those who don’t know, Northport is mildly famous for its summer resident, Mario Batali, who owns a home there.  California-based Outstanding in the Field is the invention of a former chef who caught the farm-to-table bug back in the ‘90s, and envisioned taking farm dinners out of the restaurant by traveling around the country in a vintage bus and arranging meals made from ingredients grown or raised on the very farm where diners were eating.

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As one of the forerunners of the dinner-on-farm concept, OITF has benefitted from national attention for the varied, sometimes unusual, locations of their dinners (some are on beaches as well as farms); but mostly because of the romantic, neo-hippie notion of traversing the country against a classic backdrop of craggy, but charming, rural back roads (in a vintage bus, natch) with the simple goal of putting on a dinner that uses whatever the land or sea will give them at that particular moment in time.  Sort of a reverse Field Of Dreams; if they come, they will build it.  It’s idyllic for sure (OITF has several return staffers willing to leave behind family and significant others for months at a time every year), but the goal – educating diners about the provenance of their food – is a lofty one.

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Although Paul Virant barely needs an introduction as one of Chicagoland’s most intensely dedicated locavore chefs, Bare Knuckle Farm, which has been in operation only since 2009, is an impressive start-up farm that is the result of the bare-knuckled will of two twenty-something farmers, Abra Berens and Jess Piskor.

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Bare Knuckle is a modern example of the farm-to-table concept – both Piskor and Berens worked in the restaurant industry before they became farmers – so the concept of producing sustainable, artisanal food is tightly knotted with their exposure to local foods during their prior jobs. (For both Piskor and Berens, this includes Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, and for Berens, Vie, as well as Floriole and Hoosier Mama, two bakeries that sold exclusively at the Green City Market before opening their stand-alone shops.)  Piskor “got serious” about farming while working at a farm owned by an Ann Arbor chef, so he convinced his grandfather – who owns the land surrounding Bare Knuckle – to let him and Berens farm a parcel of flat land located between two cherry orchards.  The orchards line the hills of the farm, and the valley floor, which was to become Bare Knuckle Farm, is unprotected from early season cold that is detrimental to the cherries, and is consequently of little use to a cherry farmer.  Berens and Piskor then set off to farm the valley, Joel Salatin-style, using their Duroc cross hogs to till grassy, weedy land, and their chickens to pick up after them, rotating crops and animal pens so as to farm sustainably and efficiently.

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In the few short years of their farming careers, their work is impressive:  They have several hogs, many varieties of chickens, ducks, geese, two hoop houses, as well as several fields of vegetables.  They also exhibit a scrappy resourcefulness by trading goods and services with neighbors, and even working with a downstate farm whose younger generation is seeking to transition from a CAFO-style hog operation to one that is operated more humanely and sustainably.  Jess learned to weld on the fly so as to make their duck house moveable, and Berens takes two jobs during the winter to polish her cooking skills.

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If you don’t mind the back-breaking work of a farmer, it’s not a bad gig; especially if you can “summer” in Northport area, where nearby beaches and beautiful lake scenery abound.

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Northport is located far afield for even the roving band of OITFers, as they’ve admitted.  But, its relatively secluded location means that things here have changed slowly over the years – it’s still a farming community, even though wineries are starting to slowly encroach on the cherry orchards.  In fact, the word “Leelanau” is native American for “A Land Of Delight,” so a trip to this rich agricultural area is well worth anyone’s time.  (By the way, cherry season was in full swing last week.)

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The area was originally known for its potato farms (requiring the removal of large rocks to harvest the potatoes, which is no doubt the reason you see so many outbuildings, cottages, and sheds made entirely of rocks in Northern Michigan).  As potato farming moved west, the area eventually turned to cherry farming.  As I’ve written before in my wine articles, the land here is insulated by the water that abundantly surrounds it – Lake Michigan to the west, and a large bay to the east – and which allows for the successful growth of fruit, including grapes for winemaking, despite their cooler climate location.  In that regard, this dinner at Bare Knuckle Farm stood out among a field of over 70 farms on the OITF tour – mostly everything served at this dinner either came from the farm itself, or from within several miles of the farm – and that includes the wine and cider that was poured as well.

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It’s worth noting at the outset that OITF is expensive – at $180 a head, it hovers above other farm dinners in the region.  Even though OITF was an original forerunner in what is now a relatively crowded field of farm-to-table dinners, is the price worth it?

It is clear that you are paying a significant amount for overhead, not the least of which is keeping the vintage bus operating.  (At the dinner, OITF’s staff humorously described numerous instances of costly bus breakdowns.)  However, at least at the Bare Knuckle Farm dinner, OITF was a well-oiled machine (pun intended), and their organization appears to provide the flexibility needed for working farms to be able to host a dinner smack-dab in the middle of their operations.  (By way of example, the hum of heavy machinery could be heard during the hors d’oeuvres/cocktail portion of the meal as they harvested the nearby cherry trees.)  They also set up the infrastructure required for an event of this size on a farm that might not be ready for a dinner of 150+ people; besides arranging for the most basic logistics (such as port-o-potties), the impressive dishwashing station alone, involving heating water on burners, was the sole means of washing large amounts of dishes.  The “Tradition of the Plates,” in which diners bring their own plates to dinner, provides a colorful, unique tablesetting, but undoubtedly minimizes their load.

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But onto the food.  As we all should know by now, Virant is a master of mixing subtle flavors and textures that enhance the bounty of the land, rather than masking it.  This dinner was no exception.  Vie’s famous charcuterie, made from ducks and geese from the farm, started the meal.

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The main course was comprised of the farm’s Duroc cross pigs, and sous chef Nathan Sears took on the daunting task of roasting the pig in an underground pit.  Simply dressed with a leek vinaigrette, the result was a succulent pulled roast that showed off the sweet meat of this heritage porcine breed.  (Bare Knuckle pigs are part of an experimental program where they occasionally feast from cherry orchard floors, which ostensibly increases the health of the orchards by reducing disease, as well as providing the pigs with a sweet, fruity meal.)

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Various other courses made use of smelts (which dressed vegetables as anchovies would in a Caesar salad), and Bay-caught white fish, which the farm was able to secure from a local tribesman whose tribe retains commercial fishing rights in the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay.  (Nearby Peshawbestown is home to a casino owned by the Grand Traverse band of Ottawa and Chippewa native Americans.)

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Vegetables were treated simply and deliciously.

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One surprise to the meal (at least it was a surprise to me) was having Sandra Holl of Floriole and pie-maker extraordinaire, Paula Haney, of Hoosier Mama, lend their talents to the dinner.  Holl baked bread in a stone oven built before the event, and her honey-sweetened nougat and cherry claufouti, as well as Paula’s reliably delicious pies (including an apricot-blueberry pie with almondy, apricot-kernel ice cream and blueberry lemon chess pie) were huge hits.  (As Virant told the crowd, “Paula . . . she just bakes incredible pies.”)

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Local wine and cider were included as well.  Nikki and Dan’s nearby Tandem Ciders provided Pretty Penny, a cider made with over 30 varieties of apples supplied from Christmas Cove Farm in Northport, and Larry Mawby contributed méthode champenoise sparkling wine to start the meal (L. Mawby Conservancy Extra Sec, made from Leelanau grapes).  A slightly sweet chardonnay from Circa Estate Winery, and the fantastic 2008 Isidor’s Choice pinot noir from Black Star Farms (Burgundian in style to my palate) were served during the fish and pork courses, respectively.  Seemingly-sweet but packing a punch, Black Star’s Sirious Cherry Dessert wine was served with dessert, a port-style wine fortified with cherry brandy and sweetened with tart cherry juice.

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If, by the end of the meal, you were still able to mentally disconnect your food from the surrounding farm, the loud heckling of the quacking ducks and geese that repeatedly interrupted Virant’s post-meal speech were a reminder.  As good as the food was, the real highlight of this dinner was Abra and Jess.  Their Midwestern, down-to-earth style was a stark but refreshing contrast to their more glamorous, but self-aware, Californian counterparts from OITF.  Abra and Jess’s friendly and humble demeanors disguise their grit, vision and achievement in their multiple roles as young farmers, stewards of the land, suppliers to top chefs, and businesspeople.  They were the true stars of this event – and if the goal of OITF is to elevate people’s understanding of the connection between the land and their food, then this entirely-local Northport dinner acheived that – I could only hope that other OITF dinners came close to that achieving that lofty goal.

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  1. Rob Gardner says:

    OMG, my life seems worthless now. Man, great report and thanks for making me so hungry!

  2. Alistair George Stewart says:

    Wendy, we have friends in Leelenau County. This is a fantastic piece.

    I would love to meet Abra & Jess.

  3. This is a wonderful post about an area that I love. Would love to learn of other dining options emphasizing local ingredients in the Leelanau/Grand Traverse area.

    • Waeschlimann says:

      Helen -

      The first locally-focused dining options that come to my mind are The Cooks’ House and Trattoria Stella. (Trattoria makes this amazing in-house burrata.) The great thing about this area is that most restaurants make at least some effort in incorporating local ingredients into their offerings. Also, a bit of an unorthodox “dining option” on the Leelanau is Carlson’s in Fishtown — their smoked fish will pair nicely with wine from Good Harbor Vineyards down the street.

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