Menu Matters: Celestial Café Farm Dinners
When Branden Read and his aunt Cheryl Zanella opened Celestial Café in Exeter 11 years ago, they wanted to support nearby businesses and quickly incorporated Schartner Farms' produce and Kenyon Grist Mill's stone-ground cornmeal into their menus. By 2008, Read noticed local farms were struggling, and he thought, "Why not ask them to raise things for us on a regular basis?"
"I didn't feel right that my neighbors weren't maximizing their profit," he remembers. "So we called our policy 'the Celestial stimulus package.' If a beef farmer needed to move pounds and pounds of hamburger, even though everybody wanted steak, I'd say, 'Let me see if I can do a dinner using hamburger.'"
Four years ago, chef Read and manager Zanella started monthly Friday-night "farm dinners," five courses, with everything locally sourced. They've since expanded it to four nights, Thursday through Sunday. For $40, each diner gets a small appetizer, entree, soup, salad, dessert and local beer or wine. (There's always a vegetarian option for each course.)
Read and Zanella turned a wine walk-in to cold storage for sweet potatoes, squash and apples; they make relishes and pickles to use all year; and 70% of their regular menu is now local. Read calls their dishes "sophisticated comfort food," with Southwestern, Cajun, Thai, Portuguese and Italian influences.
Although Read has never done the same menu twice, a much-enjoyed autumn dinner included pumpkin bisque in tiny roasted pumpkins; continued with an apple, carrot and cheddar salad; an appetizer of fried, spicy Brussels sprouts; and what Read calls "Cajun layers" with beans, corn, tomatoes, greens and tortillas, with a choice of pork belly or shiitake mushrooms. The dessert was homemade custard with flourless chocolate cake. Each dish was more delicious than the last.
The farms and producers included Farming Turtles, Schartner Farms, DuTemple Brook Farm, Sweenor's Chocolate, Pat's Pastured, Narragansett Creamery, Updike Coffee Roasters, S & P Gardiner, Barden Family Orchard, Rhody Fresh, Wannuchecomecut Farm, South County Honey and Newport Storm. Read has since added Brown Family Seafood, Matunuck Oyster Farm, Rhode Island Mushroom Co., North Kingstown American Mussel Harvesters, Wojnar Family Farm, Sons of Liberty, Revival Brewing Co. and Grey Sail Brewing.
Read's bottom line is: "The more people who show up at the farm dinners, the more fresh, local foods we can buy from a farm!"