August 16, 2022

Farm to Fork chef eats up his passion

Part 2 of the second Farm to Fork event in Creston

By Jane Logan, Contributing Writer

It begins with a friendly group email that blankets other chefs’ inboxes; the email may look something like, “I’ve been asked to cook a five-course plated dinner for 30 in a bank building in Maxwell, and the banker just happens to be the town mayor. Anyone available?”

Executive Chef Aaron Holt writes emails like these, and often those of his friends who respond first are those who help him prepare that dinner. “These are all people that I’m friends with, who I know through the industry,” he says of his email recipients, all of whom have long histories of food preparation and service. “I just put out a list of dates, and they call me. There’s no labor shortage here.”

Sometimes, in fact, Holt fields so many dinner requests that he can’t prepare them all himself, so his friends take over. “They’re all highly-trained professionals,” he says. And highly-trained they are: James Beard nominees, celebrated sommeliers, a graduate of a France culinary school, and equally revered owners of restaurants and food trucks, “We may be a hodgepodge, but we all keep the passion going,” he reports.

It’s not an easy job, but they enjoy doing it.

Before 6 a.m. the morning of the dinner, Chef Aaron is out among his raised produce beds on his 53-acre farm in Story County, picking through his vegetables, edible flowers and micro greens to garnish that night’s presentation. “I like to pick everything as close to dinner as possible,” Chef Aaron explains. “I take them straight from the garden, wash and rinse them, and put them in a cold refrigerator.”

Then the packing begins: “I pack up the coolers, the hot wells, the cookers, and all the other materials I will need,” he says, adding that all this packing, delivering, unpacking and prep is a time-consuming necessity in his line of work.

After he arrives at day’s venue, unloads his supplies and refrigerates his produce, he might make the vinaigrettes and marinades. “I’ll set out the cheese and vegetables, and cut it all on site. They look prettier and more vibrant if I cut it there.”

Chef Aaron may prepare the desserts and transport them to the venue, “but I cut all the berries and macerate them close to the time that I serve them.” By the end of the event, “I’m pretty much running on pure adrenalin.”

To execute the dinner “is the easiest part,” he says of the 17 hours or so he spends preparing the meal, driving to the venue, and prepping his product. Then after the meal? “I break it all down, and spend another 10 to 12 hours the following day cleaning, doing dishes and repacking.”

At times, he must also furnish the plates and silverware for dining. “I had a five-course plated meal, and I had to bring all my own plates and stuff, so I contacted local artists that throw pottery. They furnished the plates for me,” he recalls. “Another time, I found a person [in Iowa] who makes wooden spoons, and we used those.”

Oftentimes, the venues hire servers for their dinners. “I kind of like the hometown feel,” he says of the high school students often used as runners and waiters at his private, as well as Farm to Fork, dinners. “I give them a crash course ahead of time: ‘keep the silverware on the table, make sure the waters are always filled, set plates down from the right side so the customer knows where you’re coming from.’” To raise his voice is not an option, he says. “I don’t yell until I see that they’re not having fun,” he says with a chuckle. “If they’re frowning, I get them to have fun. I want everyone to know that we’re excited to be here.”

“Usually they love it by the end,” he adds. “We feed them some food.”

On Sept. 4, Chef Holt will prepare a four-course family-style Farm to Fork dinner that features local Iowa produce, protein and pairings prepared by the chef. In partnership with the UCDA, the Farm to Fork committee in Creston will close part of Montgomery Street in front of the Elks Lodge to host its second annual dinner; Creston and East Union FFA members will wait the tables. A limited number of tickets are available at $100 per diner and are transferable, but not refundable.

Tickets are available on the Facebook pages for “Creston Iowa Farm to Fork” and the “Union County Development Association” until all 86 are sold. Look for an online link to Eventbrite for tickets.