March 24, 2023

Farm to Fork chef features local ingredients

Executive Chef Aaron Holt will show up again, and soon, on Montgomery Street in Creston. And he’s cooking up a really big dinner in the kitchen of the local Elks Lodge.

On 4 Sept., Chef Holt will prepare a Farm to Fork dinner experience, highlighting products from local growers, producers and businesses with focus on the area’s agriculture roots. He says he searches for food ingredients in previously unexplored towns, and prepares multi-course dinners in unfamiliar kitchens -- just because he can.

“I love the challenge,” reports the winner of the 2018 Iowa Restaurant Association’s Chef of the Year. With a laugh, he compares himself to a jungle tiger. “I learned at a young age that the docile tiger at zoo, he just gets fed. I’m more like a jungle tiger; I like to fight for my food; I like being out of my comfort zone.”

Sarah Young is part of the Elevated Experiences Committee that is welcoming Chef Aaron, last year’s chef, to its annual Farm to Fork dinner. This Committee is one arm of Update Uptown Creston in partnership with the Union County Development Association. “Chef Aaron was fantastic,” Young says of the 2021 Farm to Fork dinner. “He delivered an exceptional product with all the menu items provided, and then some. He truly exceeded all of our expectations for the evening.”

That suits Holt just fine. “I love learning,” he declares, adding that he cooks his way across Iowa “for the education,” and to get seasonal Iowa proteins and vegetables in front of diners. “I’m always trying to grow,” he explains. “I like situations that are hard, and when I hear ‘no one can execute that,’ well, that gets me going. I’ve gotten pretty good at taking on a challenge. I like going to kitchens and just taking them on.”

When Chef Holt presents a dinner, he sources his ingredients for the meal by exploring Iowa towns, farms, producers and farmers’ markets within a 50-mile-radius of the upcoming venue. He may return to some places he’s previously shopped, but he purposefully seeks places that he’s never visited to keep all his ingredients as local as possible. “I learn where the good food comes from,” he says of his stops across Iowa. “When I see what they’re doing, I realize that my food is being grown in a sustainable way; I know that it’s healthy.”

According to Holt, “About 80 to 90 percent of the ingredients that I serve comes from Iowa.” However, he’s quick to clarify that doesn’t mean all his ingredients. “Not oils or vinegars, of course. I source them from other places.”

Currently Holt is a restaurant consultant for Sysco Iowa, and the owner of Doolittle Farm LLC, a 53-acre family Century Farm near Story City that grows seasonal fruits, vegetables, micro-greens and edible flowers. His ancestors came to Story County in the late 1880s, built a barn “four generations ago,” and his two daughters are the fifth generation of his family to harvest its fields. Some day he and his wife will host dinners in the 1905 barn constructed by his great-grandfather. “All profits from my land return to the land. It keeps the soil rich, literally and figuratively,” he declares. “Every dollar I make goes into building the infrastructure of that farm.” Holt adds that he just finished planting another crop of beets. “I’m always planting and transplanting things,” he says. “I just harvested a crop of beets, and I put another crop in the ground to give me time to get the next round.” When calls for private dinner gigs lessen, Holt cans, pickles, ferments and freezes his crops so that he has Iowa produce at a time that Iowa farm ground isn’t producing.

Now an executive chef, Holt starts by washing dishes in a local restaurant at age 14; he attends Iowa State University to study architecture and, while there, works at a restaurant in Ames. During his sophomore year, the “pretty much self-taught” young man is promoted to an executive chef position. “I was 21 when I decided to drop out of school and be a chef,” he recalls with a laugh. “It wasn’t long before I realized that $24,000 a year wasn’t a lot of beer and rent money.” Even then, it doesn’t occur to him that he can make a career in the food industry. “I learned a lot,” he says. “Those years taught me about profit and loss, margins, inventory, and balancing and keeping up with the bookkeeping; I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Holt continues to learn about food preparation and presentation: “Maybe I see a word I don’t know, so I Google it,” he explains. “I’ve been studying 20 years of YouTube demonstrations.”

Holt says his own mentors instill in him an eagerness to mentor others. “One night, some parents came to a dinner I was serving, and said to me, ‘You know, we have a daughter who is really into food.’ I told them to send her over some time,” he recalls. Now a high school senior, she still works for Holt and his team, at first by running food, clearing, cleaning and packing plates, and “anything else we needed. Silverware, linens, water, she does it,” he says. In time, she begins prepping and plating dinners. “She might cut for us, or add a swoosh or a dollop” on a plate before it’s sent to the table.

Although he may have dreams of bigger and better, Chef Aaron plans to remain in Iowa. “We will build our forever home just outside of Story City,” he declares of the plans he and his wife often review. “It’s nine acres of timber and a big barn. I’ll clean out the barn for serving there, and continue to offer private dinners in people’s homes, and large dinners in rural communities like Creston.”

On 4 Sept., and in partnership with the UCDA, the Farm to Fork committee will again shut down part of Montgomery Street in front of the Elks Lodge to host its second annual Farm to Fork dinner. This will be a 4-course family-style farm dinner featuring local Iowa produce, protein and pairings prepared by Chef Holt. 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.