By the time the main course rolls around, the sun has set across the far pasture and the 50 or so guests seated beneath tents are too absorbed in the meal and the bright Sangiovese from nearby St. Michael’s Winery to notice the commotion in the so-called kitchen.
We’ve just finished our second course—freshly made ravioli with roasted squash and aged goat cheese—and have watched guest chef Rob Parker whip up a batch of red-wine-and-butter reduction for the next course, seared rockfish.
But out of our line of vision, Robbie Jester, the chef responsible for this plein-air feast, has pulled his pickup close to the outbuilding being used as a staging area for the five-course meal.
“Nobody bothered to make sure the building had lights,” he says. “We had to plate the entrées and desserts by the headlights from my truck.”
Jester, who grew up under the tutelage of his father, Robert, chef and owner of Chestertown’s Harbor House, and later trained at the Culinary Institute of America (before returning to Harbor House as its chef), is accustomed to facilities far better outfitted than the driveway of this farm.
But arranging individual portions of tenderloin sprinkled with a variety of sharp and smoky salts—even in less-than-ideal lighting—is, to Jester, a labor of love.
Welcome to Farm Dinners on the Shore, a collaboration that stages elegant multi-course meals made from locally sourced ingredients by accomplished chefs, accompanied by carefully selected wines. The meals aren’t only about highlighting foods found on Eastern Shore farms; they’re about the farms themselves.
This night’s extravaganza, at the 365-acre Crow Farm in Kent County, features a main course raised not just within 100 miles of here, but within 100 yards: beef that once feasted on the grass that serves as a backdrop for this makeshift restaurant.
If the latest foodie trend is the “pop-up,” a temporary eatery that establishes itself for a night or a month in an empty warehouse or storefront, this Free State version takes the concept to a new level.
On four weekends between June and October, Jester and his crew roll up to a farm or vineyard, set up tables, unpack linens, plates, and glasses, and stage a dinner that celebrates the bounty of the region.
The dinners are the brainchild of Marilyn Klompus, a clinical social worker who has a second career as a booster of local tourism, and Andy Goddard, former owner of Andy’s restaurant in Chestertown.
The affairs seem the logical next step for the duo that organizes Chestertown’s annual the “Taste of the Town” event, and Jester, who was committed to locally sourced foodstuffs long before it became trendy.
“We started out thinking, ‘What a cool thing to do,’” recalls Klompus of the first dinner, held in April 2010 at the Cassinelli Winery & Vineyards in Church Hill. “But nobody anticipated how magical it would be.”
The pop-up isn’t limited to just one meal, either. The trio decided that the expense of such an elaborate set-up would be better amortized over the course of a weekend, so most Farm Dinners span two or three days.
Our main event tonight was preceded by a decadent Oktoberfest dinner last night. That smaller group dined on the patio adjacent to the farmhouse—recently renovated as a bed-and-breakfast. Tomorrow, Jester and company will return to Crow Farm to prepare brunch.
Part of the Farm Dinners’ allure is the visiting chefs whom Jester invites to pitch in. Diners are treated to brief and accessible prep demonstrations from these pros between courses and presented with recipes to take home.
Though none of the three organizers has yet to collect a paycheck for their efforts, a portion of the proceeds from each event is given to a local organization chosen by the owner of the venue. Judy and Roy Crow have chosen the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology in Queenstown as this weekend’s beneficiary.