Farm Fresh: How Outdoor Venues Are Embracing the Farm-to-Table Movement

More venues are creating sustainable-minded spots ideal for picnics, garden parties, clambakes, and formal dinners.

By Beth Kormanik May 7, 2014, 7:30 AM EDT

Lonesome Valley

Photo: Courtesy of Lonesome Valley

When the custom Sperry reception tent is erected each April at the Castle Hill Inn in Rhode Island, it means outdoor event season has started. Made with a natural wood frame and ivory sailcloth, the structure overlooking Narragansett Bay is topped with a cupola that rises above the silhouette of the tent. Events typically begin with a reception on the lawn, where guests visit cocktail tables or sit on Adirondack chairs, followed by dinner at long communal tables inside the tent. The menu features seafood, fruits, vegetables, and garnishes selected—as often as possible—from local and sustainable sources as close as the property’s own garden.

The farm-to-table concept has gone beyond a trend to a full-blown movement, and event planners have caught on, working with chefs to create menus that reflect these values. Outdoor venues, fittingly, are a popular choice for serving this particular type of fare.

“We are focusing on the local, sustainable resources whenever possible,” says Marie Cuccia, director of sales and marketing for Castle Hill, which also offers alfresco events on three terraces, on a private beach, and in front of a lighthouse. “It goes hand in hand being on a property like this. The type of guests we attract are looking for healthy, good food.”

At Grande Lakes Orlando, which comprises a Ritz-Carlton and a JW Marriott resort, guests experience farm-to-table dining on an actual farm. Located on the property, Whisper Creek Farm is a 13,000-square-foot complex that uses half of its grounds for agriculture and the rest as a dedicated event space. The farm, which opened in October 2012, includes fruit trees, vegetables, and an apiary; future plans potentially involve raising livestock and chickens.

“Every hotel has ballroom space—and we continue to manage that as a traditional space—but customers have told us they’re looking for something new and different,” says Karen Englund, director of sales and marketing at Grande Lakes Orlando. “What we love about the farm is it’s slightly away from the building and is almost like an off-property venue.”

With a wrought-iron gate and hay bales lining the entry, the space has a rustic aesthetic, but planners can calibrate the feel with their own decor and entertainment. The space has been used for seated dinners of 250 guests, social receptions with 600 guests, and 12-person board meetings set under a large oak tree.

The Breakers Palm Beach in Florida has also made a commitment to sourcing local ingredients. Jeff Simms, executive chef of banquet operations at the hotel, says the resort made the decision on its own, but more clients are coming to the Breakers with the same philosophy.

“We work with very high price points and very high expectations,” he says. “Working with our catering and sales team and our banquet chefs, we put together ideas and brainstorm. These people want something special.”

The biggest change that Simms has noticed is that clients have become more flexible in planning menus as they learn more about the local farm movement and rely on the banqueting team to steer them toward what’s fresh now.

“What’s available one week is not available another week,” Simms says. “There’s a lot of communication: ‘We were going to have local baby kale in your salad, but we will have this baby arugula.’ My customers are more flexible and leave it to us to create menus based on what’s available.”

A popular theme for outdoor events at the Breakers—which has six outdoor venues—is Florida tropical, Simms says. At hearts of palm buffet stations, for instance, two-foot-long logs of hearts and palms are sliced to order along with ceviche made from local fish. The mise en place includes split coconuts, tropical leaves gathered from across the property, local sugarcane, and fresh lychees from local farmers.

Herbs and edible flowers from the property’s own kitchen garden are also available. At one recent event, Simms served an heirloom tomato and mozzarella salad, and staff trimmed just-picked purple basil over the dishes at the table as they were served.

“You can’t get any fresher than that,” Simms says. “It’s a lot more work for us to do the local, but the benefit is so worth the reward. Our guests are telling us that, and our chefs have a lot of fun with it.”

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Cashiers, North Carolina, the destination event venue Lonesome Valley offers menus from organic produce grown in its own gardens and in nearby farms, as well as craft beers from local breweries. Chef John Fleer, who also oversees the property’s Canyon Kitchen restaurant, grows salad greens such as kale and Swiss chard and vegetables including rhubarb, broccoli, and eggplant. An apple orchard overlooks the event site.

Planners of the executive retreats, corporate parties, and social events that meet at Lonesome Valley often combine the property’s 250-person Jennings Barn with an extensive lawn for indoor-outdoor events.

Farm-to-table is not exclusive to high-end resorts and retreats. Restaurants such as the Rustic in Dallas, which has indoor and outdoor seating for 300, keep to the philosophy in a casual setting. In Austin, Texas, El Monumento serves homemade Mexican fare sourced with local ingredients and landscaped its courtyard and terrace with plants native to rural South Texas and Mexico.

The widespread nature of farm-to-table should help convince doubters the movement is not a trend. As Simms says, “It’s not going away.”

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