Over the past few decades, chefs and restaurateurs in locations throughout the state have also been serving diners with fresh, delicious, sustainably produced vegetables, fruit and produce from farms close to home.
In this article, Buy Fresh Buy Local Illinois features two such restaurants. Epiphany Farms in Bloomington, and the three other restaurants in its hospitality group, are the epitome of farm to table, as chef/co-owner Ken Myszka owns the nearby regenerative farm that provides many of the ingredients served to patrons. Engrained Brewery & Restaurant, which is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary in Springfield, is not only farm to table in its local sourcing, but also farm to glass.
These restaurants provide delicious choices while taking different culinary approaches. The creative combinations in Epiphany Farms’ menus reflect Myzska’s culinary school training and the tutelage he received while working in the kitchen’s of renowned chefs. Engrained provides an elevated selection of Midwestern brewpub food, with a focus on burgers, steaks, and fish and chips.
In both cases, though, the restaurants beckon you by showcasing the freshest food possible from the fields and pastures of nearby Illinois farms.
The Epiphany Farms Hospitality Group is as farm to table as it gets. Two years before Bloomington native Ken Myszka entered the city’s restaurant space in 2011, he bought land and started Epiphany Farms in nearby Downs to grow food with sustainable practices. And since 2011, what Epiphany Farms produces has been on the plates of diners at his Epiphany Farms Restaurant, as well as its three offshoots: Anju Above, Bakery and Pickle, and Harmony Korean BBQ.
The venues also include a beautiful event space, Epiphany Farms Estate, located on the farm property, that hosts farm dinners and special occasions.
Over a relatively short period of time, Myszka has emerged as a leader among Illinois’ advocates for better food and farming, while turning Bloomington — the Illinois State University college town better known as a fast-food hub — into a culinary destination.
Even the appetizers at Epiphany Farms Restaurant — for example, Snap Pea Focaccia with Goat Cheese, Pickled Scapes, Cured Lemon, Red Onion and Fresh Herbs, and Beyond Cornbread with Seasonal Chutney, Bacon Lardons, Whipped Goat Cheese, Fresh Herbs, and Hot Honey — bring to Bloomington the same kind of creative ingredient combinations that you would see at a farm to table restaurant in Chicago or other “culinary capitals.”
Myszka also delivers on international flavors. Harmony features Korean BBQ, and Asian dishes dot the menus at his other restaurants. Nanam Myszka, Ken’s wife and co-owner, is a native of Seoul, South Korea.
The restaurant part of Myszka’s journey almost seems like destiny. His parents, successful in business, liked to entertain, and Myszka discovered at an early age that he had a knack for cooking crowd-pleasing food.
His first stop after high school was the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He then studied Hospitality Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and learned while working in kitchens under renowned chefs such as Thomas Keller, Guy Savoy, and Bradley Ogden. He also did turns working in restaurants in New York City and Colorado Springs before he decided to come home to Bloomington.
“I loved it. I love the environment. I love the energy of it. You just have to have it in you and if you have it in you, you can’t do something else,” Myszka said.
The farming part of his equation was an unexpected twist: Apart from harvesting vegetables to help a farm couple he had befriended at a farmers’ market during a summer college break, he had no previous farming experience.
The local-is-best philosophy he developed during his formative years as a chef is reflected in the name of his farm and restaurant enterprises in Bloomington. “I just had this epiphany. I could actually go back home, I could grow it, I could supply it, my servers could work there, the food waste would go back to the farm,” Myszka said.
There’s little doubt that many people who have become familiar with his regenerative farm and locally produced food have had their own a-ha moments.
Engrained Brewery and Restaurant
Brent Schwoerer’s Engrained Brewery and Restaurant in Springfield is not only farm to table, it is farm to glass.
It’s menu is made up of burgers, sandwiches, steaks, fish and chips and other brewpub classics, Schwoerer’s dedication to local sourcing and building lasting relationships with local farmers is a difference maker.
The menu is designed to what Schwoerer views as the tastes of diners who live in the state capital. “When most people think about farm to table, the stereotype is fine dining. We’re more upscale casual. We’re large, we have 320 seats, we have to appeal to the masses to survive.
He added, “And that’s really what I wanted. I wanted a farm to table approach that was affordable.”
These practices extend to the brewhouse: Although Illinois’ hop-growing sector is quite small, Schwoerer is able to obtain most of the hops he uses from local producers (one of his brews is called Lokal Hop, an India Pale Ale made with only Illinois-grown hops).
The journey that led Brent Schwoerer to start Engrained Brewery and Restaurant was pretty much the inverse of Myszka’s experience. Schwoerer also grew up near Bloomington, but on a dairy and grain farm. He did not see farm living as the life for him, and he received an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a masters in human resources education at University of Illinois Champaign.
While we worked in a variety of assignment at a college pub, his first career was with the Caterpillar Corporation. A two-year assignment in Brazil turned out to be enlightening for Schwoerer’s food sensibilities.
It was during that time in Brazil that Schwoerer had a bit of an epiphany of his own: “Food was much, much fresher. Most of our supermarket is aisles of preprocessed and packaged up and down. They just didn’t have that there. It was rice and beans and produce… I learned their style of eating and cuisine, and I brought a little flair of that back with me.”
Schwoerer said that while he loved working for Caterpillar, “I was missing the purpose and passion that I was looking for.” He continued, “When we got back [from Brazil], I started thinking maybe I’ll go into business for myself. What would I do? I wanted to get back to my roots at the farm. I didn’t want to milk cows every day, but I wanted to have a connection to local agriculture. And so the farm to table restaurant and brewery was what was born.”
Farm to Table Dining Near You
The following are restaurants that — like Epiphany Farms and Engrained — bring farm to table dining to eaters around the state.
Cristaudo’s Café, Bakery and Catering, Carbondale
Edge American Fusion, Peoria Heights
Redbird Café, Homewood
Seasoning Bistro, Benton
Get Listed with Buy Fresh Buy Local Illinois
Are you a farm, farmers market, farm-to-table restaurant, or grocery store that sells local products purchased directly from local farms? Get listed in Illinois’ most trusted guide to local food. Your listing is absolutely free. Buy Fresh Buy Local Illinois is a local foods marketing project led by a coalition of organizations across the state working to promote local farms and food businesses like yours. Get listed and start reaching new customers today!