By Colin Bado, TSB Staff
From my seat at the hand-made dining table, the greenhouse catches my initial attention, but at second glance I can’t help but fully embrace my surroundings: a chicken coup, a fishing pond equipped with a small dock and a rusty boat, crops of kale and onions awaiting harvest, and rich green pastures. It’s hard to believe I’m only a few miles from the traffic congestion of 380 and about to participate in a small, intimate farm-to-table dinner.
Welcome to Lake Forest Farm.
The farm is located off of Lake Forest Drive, just north of the Baylor Medical Center in McKinney. What makes this farm unique is that owner Ron Ryan and his friend Mel Becker have built their own ecosystem in the form of aquaponics. Aquaponics is a sustainable method of food production system that combines an aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a codependent environment.
In other words, the fish tank water provides food and fertilizer for the plants that are cultivated in the plot, and then the plant water is syphoned into a pump which is then redistributed in the fish tank, feeding the fish. The by-product of this operation is colorful, tasty and much larger than usual vegetables san the weeding needed to maintain a garden planted in the earth.
Former business executives, Ryan and Becker are relatively new to the cultivation business, initiating their agricultural endeavor in August of 2012. Ryan took a year off of work in order to get his sustainable farm underway. His daughter, Vanessa Zamora, a McKinney High graduate and Ryan’s daughter, have since taken over day-to-day operations, ensuring the farm gets the attention it requires. It is because of their desire to engage in the cultivation of organic produce that my family and I were able enjoy a dinner comprised of ingredients that were grown just a few feet away.
Zamora and her friend Kary Cataldie came up with the idea of holding a seasonal dinner that would feature the fresh produce picked fresh from their gardens or meats from area farms, all prepared by guest chefs.
Zamora said “the plan is to feature a dinner each season, focusing on the foods that are in season.”
Twenty-five guests seated around one large, hand-built table were able to engage in an intimate outdoor dining experience under a string of lights in the midst of the elements and awaiting the impending sunset.
Talk of a variety of foodie experiences and much laughter ensued as guests were served four courses and wine pairings in the peaceful, relaxed environment. On this particular evening, the scheduled guest chef had to bow out due to a family emergency, giving the Sous Chef, local cook James Denissen, the opportunity to step up to the task of preparing the meal for the guests. Denissen has worked under award winning Chef Stephen Pyles and has also worked as a private chef. BrandonTomes, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London and is a personal friend of Denissen’s, took over the Sous Chef duties. Denissen and Tomes are also McKinney high grads.
The set menu varies according to the produce that is in season. For example, this particular evening, the menu consisted of a beet and goat cheese starter and locally caught striped bass with kale from the greenhouse for the second course. The third course, beef tenderloin arrived with a garden salad comprised of a variety of farm fresh greens. Dessert was a buttermilk vanilla panna cotta with a strawberry coulis.
Although Becker is retired, Ryan continues to hold down a full time job, but for both men aquaponics is not just a hobby. Their long-term goal includes creating a sustainable farm that supplies the public with local, organically grown produce directly from the farmer at an affordable cost. Organic produce and sustainably raised animals may take its toll on your wallet, but with men like Ryan and Becker adopting modern methods of agriculture, hopefully one day organic produce will be affordable.
As of late, I am often saddened by the commercialization of food that the United Sates has accepted. Time is a major factor in this harried world we inhabit and we, as consumers, frequently opt for a fast fix, as opposed to fully comprehending what our body is ingesting for our nutrient needs. To the industrialized American, growing seasons are relatively unknown as consumers can find berries, melon and corn in the winter, and brussel sprouts, celery root and squash in the summer. With a growing amount of information at our fingertips, the apparent negative consequences of consuming processed foods has created a “great awakening” within the food culture. This awakening, which many tout to be the basis for a healthier lifestyle, has fed the growing desire for fresh, unprocessed food and spurred a return to the farm-to-table concept.
Conceptually, Lake Forest Farm offers McKinney residents a place to enjoy community while appreciating sustainable ingredients. They also plan to set up a stand on the grounds where residents will be able to purchase produce. While farm-to-dinner’s are few and far between, I recommend the aspiring home chef to create their own event. Attend the Saturday farmer’s market at Chestnut Square and formulate a menu based on the ingredient availability. It’s an enjoyable way to educate, dine, and enjoy community.
Lake Forest Farm is located at 3355 Ryan Trail, McKinney, TX. For more information about the farm-to-table dinners, call (972) 542-8040.
Photos courtesy of Lake Forest Farm, Megan Hickman and Colin Bado.