Photograph courtesy of Lisa Waterman Gray
On a blistering hot September afternoon Brett Atkinson, Kansas City-area chef and owner of Wilma’s Good Food, and Chad Tillman, foraged for produce in the Heartland Harvest Garden at Powell Gardens, Kingsville, MO. They later used these ingredients to prepare an 1800s-themed six-course dinner, which 10 guests enjoyed at the top of the 45-foot observation silo.
Atkinson and Tillman are among the latest culinary professionals creating gourmet meals using the Garden’s produce. “To me, Powell Gardens is not only a place of beauty and serenity, but of discovery,” Atkinson says. “With every visit, I gain an education.”
Approximately 45-minutes drive, from Kansas City, Powell Gardens’ Heartland Harvest Garden is America’s largest edible landscape, providing the perfect backdrop for culinary events and education. It’s a place where 60 students capped off a recent visit by helping to make salsa and where a two-year-old CSA is in full swing.
CSA participants—from families to restaurants—inherently learn about food seasonality during a 30-week subscription from late April to Thanksgiving. Customers occasionally help with harvesting, too. “There’s something different about the taste of [produce] you’ve harvested yourself,” says Haley Drake, gardener and CSA coordinator.
Opened in 2009, this 12-acre site features upwards of 1,000 edible plant varieties, including indigenous Midwestern crops and edibles from across the globe. In addition, a profusion of flowers supports pollinators. “It’s about ecology as well as aesthetics,” Drake says. At this time of year 10 staff members and multiple volunteers tend the Garden.
Ever since the first Garden harvest, the onsite Café Thyme has incorporated its produce in homemade soups to salads, and quiche. But exposing chefs to the garden’s bounty has become a big focus too.
“[The goal is] to activate the Garden a little more with chefs,” says Jill Silva, who began working with Powell Gardens in February. Previous Kansas City Star food editor, for 25 years, restaurant critic, and owner of communications company, Jill Silva Food, she taps into longstanding connections with the Kansas City area’s culinary scene.
“Some chefs are already aware of the Garden and some chefs have never [visited] before,” Silva says. “They’re like kids in a candy store.” Chefs often tour with a horticulturist, which simultaneously educates Garden staff about uses for these edible plants.
Early ‘barn dinners’ associated with Heartland Harvest Garden were typically US$125 and necessitated a 45-minute drive for most guests. Although the drive hasn’t changed, 15 culinary events, held since February, have. “Now [most] are US$75 with a more informal, family-style ambiance – although every dinner is different,” Silva says. “Most events sell out completely.”
That means a packed house, whether the theme has been Fungi and Fermentation, Cocktails and Constellations (with telescope stargazing), or the day-long Salsa y Salsa (including salsa dancing). Many events occur beneath barn eaves where sunset views enhance the experience. Inspired by seasonal gardens at France’s Chateau Villandry, the adjacent Villandry Quilt garden is a favorite spot for event cocktails.
It’s one of four quadrants in The Quilt Gardens, which create a ‘patchwork’ of diverse fields. Additional Garden sections include Peach Plaza, where patio, dwarf and standard peach trees bloom; and Apple Celebration Court, featuring dozens of apple varieties. Intricately designed beds in The Menu Garden, and the Seed to Plate Greenhouse, showcase a ‘seed-to-plate’ theme, while diverse grapes in The Vineyard become mouthwatering jams to juice.
The Authors’ Garden replicates those of food-focused authors, Rosalind Creasy and Barbara Damrosch, while kids love the Fun Foods Farm. Here they can explore ‘Mr. McGregor’s Garden,’ learn about water conservation, dig for bugs, and then play a game of ‘Good Bug, Bad Bug.
“The Heartland Harvest Garden, its sensational produce, and the brilliant staff there, are a priceless resource for the region and a true inspiration – whether you’re a child or a professional chef,” Atkinson says.