Exploring Erie County’s culinary highlights
By Nicole Rasul, Photography by Michelle Demuth-Bibb, Illustration by Sharon Teuscher
The land on the southern shores of Lake Erie has a fertile growing history.
With rich, well-draining soil, a remnant of the glacial past, and an extended growing season due to the lake’s unique microclimate, the region is known for its fruit belt along the body of water’s southern coast.
Only a couple of hours from Central Ohio by car, Lake Erie in the spring is a treat. Day-trippers will find a handful of culinary gems rooted in the region’s rich agricultural traditions and exceptional growing conditions.
The Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI)
CVI and its parent company, The Chef’s Garden, are nationally known culinary treasures. The Chef’s Garden grows exceptional hand-harvested, sustainable produce for chefs across the country.
CVI was founded in 2003 and is an 11,000-square-foot think tank, playground and retreat center for chefs. Members of the founding advisory board included Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller and Lidia Bastianich.
Although CVI’s primary audience is working chefs, the organization also seeks to engage the public through cooking classes, culinary showcase events and workshops for culinary enthusiasts.
“We wanted to build a place where chefs could come and do R&D, R&R and educate people. But it is now so much more than that,” owner-farmer Lee Jones notes.
Lee operates both ventures with his father and brother. A visit to CVI may include a sighting of Farmer Jones in his trademark bib overalls and red bowtie.
“We do classes here. We do every kind of event that you can imagine. We customize events to one’s needs all of the time. We want visitors to get so much more than they ever imagined out of their experiences,” he says.
Events slated for 2016 include vegetable showcase dinners, earth-to-table dinners, professional workshops and a monthly cooking class series with themes such as bread baking, fermentation and seasonal vegetable cookery.
Custom events include: weddings; private parties; luxury farm stays; a chef-for-the-day program, where you can cook in the kitchen with Executive Chef Jamie Simpson; private cooking classes; and space for team-building retreats and corporate meetings, conferences and seminars.
CVI is located at 12304 Mudbrook Rd., Milan. Visit culinaryvegetableinstitute.com to see a full schedule of public offerings and plan your trip.
Quarry Hill Orchards and Winery
Outside of the village of Berlin Heights is Quarry Hill Orchards, a picturesque family farm started in 1931. The elevated land in this part of the county offers optimal growing conditions for produce, including increased protection from spring frosts.
At the highest point on the orchard land sits Quarry Hill Winery, where on a clear day visitors can see Lake Erie in the distance, three miles away.
The orchard grows 38 varieties of apples on 90 acres of land. The remainder of the farm is composed of 30 acres of peaches and 15 acres of grapes, nectarines, pears, plums, apricots and berries.
In addition to selling at various farmers markets in the region and in wholesale to local businesses and schools, the orchard offers a fantastic on-site market where Quarry Hill produce is sold alongside vegetables from nearby farms and artisan foods from regional vendors.
A visit during the growing season will yield outstanding seasonal finds in addition to delicious complimentary popcorn and, if you’re lucky, a smile and a wonderful chat with Bill Gammie, Quarry Hill’s fearless leader of 36 years.
Don’t forget to pet London and Walter, the two friendly golden retrievers who call the farm home and who can often be found pilfering peaches from customers’ baskets, on your way out of the orchard market.
Chez Francois Restaurant
Since 1987, a Francophile’s mecca—Chez François Restaurant—has called the town of Vermillion home. This upscale bistro has consistently been rated by Zagat as one of the best restaurants in Ohio, drawing diners from near and far. Chez François was named a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist in the “Outstanding Service” category in 2013.
With a dress code for diners, including jackets for men, the establishment offers a menu that changes seasonally and which is full of French classics. Of note, during the growing season the restaurant acquires much of its produce from nearby farms.
“I source my lettuces, seasonal vegetables and microgreens from The Chef’s Garden. Fruits such as apples, pears, peaches and grapes are from Quarry Hill Orchards, Grobe Fruit Farm in Elyria and I get seasonal berries from Krieg’s farm market in Vermilion,” says John D’Amico, the restaurant’s Executive Chef and co-owner.
For the budget-friendly visitor there are several other dining options on the premises, including a seasonal, unfussy alfresco riverfront café, as well as a casual, yet sophisticated, wine/martini room on the second floor of the building, called Touché.
Chez François also offers a number of culinary events, including themed seasonal feasts, such as a truffle dinner and wine-pairing showcases.
The restaurant is located at 555 Main St., Vermillion. Visit chezfrancois.com to view the eatery’s menu and upcoming events.
Additional growers of note in the region that are a pleasure to visit include:
A.B. Phillips and Sons Fruit Farm: 30 Main St., Berlin Heights. With an orchard that is more than 700 feet above sea level, the farm is known for its colorful and crisp apples that the growers attribute to their higher than normal elevation.
Burnham Orchards: 8019 State Route 113, Berlin Heights. With a market that is open year-round, the orchard offers a variety of produce and other local foods. During the growing season visitors may pick their own peaches, blackberries, cherries and apples.
Mulberry Creek Herb Farm: 3312 Bogart Rd., Huron. Offering more than 900 varieties of organic potted herb plants, vegetables and miniature plants, the farm is open to visitors five days a week. In June, the farm offers an annual herb fair with merchants, workshops and a plant sale.