The Roots Rundown

Highlights from the Roots Conference at The Chef’s Garden, photos and story by Colleen Leonardi

The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio

The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio

The Chef’s Garden and Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio celebrated its third annual Roots Conference September 21 and 22. Home to some of the most beautiful vegetables, the farm is a paradise of sorts for a food lover like me.

This year farmer Lee Jones and founder of the farm, Bob Jones Sr., took a more philosophical approach to the conference line-up. Farmers, chefs, food advocates, restaurateurs, food writers, and more came from all parts of the world to look at contemporary food issues and talk solutions, working to bridge the divide between cuisine and sustainability. Topics like self-care for chefs, fermentation, food waste, Native American traditions, ethical opportunities for international employees, and (last but not least) the health benefits of seaweed, were featured over the two days.

What’s brilliant about the event is that not only do you talk about the issues but you taste them, too. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners featured seaweeds, fermented vegetables, and more. Chefs took direct inspiration from the panel discussions, offering up plates like Sea Spaghetti and Carrot Salad by Dr. Prannie Rhatigan, author of The Irish Seaweed Kitchen.  

Vegetables from The Chef's Garden

Vegetables from The Chef's Garden

All of the speakers were fantastic and spoke from the heart about what concerns them most about the future of food. Here are five takeaways from The Roots Conference to peak your imagination and help you take action in your own life.

Meaning in Mezcal

Mezcal is a distilled type of alcohol created from the maguey plant (a form of agave) and native to Mexico. Artist Ron Cooper has created Del Maguey Mezcal, a successful and sustainable business, by collaborating with the Zapotec Mexican Indian producers in remote villages to bring the most unique strains of mezcal to market. The venture is not just about offering this delicious drink to more people, but about empowering the native producers to own a percentage of the company and thrive in their own communities. Learn more about Ron and Del Maguey Mezcal at

Protein & The Perfect Plate

Chef, food advocate and founder of Wholesome Wave, Michel Nischan, spoke to how we need to shift our consumption of protein now to meet the demands of a sustainable food future. The perfect plate for Michel includes some legumes, a grain (he likes farro right now), one raw thing, one pickled thing and 2 to 3 ounces of animal protein. Learn more about Michel and Wholesome Wave at

Fermentation as Process

Kevin Farley, owner of the Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, California, and Edward Lee, chef and owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky, talked about fermentation as a way, not a thing. “Salt + patience = fermentation,” said Edward. It’s an evolution, not a trend. It’s about preserving the moment.

Thank the Lamb

Keynote speaker Keith Martin took my breath away. Farmer and advocate, Keith is the owner of Elysian Field Sheep Farm and Elysian Fields brand lamb. “Every breath this animal takes is represented in its product form,” he said. “If you like the lamb, thank the lamb.” His philosophy for raising animals is steeped in a respect for nature—holism versus humanism. A committed advocate for listening to the animal and the natural order of the farm to raise the best meat possible, Keith stressed that all of us in the food world should consider shifting our emphasis from local to source, asking questions not just about where the food was raised but how. Learn more about Keith and his lamb at

Seaweed for Health

Recently featured in Saveur magazine, Dr. Prannie Rhatigan shared a delightful, informative look at why we need to consider seaweeds in the future for increased health, well-being and flavor in our food. Growing up on the North West coast of Ireland, she foraged for seaweeds with her family. Now a medical doctor, she’s advocating for the benefits of this ancient weed. The key to consumption: eat a little bit of a wide variety of seaweed with a meal. The key to harvesting: one must harvest sustainably by “giving the seaweed a haircut” and just cutting a little bit off with your scissors. Issues of water quality where one forages were also discussed. Learn more about Prannie and her book Irish Seaweed Kitchen at

Thank you to The Chef’s Garden and the Culinary Vegetable Institute for hosting such a thoughtful, delicious, forward-focused event. Learn more about next year’s conference at