The hot, dry summer that ran rampant across home gardens also made the growing season difficult for local farmers.
Berries were over in a mere blink. Lettuce has already bolted. Apples are already waning.
“It was a crazy season,” said Community Farmers Market manager Rachael Reiton.
But that doesn't scare chef Jay Ryan, who will be creating the menu for the Ninth annual community farmers market, which takes place Sunday. Cooking local and focusing on making what's freshest in season shine is what he does best.
“Really the utilization of what's available and what's out there is my forte,” Ryan said. “To have something in front of me or not in front of me and work with it.”
The harvest dinner is the Chehalis Community Farmers Market's largest fundraiser of the season, covering much of the non-profit's annual operating expenses. This year's dinner will take place at The Loft, housed in the former Reclinerland location in downtown Chehalis. Reiton said they outgrew their former location at the Washington Hotel after meeting their goal last year of 150 diners. Organizers would like to gather 200 diners this year just the first floor of The Loft gives them seating for 500 with the option to use other floors if the need arose.
Another change to this year's dinner is that only one chef, Ryan of Hub City Grub, will be cooking. In years past the dinner was created by multiple local chefs using ingredients from multiple farmers market vendors. Reiton explained that not only was it difficult logistically to get ingredients to myriad locations, but many of the dishes that were produced were on a smaller scale than necessary for the number of diners.
“So with some of the dishes the diners who got there first got some but those who came farther down the line might not get much or any,” Reiton said. “This way we can get cohesive menu items and there will be plenty to eat.”
This year's harvest dinner menu will still be sourced from the many different farmers market vendors, but Ryan will plan and cook the buffet style dinner that includes soups, salads and main courses. Some of the highlighted produce will likely include kale, leeks, mint, zucchini, beets, basil, garlic and potatoes. The dinner will also include locally produced meats, including emu, as well as local cheeses.
“We have to first find out from the farms what will be in season,” Reiton explained, noting that while a preliminary menu has been created, it could change. “For instance, we usually have a cider press there but we don't know if that will happen because the apples are already almost done.”
Ryan, a more than 25-year member of the culinary community, has many experiences feeding a crowd. He has owned the mobile food establishment Quinoa King since 2009. His newest venture, Hub City Grub in the regional sports complex in Centralia, opened in December 2014 providing upscale concessions during events there.
“The day after that kitchen was permitted we had 4,000 people in that building for a wrestling tournament,” Ryan said.
Through Hub City Grub, Ryan also provides fresh-made food for the students at the Head Start program housed at the sports complex building.
Ryan has participated in the harvest dinner for a handful of years prior to this year. He said he was invited to join in by friend Melissa Henderson Hyatt of Newaukum Valley Farms, but said he stayed because he enjoyed the experience so much.
“The whole Chehalis Valley is so rich with farmland and farms, it's really an awesome place to be,” Ryan said of what motivates him to be part of the dinner. “As a cook, I get to see the farmers' enthusiasm for the food ... It's really neat when there's enthusiasm for the food before I even get it.”
At the moment, Hub City Grub is event-based only, meaning the doors are open whenever there is an event at the sports complex. But Ryan hopes soon to have the space open full time for the general public to come dine. He said he is drawn to the harvest dinner for the same reason he wants to have his restaurant open more hours - because he believes in local food and the farm to table concept. He is an advocate for Centralia's historic downtown, sending event-goers to explore Centralia beyond the outlet mall. But he's also a locavore, preferring fresh ingredients, sometimes out of his own garden planted just steps from his kitchen door.
While many of the harvest dinner attendees are adults, Reiton said supporters have recently been trying to get more families and children involved in the market. Children of farmers market vendors will be sponsoring a lemonade stand at the harvest dinner selling non-alcoholic drinks to raise money for a new kids program that it is hoped will be piloted next year at the market. Reiton explained that she has written a proposal for a program that would supply young farmers market goers with passports they could get stamped for doing certain activities at the market each week. In exchange for their participation, the kids would receive a small amount of market tokens so they could purchase something at one of the vendor stalls.
“The idea is to encourage healthy eating in everyone from a younger age,” Reiton said.
Reiton has also written a grant request to help launch the program, which will cost about $4,500.
The dinner will also include: a keynote by Colleen Donovan of the WSU Small Farms Team
dinner attendees get to judge the art contest for next year's market art; music by the band Lumen; a no-host bar; games; raffles; dessert auction; and farm themed photo area. Local DJ Matt Griese will provide music after the dinner.