There’s an executive chef I met at Biltmore, Spencer Hilgeman, who has the gleam. You know what I mean, right? A magical gleam in his eye. That thing which is captivating the moment you meet him and you know that he is more than a chef because he loves what he does so much that it is his passion, but more importantly, his soul. This is the tale of how Chef Spencer took freshly harvested broccoli and transformed it into love.
The story of Biltmore farm-to-table broccoli really starts at the farm. Back in April I visited Biltmore and met Eli Herman, Field-to-Table manager and all around good guy, who believes in growing food on site. When I met him he was planting broccoli with his team; it was a spring day when the Blue Ridge mountains smelled a little bit like heaven and Eli walked me out and personally introduced me to that baby broccoli. When I returned to Biltmore on a sweltering hot day in June, the broccoli had ripened and they were harvesting it when I arrived.
The field is nestled in the hills next to a row of berry vines and is filled with weeds (see above). I ask, “Why the weeds, Eli?” And Eli’s reply is the music to my ears, “We don’t care about weeds. If we ignore the weeds, we use less chemicals on the plants. Less chemicals means a healthier product for our guests.” I went with the farm-to-table team to deliver the broccoli to the restaurants (right) and saw the love the team has for growing, then connecting the food directly to the Biltmore kitchens.
When we got to the kitchen the team asked if I’d like to meet Chef Spencer. I interrupted his day, unplanned, and he and I sat down for a chat about food and cooking and life after he toured me through his kitchens to meet the staff (see above). I was impressed with how much his team liked him as a boss and how clean the kitchen is. His cooking philosophy is centered on building creative food which tastes as good as it looks and is also healthy. Using fresh ingredients, particularly things grown directly on the estate, is part of his goal in creating the ultimate in deliciousness for every Biltmore guest.
I explained my broccoli story to Chef Spencer – you know that it is MY broccoli and all – and that I’d like to see that broccoli through to the end. I asked if he could fix me an anti-inflammatory meal using the broccoli. What he came up with was beyond drool-worthy; Broccoli-Chicken Risotto with Chili Dust and Pea Shoots (below). I have recently reintroduced rice to my diet and the rice worked deliciously. I cannot eat dairy due to my anti-inflammatory osteoarthritis dietary plan, so to help me out Chef Spencer went above and beyond and handmade almond milk to use as the “cream” for the risotto. Without a doubt he created pure love with his special kind of magic. My review of the dish is 5 thumbs up and a strong exclamation of, “TO! DIE! FOR!”
Why All the Passion
Seeing your broccoli from the beginning all the way through to the end is a great way to understand a question that Chef Spencer and Farmer Eli want you to ask –
“What does my food mean?”
When you go to the grocery store with no conscious understanding of connection between the land and the food you put in your mouth, you have no specific understanding of what food really means to your health. Examining this question of meaning makes the farm-to-table experience a purposeful journey that will make you feel better. Emotionally better. Physically better. We are all asking “what is the meaning of life” in this modern day of bitterly angry politicians, extreme hate crimes, and frustrated health systems.
Perhaps the better question to ask is “What is the meaning of my food?” When we can answer that question and begin to feed our brains healthy energy, then the bitterness, hate, and frustration will melt away. We will suffer less pain, make smarter decisions, and build a stronger world. This is not just about broccoli; Chef Spencer and Farmer Eli have discovered that healthy nutritious food is the answer in all aspects of life. They want to make a difference with food at Biltmore and see a better future because of our connections to the land.