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November 9th, 2012

Ken Myszka vs. the World

BY Sarah Nardi

Three Years ago, a group of chefs left the glamor of Vegas and bet it all on a farm in Central Illinois..

Part I of a two-part series.

 

Make the drive down I-55 from Chicago to Bloomington-Normal, and in those two hours, the city and its outlying industrial blight will give way to a sea of rolling farmland. Rain clouds pass quickly across an unobstructed sky and old rural graveyards crop up among the fields, as feral and untended as a cluster of wildflowers. Distant livestock dot the unbroken horizon, still and simple, like a child’s drawing. In all this idyllic space and quiet, it can be easy to forget the frustrations and complexities of your everyday life; to believe that you are both literally and metaphorically on your way towards something more authentic and real.

But exit Veterans Parkway, the six-lane thoroughfare that snakes around Bloomington’s east side, and you will drive past two McDonald’s, one Sonic, two Pizza Huts, one Subway, two Panera’s, a Krispy Kreme, two Dairy Queens, one Burger King, uno Taco Bell, Steak n’ Shake, Jimmy John’s, Hardee’s, and two of the town’s three Starbucks, which, having done their market research, are equipped with drive-thrus. Children learning the alphabet can recite the Parkway’s litany of casual chain restaurants, Applebee’s, Bob Evan’s, Chili’s, Denny’s, etc.. Bloomington-Normal, according to the town’s enthusiastic wiki-page, has the highest number of restaurants per capita in the nation, the vast majority of which are some iteration of a national chain.

Rising up along the west side of the Parkway, on what used to be the edge of town before subdivisions began to spread spore-like beyond the boundary, is the national headquarters of State Farm Insurance, which, according to Bloomington’s 2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, employs 14,450 of the town’s 76,610 residents. Country Financial, also insurance, employs 2,084 residents and is located just off the Parkway about a mile north of State Farm. Sprinkled between the large corporate headquarters are several new-construction strip malls housing the practices of various lawyers, podiatrists, orthodontists and CPA’s. Everyday at lunchtime, hundreds of workers pour from their offices, many with their identification badges still affixed to pockets or belts, and descend upon the surrounding restaurants. Some walk, braving the Parkway’s six-lanes of traffic like squirrels, but most drive, turning lines in drive-thrus into elaborate vehicular curlicues.

In deference to its demographic, many of the Parkway’s “sit-down” restaurants are equipped with one or more conference rooms where it is not uncommon to see people dining over PowerPoint presentations or corporate training videos. Even casual meals often double as meetings, with laptops and documents spread across tables and servers left to stand helplessly with handfuls of plates, waiting for space to be cleared. Food in these restaurants generally tends to be inoffensive and populist and “normal” is a word that gets thrown around a lot (as in, I just want normal lettuce, do you have any normal mustard, etc.). Ranch is the most requested condiment and arugula proves to be both gastronomically and phonetically baffling. At the end of a meal, a table of diners will often ask that their check be divided into individual checks, so that it will appear on their expense reports as if they pass all meals in wretched solitude. In short, Bloomington is a place where the prevailing culture is corporate and taste is generally conservative. Restaurants exist less to shape new culinary expectations than to conform to existing expectations which can, at most generous, be described as staid.

But now back on the road. Stay on Veterans Parkway for awhile longer and the thicket of restaurants will give way to truck stops and a collection of small, run-down bars that house at least two or three dedicated patrons at all times of the day. The scenery becomes increasingly more rural and a turn down old South Main Street (past McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and the gated recreational facility built by State Farm for its employees) will eventually lead to a small brick house, shaded by a grove of maples and encircled by a white picket fence. Across a gravel drive and an old wooden bridge, the planks of which loudly register each rotation of the tires, the car is brought to a stop and immediately surrounded by a busy band of chickens.

This is Epiphany Farms.

 

At twenty-nine, Ken Myszka demonstrates the kind of intensity and willful blindness associated with youth or prophets. He has been known to sleep three hours a night, if at all. He does not watch television. He reads, but not fiction. He has plenty of imagination, he says, its education he lacks. And so he sticks to things like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and the writings of Dan Barber, chef of Blue Hill and founder of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. It would be fair to say that Myszka draws a lot of inspiration from Barber, a vocal proponent of both sustainable farming and the need for a total overhaul of our cultural conception of food. Barber was one of the earliest visible supporters of the localvore movement, arguing that we should be doing more than just buying local tomatoes – we should be completely re-centering our diets around what the land in our own particular region is naturally prone to yield. Barber’s Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barns doesn’t even offer menus – just lists of ingredients his team brings in daily from the farm.

Three years ago, Myszka was doing the rounds in Vegas prep kitchens under high-end chefs like Guy Savoy, Bradley Ogden, and Thomas Keller, when one night, he was struck by what he describes as an epiphany over a carrot. Holding the carrot in his hands, he realized he had no idea where the it came from, who had grown it, or how it was raised. Looking around the kitchen, he realized the same could be said for all the produce, all the meat. And suddenly the systemic fragmentation – the disconnect that is the modern diet -appeared to Myszka as intrinsically wrong. He called his mother at two in the morning and explained a plan that would eventually evolve into this: He would move back to central Illinois (Myszka is originally from Downs, a small community just outside Bloomington) and acquire a farm. Like Dan Barber, he would open a restaurant supplied entirely by what was produced on that farm. He would focus on community involvement and education, showcasing “sustainable systems” and underscoring the importance, both dietary and environmental, of fresh, seasonal, local food. He would operate the restaurant three nights and week and six months a year, offering multi-course tasting menus that celebrated the elegance of food in a state of minimal manipulation. And once he had it down, he would franchise the Epiphany Farms model across the nation and eventually the globe. Oh and that restaurant? Myszka would make it not just the best restaurant in town or even the state, but in the world. The best restaurant in the world.

But here’s the thing: Unlike Barber, who operates Stone Barns thirty minutes outside of New York City, one of the dining capitals of the world, Myszka was moving into a calcified and resistant market; one in which deviation is rarely rewarded and “Have it your way” is less a fast-food slogan than a veritable municipal creed.

And here’s the other thing: Myszka had no idea how to farm.

 

Matt Myszka lives in a barn. Not a converted Westchester county kind of a barn, but a barn barn – one full of tractors and spiders and hay (a peek at his windowless, particle board shed in the barn’s west end is frankly the first chink in the pastoral, sun-dappled utopia I’ve experienced since stepping out of the car). Ken Myszka swears he invited his brother to stay in the farmhouse he shares with his wife, Nanam, but the younger Myszka declined, opting for the barn and the authentic farmhand way of life. The fact that he’s out there living in the barn is a big deal for Epiphany Farms because Matt Myszka is the first fulltime worker they’ve employed since the farm’s inception in 2009.

Initially the operation was run almost entirely by Myszka and two recruits, Mike Mustard and Stu Hummel, that he’d enlisted in Vegas. As disillusioned as Myszka by what they’d experienced in the haute-culinary scene, they were also equally pedigreed. Mustard (with whom Myszka has since parted ways) was working with Alain Ducasse while Hummel came from Joël Robuchon, a chef whose globe-spanning empire is lit by a galaxy of Michelin stars. Together with Nanam Yoon, Myszka’s future wife who turned down a promising job in Seoul, Korea to stay with him in the states, the group took over 70 acres on a property belonging to Myszka’s family in Downs.

Their plan was broken down into three year-long steps. Step one: Learn to farm. Myszka is an unabashed autodidact, completely unafraid to admit the degree to which he relies on Wikipedia. He spent months reading and traveling back and forth to Chicago for lectures. Gradually, with a handful of supplies purchased with savings, he and the team began setting up operations in accordance with the sustainable practices he’d been researching. No pesticides, no hormones, no salt-laden chemical fertilizers. Open pastures for the animals, a system of crop rotation and natural windbreaks. A long-term, natural symbiosis between all of the farm’s living organisms that would eventually replenish nutrient-deprived soil and keep livestock organic and free-range. It was a daunting undertaking, especially in a region where farming is religion and Myszka was going firmly against the dogma of large-scale industrialization.

As the group moved into year two, the beginning of farming in earnest, Myszka launched a (frankly ingenious) public relations campaign. He and his team began offering educational dinner parties which quickly became de riguer among the upper echelon corporate set. He used produce grown on the farm to prepare multi-course meals, replete with the haute aesthetics he’d honed in Vegas. Between dishes, he would speak to a rapt audience, generally made up of the community’s executive elite, about sustainability, responsibility, and Epiphany Farms’ overall mission. It was top-down inculcation – start with the taste makers and let the gospel gradually spread.

The restaurant was supposed to be the last step. The group had acquired a space on Market Street in the heart of Bloomington’s historic downtown district – about as far away from Veteran’s Parkway as they could afford to be. The room was small, under 70 seats, and the limited service (dinner Thursday through Saturday and Sunday brunch) would allow for ample time on the farm. Then the plan took a detour. Central Station, a decades-old dining institution just around the corner on Front Street and rumored to be in financial decline, began collaborating with Epiphany. The team’s tasting menu was offered on select days and Central Station slowly began to integrate the farm’s dishes into it’s long-established menu. Yelp reviews from the time reflect varying degrees of alarm: the ownership has changed, the prices have been raised, the menu has been pared down to a single page (menus in Bloomington have been known to rival Tolstoy). Gradually, with no real fanfare or opening hype, Central Station became Station 220, an Epiphany Farms Enterprise. And that’s when the real uphill climb began.

This is part I of a two-part series..