For those who are under the impression that Smolak Farms has fallen into the grip of commercialization, business and marketing manager Kelley Small has a ready answer:
“Unfortunately, we are not living in a time when [local] farms can survive on what they produce alone,” she explains. “The expectations from customers have grown, so must the business. We try to keep all of our activities farm related—sometimes that is not what the public demands, but we do our best to please everyone.”
Nowadays, a large operating farm like Smolak must diversify its work. Bad weather and its effect on a major revenue-generating crop like apples can result in unforeseen financial setbacks. Losing out on a solid yield puts them far behind the eight ball, as half of their earnings are generated in the fall. If people aren’t picking and buying apples and eating those famous apple cider donuts, the farm suffers. So they have to get creative.
Hence, the idea for their Whim dinner series, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary this summer. Whim is the brainchild of JP Faiella, CEO of Image Unlimited Communications. Faiella and Small began brainstorming around the idea of what would it look like to have city chefs arrive on the farm to create a meal on a whim. They developed the concept, smoothed out the details, and put the idea into action. Today, seven dinners are held throughout the months of July and August. Each Wednesday, chefs collaborate with students from Boston’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts on a meal prepared with local seasonal ingredients and served alfresco. “The students come in having no idea what to expect, but they learn so much working under the guidance of so many chefs—each has a unique style and expectations,” says Small.
The original mission of Whim was to expose visitors to the farm’s shady pine grove as an event venue. Today, however, Whim is about education. Although there are many learning opportunities for young people at Smolak Farms, Whim is a way of reaching adults. The aim is to highlight the importance of sustainability in general, as well as share Smolak’s own efforts. “Many people do not know that we grow vegetables along with our fruit and berries,” says Small. “Now, the produce is showcased by some of Boston’s finest chefs and [local chefs].”
In fact, the dinner series has become so popular that chefs clamor for late-season dates when more fruits and vegetables are at their disposal. Small recalls one chef who roamed out into the field to pick fresh greens just minutes before serving the first course. “It doesn’t get much better than that,” she beams. Part of the challenge put to the chefs—in the spirit of preparing a multicourse meal on a whim—is having only a grill to work with, though they are allowed to bring equipment in. Most, however, accept the challenge.
Sherie Smolak, sister-in-law of owner Michael Smolak, and Small work as a team to pull off this weekly summer event. “Sherie makes sure all of the details under the tent are perfect along with [assuring] the produce is delivered to the chefs,” explains Small. “I am in charge of marketing and ticket sales. We plan this together along with a great staff to make each Wednesday evening a success.”
“When we first started Whim, we were completely in the dark about how to run a restaurant,” recalls Small. “We had some great advice, and the chefs were extremely helpful in bearing with us as we developed this great experience.” Many restaurant owners have called to express an interest in being part of the series. However, with just seven nights available, Smolak Farms is in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose chefs. “We try to mix up the talent each year,” notes Small. “Although some chefs have been with us for the whole five years, others are brand-new.”
This year’s lineup includes Burtons Grill, Davio’s of Boston, Grill 23, The Langham, Henrietta’s Table, The Butcher Shop, and Post 390. Many chefs, including Danny Azzarello and Eric Brennan, return for the sheer pleasure of the experience. What chefs seem to enjoy most about it is the challenge of working with the ingredients they are given and coming up with dishes that aren’t on their regular menus.
“We deal with the same challenges day in, day out,” says Azzarello. “It’s nice to get out of the restaurant and get creative, and that’s what the Whim dinner does—it offers the chance to come out of your box and be someone different.”
For his night last summer, Azzarello gathered all the chefs from the 10 Burtons locations to collaborate on a meal. “It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and my chefs will say the same.” Fourteen chefs were in action that night. Together, they came up with the idea for pork with apple cider donut stuffing. “It was completely outside the box—something I would never think of,” notes Azzarello. In fact, people are still talking about that pork dish today. He even added it to his regular menu for a time. For Azzarello, “The best part about Whim is using local flavors and different cooking techniques to deliver a product to people that is as exciting for us as it is for the guests.”
There is a charity component to each dinner, too. Visiting chefs choose an organization, and a percentage of the proceeds from the night are given in the chef’s name. “Most of the charities are food-based organizations,” notes Small. “We love to be able to help whenever we can,” add owner Michael Smolak. smolakfarms.com