Vanessa Driscoll Bialobreski grew up with a passion for food, surrounded by her French family and enjoying intimate and lively dinners around the table.
So it was natural that the Columbia native – who attended Hammond, Hand and Dreher – would choose a career path that involved food.
The spark for the idea that eventually led to her Farm To Table Events Company – marking its fifth anniversary this year – came when she moved back to her home town several years ago from Asheville, after various jobs at green resorts and green event companies that promoted local and organic foods, farming and ways of living.
Bialobreski said she found herself “going to all of these other cities and promoting these sustainable and local and organic restaurants and food and amazing non-profits in places that I didn’t live. And I was like, ‘how is this great for this city but not really doing anything for (where I live)?’ ”
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Once back in Columbia, she started discovering the food scene through specialty dinners – and started seeing the same people again and again. She realized that there was an audience for events with locally sourced foods.
So Bialobreski approached Eric McClam, manager and co-owner of City Roots Farm, and Chef Ryan Whittaker and shared her thoughts about hosting dinners at City Roots. Whittaker and McClam liked the idea and within a couple of months – in October 2011 – the first Farm To Table Harvest Dinner was held.
“The first Harvest Dinner was designed to trick people into learning about farms by giving them a great meal and some wine ... ‘But first you have to hear all about this farmer and where you are and where your food comes from’, ” Bialobreski said, laughing.
The Farm To Table Events Company was founded with the mission of bringing people together through agritourism – local food, local farmers, and local chefs who are experts in bringing the freshest ingredients to the table in creative ways.
To that end, much thought is givento how dinners are presented.
There is no reserved seating. Guests are seated at a single long table rather than at smaller, individual tables. Food is not plated but served family style on platters with serving utensils to encourage the passing back and forth of not only the food but conversation.
“What I like to do at the beginning of every dinner is to ask everybody if this is their first time to the farm, is this their first (Farm To Table) dinner just to gauge if we’re preaching to the choir, so to speak,” she said.
“And at every single dinner, for at least 50 percent (of those attending), it’s the first time to a dinner, maybe the first time to City Roots, or they’ve never eaten at Bourbon or never eaten at our guest chef’s restaurant or never had that kind of experience. So it’s kind of a win-win all around for everybody who participates.
“We’re always shocked because we think everyone knows City Roots because there are so many festivals there,” said Bialobreski. “There are people at our events that I thought were friends before they came to the event. Then I found out they were just ‘supper buddies’ ” and had just met at the event.
Bialobreski limits the number of tickets to particular events “so that people can meet the people that are making their beer or distilling their whiskey or making the food,” she said. Meeting the farmer or producer or chef is important, she said, because a lot of people don’t associate where there food comes from but there is a growing awareness of the origin of what we eat and who prepares it.
Also, Bialobreski feels that by limiting the number of people at an event, attendees won’t have to wait in long lines or be crowded or feel cramped and are encouraged to mingle and meet.
A company grows
Over the past five years, Farm To Table Events Company has grown to include monthly Harvest Dinners, bartender’s challenges, Farm to Trunk wine tastings and sales, Dinner and a Show events (with guest chefs and live music, whether on the farm or in a concert venue like Music Farm).
Annual festival events include the January Pig & Oyster Roast (with McClellanville oysters and heritage pigs from either Wil-Moore or Carolina Heritage farms); the Cream of the Crop Beer Festival in March (highlighting beers of the Carolinas); the early spring Dinner on Main (with, literally, a table along Main Street), and, added in 2016, the Rose Festival (with rose wines to taste an buy).
This year, Bialobreski formalized an agreement with McClam and restaurateur Kristian Niemi to be equal partners in Farm To Table Events Company. The company has added catering services and the ability to rent out the farm for private events.
And Bialobreski and Niemi produce the Great American Whiskey Fair – set for Sept. 29 at 701 Whaley – with more than 500 types of whiskey from the United States and around the world.
Bialobreski’s intent with Farm To Table was to bring together a community of chefs in Columbia – like they do in Greenville and Charleston – to work together and to bridge the gap between farmers and chefs.
And that goal is playing out beyond the Farm ToTable events.
One of her current projects consists of talking to local chefs to compile a list of farmers and producers in a database that can be shared to help make it easier for chefs to find suppliers of locally grown ingredients.
For a farmer trying to get products into the restaurant market, Bialobreski will take him around to meet chefs at Columbia area restaurants. The farmer has time to talk with the chef about products and pricing and distribution, as well as to let the chef sample is products when possible. Many farmers in the Columbia area still hand-deliver goods to restaurants and sell at multiple local farmers markets because Columbia does not yet have a food hub like Charleston or Greenville where distribution, storage and sales are centralized.
Recently, Bialobreski took Nat Bradford around to local chefs and to Crave Artisan Specialty Market on Millwood Avenue. Now, Bradford’s pickled watermelon rinds are integrated in dishes on local menus and jars of his pickles can be found on the shelves at Crave.
Getting guest chefs on the farm hasn’t been a problem as they offer participants a break from their personal restaurant routine. The monthly dinners are usually a collaboration with Niemi or Frank Bradley, executive chef from Niemi’s Bourbon restaurant, or Farm To Table’s recently hired resident chef Drew Thompson.
Bialobreski has always been about giving back to the community, and the Farm To Table Events Company continues to support organizations such as SlowFood, Sustainable Midlands and Midlands Food Alliance. Historic Columbia was the recipient of funds raised at the Rose Festival to help support that organization’s efforts to bring back the Herbemont grape, a native variety once grown in Columbia and used to make rose wine. Herbemont vines have been planted in the gardens of the Robert Mills House in the hopes of one day producing a light rose.
In the coming months, Bialobreski and her partners will be setting up a non-profit to provide scholarship funds for the farm to table community that will include chefs, farmers and educators. There will be an application process for chefs continuing an education or those just starting out who need financial assistance to attend culinary school or purchase equipment; farmers starting new farms who need money to help purchase equipment or attend training classes; and local food educators and artisans trying to start a business that promotes a local product or provides educational services that promote local food and farmers. All proceeds of ticket sales to the upcoming anniversary cocktail reception will fund the non-profit.
“It’s rewarding to see people who get very passionate about what we do,” Bialobreski said. “We find weird little notes written in chalk on wood on the farm or people write on the tip envelopes ‘this was great’... or when a farmer thanks me or a chef and tells me he’s had a good time or people tell me they can’t wait to go and buy this product somewhere else or it was such a great experience ... that what makes it all worth it at the end of the day.”
Farm to Table 5th Anniversary Celebration Dinner
WHEN AND WHERE: Oct. 3 at City Roots Farm
WHO: Chefs Kristian Niemi and Frank Bradley (Bourbon), Drew Thompson (Farm to Table Event Co.), Ryan Tait Whittaker (@116 Espresso and Wine Bar), Wes Fulmer (Motor Supply Co. Bistro), Todd R Woods (The Oak Table), Henry Flynn Griffin IV (Ristorante Divino), Blake Fairies (Nonnah’s and Sea/&/Salt), Lou Hutto (LowCo Barbecue & Catering), Alex Suaudom du Monde (Baan Sawan), Bryan Pierce Bowers (Solstice Kitchen), Tom Barry (Colas), Travis Rayle (Spotted Salamander Cartering), Charley Scruggs (Rise Gourmet Goods & Bakeshop) and Joe Turkaly (Gervais & Vine); mixologists Jordan Alexandria (The Oak Table), Amy Ivey (The War Mouth) and Josh Streetman (Motor Supply Co. Bistro); special Blackberry Cayenne Saison brew from River Rat Brewery; music by Mustache Brothers
TICKETS: Cocktail reception only, 6:30-7:30 p.m., $35; cocktails and five-course family-style dinner, 6:30-10:30 p.m., $100.