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Coming Together Over Food

Iconoclast Dinner Experience and Zingerman’s Cornman Farms partner together for 13 Million Acres culinary event

Food has oftentimes been called the great connector. No matter our backgrounds, no matter where we’re from, food and its importance in our history is something that we all share.

Four appetizers (and their vegan counterparts) were served during a 25-person VIP Reception prior to the 13 Million Acres Dining Experience. Shown is Chef Ji Hye Kim's (Miss Kim) scallop, crispy pork, shiso, and tomato skewer.

“Food is one of our deepest connections to our past generations and culture. It is our verbal history passed down to us from our families. Food is something that connects us all and allows us to have many different conversations on so many different levels,” Chef Kieeron Hales (Cornman Farms) says. “It’s easy to focus on differences too often, but shared ingredients, flavors, and familiar food stories build connection."

Food can also serve as a bridge between cultures as evidenced during 13 Million Acres, a culinary event organized by the Iconoclast Dinner Experience (founded by Dr Lezli Levene Harvell in 2015) in partnership with Cornman Farms, a historic, award-winning 27-acre event venue in Ann Arbor, MI, managed and operated by Zingerman’s group.

Cornman Farms is an historic, award-winning 27-acre event venue, kitchen, and picturesque estate minutes away from downtown Ann Arbor, MI, that is part of the legendary Zingerman's group and is a member of the Leading Caterers of America. Co-founded by British chef and recipe developer Kieron Hales, Cornman Farms is a one-of-a-kind event venue in an idyllic setting, brought to life by Hales’ passion of bringing people together over food. The property itself emits an essence of nostalgia, between its restored barn and picturesque white farmhouse with a wrap-around porch and rocking chairs, sweeping lawn adorned with sunflowers and big maple trees, and a farmhouse whipping up fresh baked goods daily.   

13 Million Acres

Since its inception in 2015, the Iconoclast Dinner Experience (IDE) has curated paradigm shifting programming that celebrates diverse culinary and beverage professionals.

“I’m a lover of culture and I found culinary culture to be very homogeneous,” says Harvell.

Small rustic details in the floral arrangements helped embrace the event's farmstead locale.

For the 13 Million Acres event, Harvell wanted to explore the legacy of dispossessed land that African American farmers and Mexican Americans in the West share through the sourcing of ingredients from African American and Mexican American owned and operated farms in Detroit and Washtenaw County, such as Growing Hope, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, and We The People Opportunity Farm.

“It’s an entire weekend of the chefs interacting with the farmers that really culminates with that dinner,” says Harvell.

The featured chefs during 13 Million Acres, from left: Oscar Moreno (MeXo), Ji Hye Kim (Miss Kim), George Azar (Flowers of Vietnam), Kiki Louya, Kieron Hales (Cornman Farms), Natalia de Miguel (Aventura), and April Anderson (Good Cakes and Bakes). 

The courses and crafted cocktails were then prepared by some of Michigan’s most talented culinary and beverage professionals. The line-up included Hales as well as chefs April Anderson (Good Cakes and Bakes), George Azar (Flowers of Vietnam), Ji Hye Kim (Miss Kim), Kiki Louya, Oscar Moreno (MeXo), and mixologist Natalia de Miguel (Aventura.)

“When (Harvell) shared that she found a lack of representation of chefs of color in the higher echelons of culinary culture,” says Hales, “her experience matched my own, and I was eager to help change that.”

All proceeds from the event benefited Spelman College, a historically Black liberal arts college for women, and Harvell’s alma mater.

Inspired cuisine

To assist chefs in getting their creative juices flowing for what to prepare, Harvell not only provided a list of ingredients that they could incorporate into their dishes based on what the partner farms were able to provide, but she also supplied excerpts and themes that each chef could choose from which they would then interpret into their culinary creations.

“They could choose which course, and what aspect of history resonated with them,” Harvell says. “It wasn’t just a dinner; it’s about telling a story.”

For example, Chef Ji Hye Kim (Miss Kim) was given an excerpt from the Treaty of Guadalupe, which brought an end to the Mexican American War. For the dish, Kim prepared a clam jook (similar to porridge) with zucchini.

Chef Ji Hye Kim (Miss Kim) was responsible for the second course of the evening, Clam Jook with corn and zucchini. A vegan version of the dish was also available: Mushroom Jook with corn and zucchini. Ingredients for the dish were sourced from the following farms: Growing Hope and the Ugandan Community of Michigan farming project. 

“To her, she connected with the idea of losing a country and the idea of ‘how can I comfort this person who has experienced this sense of loss,’” Harvell says, “which led to her clam jook as that was often served during times of sickness as a way to comfort.”

Hales, however, had a different assignment. As the host chef for the event, Harvell assigned him an excerpt from the “Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman (President Biden’s inaugural poem). 

The verse reads:

If we’re to live up to our own time,

then victory won’t lie in the blade.

But in all the bridges we’ve made,

that is the promise to glade,

the hill we climb.

If only we dare.

It’s because being American is more

than a pride we inherit,

it’s the past we step into

and how we repair it.

“When I read this excerpt about allyship, I knew I wanted to do something with mushrooms because they represent strength, longevity, and transformation,” Hales says. “It reminds me of childhood and family and feeling supported.”

Hales prepared a Mushroom Roulade.

Chef Kieron Hales with Cornman Farms served as host chef for 13 Million Acres, thus he was responsible for the evening’s first course, a mushroom roulade, featuring the following local ingredients: Growing Hope: onions, basil, calendula (Growing Hope); thyme (Cadillac Urban Gardens); garlic, spinach, and rosemary (Oakland Avenue Urban Farms). 

Guests to the dining experience could learn more about Harvell’s selected excerpts, each chef’s dish, and their interpretation by scanning a QR code in the evening’s program.

“I don’t like menus to be overly explanatory in copy,” says Harvell. “I want the guests and chefs to think of this as an acoustic concert because these are very intimate settings.”

Harvell says she hopes to continue offering IDE events going forward because they are a great way to bridge cultures.

“By bringing different groups together we can use food as an accessible entry point to discuss more nuanced cultural topics,” she says. “They’re not just here to eat food, it’s a combination of in-polite conversation and experiential—all kicking off a journey of exploring.” 

All photos courtesy V.W Photography

Chef Oscar Moreno (MeXo) prepared the fourth course of the evening: tejuino marinated duck breast with bi-color atapakua, and mole negro. The vegan option included tamal sphere, cuitlacoche, garbanzo pulque salsa, and nopal cactus. Ingredients sourced from local farms included borage, calendula, and chives (Growing Hope); cilantro, tomatillos, and poblanos (Cadillac Urban Gardens); arugula and slicing tomatoes (Oakland Avenue Urban Farms) 

Natial de Miguel (Aventura), the evening's mixologist, work to perfect her signature cocktails.

Natalia de Miguel (Aventura) concocted a number of signature cocktails throughout the event, including: The Arboretum (bell pepper and jalapeño infused mezcal Vago, Hellfire bitters, agave, and lime); Sleeping Bear (chamomile-infused Rittenhouse Rye, ginger beer, and honey); Campus Martius (Elijah Craig Straight Rye, absinthe, Peychaud bitters); The Bridge (Bluecoat American Dry Gin, pear, tonic, and juniper berries); Guernica (Tequila Ocho Reposado, Domaine de Canton, grapefruit, and lemon bitters); Grandma's Hand (Deep Eddy Vodka, Pama, blackberries; Our Own Freedom (cacao nib-infused Tequila Ocho Reposado, dry curacao, and chocolate; Re-Rooted (bacon fat-washed Elijah Craig Bourbon, maple syrup, and angostura bitters); and Our’s Together (Elijah Craig Bourbon, RoosRoast Cold Brew, and Carolinas Irish Cream Liqueur). 

During the VIP Reception, Chef Oscar Moreno (MeXo) presented quail breast lollipops with zapoteco mole. The vegan option for the evening was a vegan fritter with Faba beans and epazote.  

Chef April Anderson (Good Cakes and Bakes) was responsible for the evening’s dessert: vanilla bean panna cotta, and salted caramel apple. The vegan option featured a salted caramel apple pie trifle. Ingredients sourced from local farm included borage and calendula from Growing Hope.  

Chef George Azar (Flowers of Vietnam) presented Charred Corn with Japanese Citrus Emulsion, and chile during a VIP reception prior to the 13 Million Acres dinner experience.  

The program for 13 Millon Acres embraced the aesthetic of the event’s locale at Cornman Farms by using neutral tones and rustic-style lettering.  

The third dish for the evening, from Chef Kiki Louya, was a fish kofta with molokhieh, yogurt, and pomegranate. The vegan option featured lentil kofta, molokhieh, cashew cream, and pomegranate. Ingredients sourced from local farms included parsley, lovage, spearmint, onion, calendula, cayenne, garlic (Growing Hope); cilantro (Cadillac Urban Gardens); Detroit red beets and spinach (Oakland Avenue Urban Farms). 

During the VIP Reception Chef Ji Hye Kim (Miss Kim) served a scallop, crispy pork, shiso, and tomato skewer. The vegan option featured: silken tofu, avocado, tomato, and shiso. 

The vegan version of Chef Ji Hye Kim (Miss Kim) appetizer during the VIP Reception featured silken tofu, avocado, tomato, and shiso. 

Amber Kispert

Senior Content Producer

Amber is the Senior Content Producer for Catersource. Amber previously worked as a Communications Specialist for LeClair Group and a reporter for the Woodbury Bulletin, both located in Woodbury, Minn.  As a self-described "foodie," Amber loves to experience the world of food and beverages, and is excited to help share the stories of Catersource and the world's caterers.