DOWNS, Ill. — We're standing by the chickens. There are white and brown hens, 70 in all, strutting along the lush green backyard and pecking for grubs. Not far away are two pregnant pigs named Mortadella and Pancetta. There's a greenhouse — broccoli, kohlrabi, arugula and lettuce as big as beach balls. City folks come here, look up and remember how far the blue sky can stretch.
Farm life in central Illinois is a placid existence, as far removed from Las Vegas as one can get. Vegas was where Ken Myszka worked 18 months ago. He was a big-city chef cooking under four-star chefs Thomas Keller and Guy Savoy. Last year, he left job security, packed everything he owned into a flatbed truck and drove east.
Now we're here, standing by the chickens.
"So you want to open the best restaurant in town?" I asked.
"No," Myszka said. "The world."
Try holding a conversation with Ken Myszka without sensing some hubris. But he delivers it with such doe-eyed optimism, a 26-year-old with a world-is-his-oyster grin, you can't help but drink his Kool-Aid.
Myszka, his wife and two colleagues believe they can reinvent the restaurant model, in an industry where half go out of business within 18 months.
They want to open a restaurant on the level of Alinea, in a town more famous for Steak 'n Shake, and they want everything on the plate to be raised and grown themselves.
To do that, they traded in their chef's whites for shovels, urban life for the agrarian life. Myszka needed to move back home. Together, they have little farming experience, yet that's what they've become, farmers in the town of Downs, population 760.
What makes them think they can pull it off?
Myszka was a C and D student. Then he enrolled in his high school's culinary arts program and learned about the Culinary Institute of America in New York, the Harvard of cooking schools. He finished his senior year with straight A's.
Myszka (pronounced Mish-kah) graduated from the institute and entered the hospitality management program at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He cooked at Bouchon for Thomas Keller, arguably the most celebrated chef in America, and worked his way through the posh Vegas restaurant scene. He eventually landed at Guy Savoy, a pillar of modern French gastronomy, where entrees averaged $80 a plate.
It was during a monotonous prep job in the kitchen that Myszka found himself staring at carrots he was slicing. He wondered, "Who harvested these? How do we know no pesticides were used?"
Then came the thought that launched a thousand ideas: "Why can't the person who bags the carrots at the farm be the same guy who opens the bag in the kitchen?"
His question fell in line with the then-burgeoning movement known as "local food." It's the idea that consumers — for reasons economical, nutritional and ethical — should eat food raised in their communities, rather than trucked from thousands of miles away. In the dining industry, one-third of a restaurant's revenue goes to food costs, which in turn reflect the costs of shipping and fuel.
Myszka figured it was time to try a new approach — to do everything himself. He would grow the vegetables. Till the land. Raise the cows. Collect the eggs. Bring ingredients from farm to restaurant. Cook the food. Serve to customers.
Myszka called his mother at 2 a.m. to explain his epiphany. He'd call it Epiphany Farms, and he would build it from the dirt up on the property he grew up on in Downs.
"It was like he was on cloud nine, jumping up and down," said his mom, Kim.
Now he needed to persuade others to join him.
Mike Mustard had the reputation of having a thoroughbred's stamina. He cooked at Alain Ducasse's Mix until midnight, then drive an hour outside Vegas to volunteer at a university research farm. He slept in his car for the better part of a year.
Myszka met with Mustard over many months, selling him on the Epiphany concept. Burned out by Vegas, Mustard said yes.
Myszka's second convert was Stu Hummel. He was working for French chef Joel Robuchon, who lays claim to more Michelin stars than any chef in the world. Myszka brought Hummel to Downs to envision what Epiphany Farms could be. The drive from Downs back to Chicago was a two-hour sales pitch, an ultimately successful one.
"A chef's job is a cycle of creative highs," explained the 24-year-old Mustard. "Then the life is sucked out of you after a year, and you move jobs and it starts again."
To convince his girlfriend, Nanam Yoon, Myszka had to pull off his greatest sell yet. One problem: Yoon had accepted a position after graduation at Samsung. The job was in Korea.
Myszka traveled to Seoul to make his appeal. But first, he asked Yoon to marry him. She said yes. His return ticket to America wasn't for another month. He would need that much time to convince Yoon's parents in Seoul that their daughter should leave a prestigious job, her family, friends and familiar comforts to live on a farm in Middle America.
Epiphany Farms is a two-hour drive from downtown Chicago, past the Bloomington-Normal airport, past a couple of cemeteries and down a two-lane country road where folks drive as fast as they want.
Half a mile up the driveway is the stately three-story childhood home of Myszka.
Though he lived in farm country as a child, his parents were never in the business. When Myszka moved back in a year and a half ago (his parents no longer live there), he spent three straight months reading. His thrice-read copy of Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is dog-eared and worn. He drove two hours to hear lectures by Joel Salatin, featured prominently in Pollan's book, whose Polyface Farm in Virginia is the standard-bearer for environmentally responsible farming. He bought books by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the modern agricultural thinkers who preached the idea of permaculture, where farms mimic the ecology of nature.
Using his savings and a loan from his dad, Myszka made his first purchases: $300 in seeds, materials for a greenhouse, eight cows, eight pigs and 100 hens.
If the 77-acre Epiphany Farms can do as they say, food costs would be converted to farm and labor costs, with Mother Nature doing the heavy lifting. Fruits regenerate seeds, bees produce honey, morels sprout from the woods. The only cost for eggs is chicken feed for the hens.
The model is based on a three-year plan. Year One was research and building the farm. Right now, they're in Year Two, farming and setting up the operations. By next spring, Year Three, they will open their yet-to-be-named restaurant, in a space already leased in downtown Bloomington. The restaurant will only be open for dinner Thursday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday, the day's menu determined by the morning harvest. The rest of the week will be spent on the farm.
One source of income, they hope, is selling their produce, meats and prepared foods at local farmers markets. Cooking classes are in the business plan. And if everything works, they would like to franchise the Epiphany Farms concept across the country, then the globe.
Until then, they are getting by on help from Myszka's dad and money from selling produce and cooking at private dinner parties on weekends.
The dinner party was held at the home of a State Farm executive in an upscale neighborhood of Bloomington. The table was bedecked with fine china, polished silverware and name cards for each guest. Myszka, Mustard and Hummel wore their chef's aprons and began their performance.
Myszka did what he does best: sell. He spoke of the symbiotic relationships between his foods. "What grows together, goes together," he said. This was illustrated by the opening course, a scrambled egg with cauliflower puree, roasted mushrooms and onions, using the sawed-off egg shell as a serving bowl. The shell nestled in a bed of ground corn, oats and soybeans — chicken feed.
The courses progressed to a braised beef cheek cannelloni, a spring roll of pork loin with Vietnamese mint, Thai and lemon basil, then a Korean "mandoo" pork belly dumpling. The beef consomme was ethereal. The highlight was a pressed chocolate peanut bar with malted barley ice cream and condensed milk caramel.
This was mature, thoughtful food, executed with precision. The saucing was minimal, which showed a confidence in their ingredients, which of course, they were directly responsible for.
Naysayers exist. Some are turned off by these city kids coming into their country, telling them their way of farming is antiquated and wrong.
None of these critics would speak on the record. A farmer who once worked with Myszka backed out of an interview at the last minute, but said Myszka came across as a cocky know-it-all who doesn't have the first clue about farming.
When Myszka's parents described their oldest son, they used the words "passionate," "enthusiastic," "gullible" and "a bit stubborn."
Myszka didn't have the grades to enter the Culinary Institute of America, but talked himself into an on-campus interview. His mother accompanied and watched, from across the room, as Myszka spoke to the admissions officer, leaning forward, gesturing with his arms, a controlled flail. Myszka was accepted on the spot.
"My dad always said I could sell snow to an Eskimo," Myszka said.
But Myszka's farming philosophy goes up against 70 years of modern agriculture: crops aided by chemicals and animals treated with hormones and antibiotics. Indoor factory farming has became the norm.
Said Salatin, whose farming philosophy is Myszka's chief influence: "If what Epiphany Farms is suggesting and doing and demonstrating becomes normal, it will completely invert the entire power-profit-prestige structure of the food system in the developed world."
The closest model to Epiphany Farms is the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester, N.Y., a nonprofit center that educates on farming sustainability. The center is attached to a restaurant, Blue Hill, whose co-owner Dan Barber won the 2009 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef.
"Elitist, expensive, impractical — these kind of accusations come with the territory," Barber said. "On the other hand, these chefs have built a platform to show the relationship between sustainability, pleasure and good food. When people come and actually experience that, it's transformative."
The big question is whether Bloomington, in this economy, can support a high-end restaurant. That's the great unknown.
Living on the farm, the tempo slows. Days go by with chores that seem mundane, but for chefs used to working in unventilated kitchens, this boots-in-the-mud life is a welcome change.
Everything is elbow grease; they don't even own a tractor. Mustard plugs lettuce seeds one by one into hundreds of plastic trays. Myszka runs his hands through a tray of soil, soft and fluffy, admiring it. Hummel walks by and inhales loudly.
"It smells like life down here," he said.
A short while later, Hummel is navigating the woods behind the farm when a steady rain begins to fall.
Las Vegas was sensory overload central. Here, Hummel comes out to contemplate, and listen, and smell, and look around.
The first time a seed he planted sprouted from the soil (it was a radish), it brought an elation he couldn't explain, he said.
"I didn't understand until I put the seeds in the ground, covered them with soil and watered them; I didn't feel that connection," said the 27-year-old Hummel. "It was complete satisfaction and gratification."
One time, Myszka was inside the house and felt a strange unease. He ran out the front door and saw his potbellied pig, Sherry, had escaped.
Another time, Myszka, Mustard and Hummel were working on three different ends of the farm. Suddenly and simultaneously, something compelled them to run toward the back woods. They were brought together, chasing after wild turkeys. They can't explain it.
"We never had those sort of instincts," Myszka said.
Yoon has eased into the role of accountant/manager/dinner party booker, but the adjustment has been hardest for her. She has lived the city life all 26 of her years, growing up in Seoul, an urban jungle of 25 million people. Her only idea of America was five years in Las Vegas. Yoon wondered where all the strip clubs were when she first arrived in Downs.
"It's tougher than I thought. Living with Americans and sharing ideas in English, it's different," Yoon said. "But I believed the concept from the beginning."
There's almost no time for socializing. The television is used for one thing: monitoring the local weather channel. This farm has become their reason for being.
Their idea of entertainment is watching the documentaries "Food, Inc." and "An Inconvenient Truth."
Between working as a Vegas chef and now on the farm, Mustard said he hasn't gone on a date in two years. The only lady to express interest is a hen who has taken a liking to him, following him around the property.
Then there's Hummel: He's hoping the warmer months will improve his social life. What girl wouldn't want to be cooked for and pampered by a chef?
"I told him, you gotta bring a woman back here. That'll all change," Myszka said. "But can you imagine trying to satisfy a relationship with someone who wasn't down with this concept?"
Epiphany's goals are ambitious, and even they admit there are unforeseen factors that could derail their plans.
But Myszka and Co. now see this as a moral imperative.
"If I can't make the restaurant work, it doesn't matter. I'm going to grow food for myself, my family and the surplus will feed the community. I just hope I could influence people to taste and experience the joy that nature has to offer." Myszka said.
"But if all we grew were lettuce, tomatoes and ground beef, I'll just open up a burger stand."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun