Epiphany or bust
Ken Myszka and friends traded Las Vegas culinary glamor for central Illinois farm life, all for the dream of opening the best restaurant in the world
Right to left: Ken Myszka his wife Nanam Yoon Myszka with Mike Mustard and Stu Hummel, left, at their 70-acre farm in rural Illinois near Downs on Friday, April 9, 2010. Their goal is to reinvent the restaurant industry, by producing every piece of food that will end up on the plates in their new restaurant in Bloomington. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune / April 8, 2010)
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.