Q&A about Chautauqua-in-Chagrin

This summer, back by popular demand, Chautauqua-in-Chagrin will host Sustainable Table Part 2 on July 28 with a whole new line up of local food champions who will discuss the importance of seasonality, flavor, farming, and creativity. Speakers include:

  • Ben Bebenroth – Chef, Founder, Farmer, The Spice Companies
  • Saul Kliorys – Sustainability Manager, Great Lakes Brewing Co.
  • Jean Mackenzie – Owner, Mackenzie Creamery
  • James Simpson – Chef Liaison, The Chefs Garden and Executive Chef, Culinary Vegetable Institute (the photo above supplied by Chagrin Arts is one of his delicious creations)
  • Moderated by Jay Szabo – Horitculturalist, Urban Farmer, Landscape Designer.

We caught up with the Executive Director of Chagrin Arts, Karen Lazar, and one of the participants, Chef Ben Bebenroth, to find out more about the event and get a sneak peek at what you might hear from featured epicureans.


Karen, tell us a little bit about Chagrin Arts and Chautauqua-in-Chagrin?

Karen:  Chagrin Arts presents performing arts programs and lectures. The former is primarily through our Performing Arts Series and the latter through Chautauqua-in-Chagrin, our summer lecture series.

For the past eight summers, Chagrin Arts has presented Chautauqua-in-Chagrin, a series of stimulating, interactive dialogues and Young Readers programs (through the Chagrin Falls Library) taking place on four summer evenings in Chagrin Falls. As a member of the Chautauqua Trail, we develop our series based on the four pillars of the Chautauqua Movement: arts, education, religion, and recreation. The themes for this year include family history, the value of water, marijuana, and the sustainable table.


Last year was the first time you hosted The Sustainable Table. Why did you decide to add food as a topic in this series?

Karen:  Sustainable food practices are quickly becoming a mainstay of our economy and our lives. Clevelanders have embraced the importance of sustainability in so many ways and we wanted to highlight some of those people and initiatives. Last year the discussion included so many layers relating to the entity we call “food” and our patrons asked for more. In response to that request, we are happy to host “The Sustainable Table – Part 2” this summer.


Can you give us a hint about what you were looking for in selecting speakers for the program this year?

Karen:  Our Programming Committee worked tirelessly to finalize the group we are so proud to have, including individuals who represent both a historical and artistic spectrum of the sustainable table. Ben Bebenroth’s life emphasizes the relationship between the farm and the dining table. Saul Kliorys and Jean Mackenzie are with companies that from their beginning based their product development on the importance of sustainability. Jamie Simpson is a chef who has a passion about the connection between art and food. Moderator Jay Szabo is a horticulturalist who is both an urban farmer and a gardening advisor. We wanted our patrons to have a tasting from “soup to nuts” of what continues to evolve within our local food scene and this group of panelists will definitely deliver.


Ben, saying you’re busy is an understatement as you juggle being a chef, restauranteur, farmer, and family man. Why did you carve out the time to participate in The Sustainable Table?

Ben:  I believe whole-heartedly in what we are doing right now. Yes, it is very time consuming and all-encompassing, especially living on farm, surrounded by constant improvement and possibility. It can be a very great challenge and an equally great opportunity. Unless we prioritize the need for regional sustainable food systems and the even greater need to fund them, people could very well continue to eat fast food. That is not acceptable. We must change now, so I absolutely need to be participating in programs like The Sustainable Table.


We know you care about promoting eating local, so can you explain to those that think this is just a fad why you think it’s more than that?

Ben:  Local foods raised sustainably can begin to sound a bit overplayed in this day and age. The reason it has been repeated and discussed and made into a purchase frenzy fueled buzzword is because it is inevitable. Local eating isn’t a fad, the American food system is a fad.

Industrial agriculture is a fad like stonewashed jeans. The miracle of the January strawberry in Cleveland is obviously only afforded to these few generations through the constant draining of fossil fuel resources. Much to the chagrin of existing infrastructure and business alike, an end to times like these is fast approaching. Peak oil is gone.

My point being that local foods is actually just people feeding themselves. Period.

What we have now is basically a dozen massive food commodity brokers feeding us through rail cars and tractor trailers full of corn and soy in its many glorious forms. Hey man, I love tortilla chips and guac ok? I’m a sinner, whatever. I’m just saying if a whole lot of people don’t get some chestnuts and currants planted soon were gonna be up a creek.


Tell us how you moved from locavore champion to sustainable farming advocate?

Ben:  I guess I just went from cooking food and loving the limitless creativity of it into the production of food and the connection to the land that provides for it. I have always been so connected to the little bits of food I would grow for the restaurant and catering company. I wanted that intimate connection between the guest and the product and the plate. To be able to plant something specifically for someone’s event and watch it come into play both agriculturally and culinarily is such a thrill.

I also started getting more concerned with what we were throwing away in the landfills than what we were putting on the plates. For example, we were really busy tonight and the thing I was talking about most at the end of the night was the trash can next to dish. It’s frustrating to watch fresh herbs coming back from a catering display and going into a trash can. Of all the options between “go back cooler” to “compost bin”  to “pig feed” bucket that stuff still made it into the trash can, just to rot in some big pile somewhere. There’s a lot of work to be done. It’s not easy to see things through this vision.

We are in it. We are living it. We believe more than anything, that this is what we will leave behind. It’s not about truffles for us, it’s about getting the most out of what we’ve got when we have it.


How do your Plated Landscapes Dinners fit into your mission to promote local, seasonal, and sustainable food?

Ben:  Nothing is more local, seasonal, and sustainable than enjoying ingredients in the place where they were raised. It’s simple—create an opportunity for farmers and customers to break bread together and exchange a little education, and presto—you cultivate lifelong advocates.


What do you hope the audience takes away from The Sustainable Table dialogue this year?

Karen:  I hope they have a greater understanding of the scope of sustainable practices and both the short-term and long-term benefits it has on our health and our environment. I also hope our patrons get excited about what is happening in this area and the puzzle pieces that are coming together from a myriad of individuals and companies to form a true caring community.

Ben:  Lasting motivation to spend time and money with companies that do the right thing for the right reasons. To talk about local foods and eat at the Cheesecake Factory is pointless. Put your money where your mouth is and prioritize local farmers markets and restaurants.


Before you go, our theme for Edible Cleveland‘s summer issue is “Field Trip” so can you share one place you’d encourage folks to visit this summer to experience something special about our local food community?

Karen:  I would encourage folks to visit Rid-All Green Partnership and to learn their story and to see how a dream and a vision came to fruition and changed a community.

Ben:  Quarry Hill Orchards in Berlin Heights.