When we think about engaging with a national park, our minds are likely to conjure images of camping, hiking, or kayaking. True enough, all of those things are readily available right here in the expansive 33,000 acres of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but visitors to Ohio’s only national park can also connect to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and its history through food.
Chef Larkin Rogers isn’t a park ranger, but she does act as an interpretive guide of sorts, helping visitors engage with the park in a different way—through food-related education and programming. Because of Larkin, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had an enviable restaurant career abroad, there’s more cooking within our verdant parklands than campfire hot dogs and s’mores.
“I used cooking as an excuse to travel,” she says. For two decades, Larkin cooked in restaurants all over the world—Scotland, Germany, and Austria—and helmed the kitchen at the prestigious Gidleigh Park, a luxury hotel and restaurant on the River Teign in England. She later opened her own intimate farm-to-fork restaurant, Martha’s Vineyard, in Great Britain that earned her fame akin to today’s “celebrity chefs.”
Chef Larkin’s return to Northeast Ohio eventually led her to the banks of another river, the Cuyahoga, where the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park was establishing food-related education and programming. Food offers an additional platform to advocate for and promote the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the 11th-most visited national park in the U.S.
As the Conservancy’s executive catering chef, she promotes the area’s distinctive attributes through events and educational outreach. Food is always an important character in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park story, particularly when you consider how the canal and the railroad drew people of multiple cultures to the region in search of work.
“Our main program is the monthly Dinner in the Valley series, and I have free rein to introduce a topic or a theme, where I’ll often draw upon historic elements,” she says.
These intimate dinners are held at venues throughout the park, many of which have historical significance. Menus reflect themes selected by Larkin, and dishes are composed of ingredients that are sourced from the park’s sustainable farms or grown in a garden and hoop house at the Environmental Education Center. Dinners may incorporate locally grown blueberries, foraged ramps, or Ohio-raised meats. Some feature the traditions of cultures with links to the Ohio & Erie Canalway or an important historical moment.
A recent Alpine-themed dinner enabled Larkin to reprise her time abroad. Delighted diners enjoyed Ohio-made charcuterie served with a decadent, wine-infused emmenthaler and gruyère fondue. Providing diners a playful way to connect with one another over a shared meal is always part of the plan.
Speaking of her culinary point of view, Larkin adds, “My role gives me ample opportunity to explore Northeast Ohio’s historic foodways and to incorporate products from our local farms into our menus. From this, I can tell the park’s unique story and bring the earlier inhabitants into focus.” Larkin is an avid supporter of the Countryside Conservancy’s farmers market and the 11 local sustainable farms they maintain in the national park.
Our backyard national park may not present to us “purple mountain majesties,” a famous landmark, or a battlefield, but Larkin believes what we have here is just as worthy of admiration.
“We have a quieter, gentler story that may not be as thrilling, but it is important,” she says.
Information on upcoming events in Chef Larkin’s Dinner in the Valley series and other programs can be found at ConservancyForCVNP.org.