A Farmer-Chef’s Guide to Hosting Memorable Farm-to-Table Dinners
Phoebe Cole-Smith celebrates eating with the seasons at Dirt Road Farm in Weston, Connecticut
There was a time when certain foods appeared only once a year. Strawberries in June, corn on the cob in July, blueberries in August. Each page of the calendar promised new delights. The most perishable came and went in a few short weeks, and the community came together at picnics, socials, clambakes, and church suppers to celebrate and savor them.
Today, refrigeration, trains, and trucks make many of these foods available 12 months of the year. They are no longer special, so there is no reason to gather and enjoy them. The flavors of this produce, bred for transport and long shelf life, are mere echoes of their predecessors.
Thankfully, some folks still celebrate eating with the seasons, and Phoebe Cole-Smith is one. To introduce others to this way of eating, the farmer-chef and her company, Picnic, have hosted barn suppers at her farm in Weston, Connecticut, since 2015. Her dinners feature food so fresh that some was growing in her garden that morning.
On their five-and-a-half-acre Dirt Road Farm, she and her husband Mike Smith grow vegetables, herbs, and fruits, tend chickens and bees, and make maple syrup with the sap from hundreds of maple trees.
Other than ingredients that cannot grow in New England, such as lemons or olives, Cole-Smith cooks only with what is in season and locally grown. What she does not grow she sources from more than 30 nearby farms. Nothing is processed; everything is made from scratch, right down to the spirits in her signature aperitifs.
From the crabs caught in nearby Long Island Sound to the basil growing at her back door, the French concept of terroir—how the climate, soils, and terrain of a place influence the flavor of what grows or lives in it—is integral to Cole-Smith’s food ethos.
It is the only way Cole-Smith knows. She grew up eating from the family’s vegetable garden. After studying at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan (now the International Culinary Center), she worked at the famed Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York.
When planning a dinner, Cole-Smith starts with what’s in season. “I look to see what’s ready to pick,” she says. “I’ll combine what I feel like eating with what goes with something else. I’m looking for a balance.”
Lori Cochran-Dougall, a friend and the executive director of the Westport Farmers’ Market, says, “Phoebe is all about how to capture the best flavor, and she does it by making simple dishes with better ingredients.”
Cole-Smith welcomes guests with a cocktail of her own invention and a starter such as raw spring vegetables, accompanied by wild garlic mustard salsa verde. All of these are served outdoors. Guests can settle in by a roaring fire pit or wander the gardens, visit the chickens, and see where some of their dinner comes from.
The main courses are served in a candlelit barn. There may be local oysters or a grilled wedge of romaine with buttermilk dressing. A ramp-wrapped wild halibut or herb-crusted rack of lamb follows. Dessert might be a rhubarb galette with sweet woodruff ice cream. The evening ends with a mint tisane, honey from the farm’s own hives, and cookies glazed with delicate Johnny-jump-up petals.
Cole-Smith knows that the eye eats too, and that the setting of a dinner is as important as the food. Flower arrangements are everywhere—though “arrangement” implies stiffness and these bouquets are anything but. ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas and Japanese anemones spill out of sap buckets while ferns, purple alliums, and orange cosmos fill vases. A sprig of aromatic sage sits on each napkin.
Create a cozy, rustic atmosphere
“I love to create the whole space—the food, decor, music, lighting,” she says, aiming to create a mood she calls “rustic but comfy.” Decor is cozy and uncomplicated: Mismatched chairs surround an antique farm table and bistro lights lend a soft glow. “It’s intimate, pretty, dreamy,” Cole-Smith says. A Spotify playlist featuring current folk artists plays in the background.
No detail is too small. Even the colors of the ink on the custom-made menus relate to the season. “I choose two colors from what is ripe or blooming on the property at that time and use them for the typeface,” she says.
A friend, ceramist Frances Palmer, made the dinnerware and vases, and the table linens are by another friend, Elizabeth Eakins. “Everything I use has a personal connection,” Cole-Smith says. These handmade touches, plus flowers and candlelight, create an atmosphere that encourages conversation and relaxation even among strangers.
“We spend a lot of time in restaurants nowadays,” Cochran-Dougall says. “This kind of dining is a different experience. You don’t come expecting a 7 p.m. dinner reservation. It’s really an old style of dining—the evening flows, the conversation fills the space, and the courses come out when they’re ready.”
Maintain a slow, relaxed pace
The pace reflects one of Cole-Smith’s key pieces of dinner-party advice: Do not rush. Her dinners usually run 4 unhurried hours. The food, the conversation, the camaraderie, and the ambience are to be savored. It is Cole-Smith’s hope that the experience resonates with her guests in a way that goes beyond the simple enjoyment of her cooking.
The expression “farm-to-table” is so overused, but people are longing to connect,” Cochran-Dougall says. “They want authenticity.” Cole-Smith’s menus name each of the “growers, makers, gatherers, and nurturers” who contributed to the meal.
She wants people to leave the evening feeling that they not only enjoyed a memorable dinner but were participants in a meaningful and time-honored tradition observed by cultures throughout the world.
“When we know the farmers who grow our food, the bakers who bake our bread, the potter who crafts our plates; when we share at a communal table of friends and strangers, we have the feeling that the world is not in fact such a big, impersonal place and that we are all connected through the simplest act in the simplest of circumstances,” Cole-Smith says. “This is community, and everyone belongs.”
Besides the food, highlights of Phoebe Cole-Smith’s barn suppers at Dirt Road Farm are the abundant flower arrangements. One of her favorite tasks before the dinners is picking and arranging the flowers. Here she shares some tips.
1. Shop your yard
“I don’t buy flowers; I use all my own plant material—there’s always enough,” she says. In addition to her cutting garden, Cole-Smith harvests material from the surrounding woods and fields, even the side of the road. “I keep pruners in my car,” she says.
2. Go beyond blossoms
The best arrangements overflow with all kinds of plant material, not just flowers. Use the leaves and branches from trees and shrubs, herbs, vegetables, and fruits in all stages of ripeness.
3. Harvest and hold
Gather your flowers the night before and hold them in large buckets of water in a cool, dark place before assembling.
4. Keep it loose and unfussy
“Don’t get too hung up on the arrangement, just throw everything together,” Cole-Smith says. The heaviest plant material goes in first. Allow flowers to prop each other up.
Dirt Road Farm Midsummer Purple Basil Vodka Gimlet
(Makes 6 drinks)
1 cup Purple Basil Simple Syrup (recipe below)
3⁄4 cup vodka
3⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup ice cubes
6 flowering purple basil sprigs or purple basil leaves, for garnish
Put all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously, then strain into martini glasses. Garnish each drink with a basil sprig or leaf.
Purple Basil Simple Syrup*
(Makes about 21⁄2 cups)
2 large handfuls of purple basil leaves/sprigs from the garden (Phoebe Cole-Smith likes dark opal basil)
2 cups fair-trade cane sugar
2 cups water
Place the basil in a half-gallon glass jar. Boil sugar and water in a saucepan until sugar is dissolved. Pour hot liquid over basil, cover, and let stand until cool. Syrup should be a beautiful deep rosy-lavender color. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing down on the solids, and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
*Delicious for iced tea as well.
Visit Dirt Road Farm
71 Newtown Turnpike
Weston, CT 06883
MONTHLY Barn suppers are held from May through October. Reservations are necessary; no drop-ins. Click below for schedule and reservations.