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Famous chefs show support for Veggie U

Jessica Cuffman • Jul 23, 2012 at 10:44 AM

Take 30 chefs from across the country, including headliner Robert Irvine, seemingly endless dishes with countless fresh ingredients straight from the garden, throw in a few glasses of wine and exclusive items for auction, and what do you get?

More than 1,000 food enthusiasts flocking to Milan for the 10th annual fundraiser for Veggie U, a nonprofit with the mission to educate children across the country on the benefits of garden to table nutrition.

It's no small feat coaxing Food Network and Bravo chefs to take an entire weekend to benefit a great cause.

But the Jones family, owner of Chef's Garden in Huron and pioneer of Veggie U, have cultivated their relationships and business with the chefs for years to throw the biggest food and wine celebration yet.

Irvine has been buying produce from Farmer Lee Jones since 1997, so when first lady Michelle Obama asked Irvine to help her develop a program to curb childhood obesity in America, he thought of only one person: Farmer Jones and Veggie U.

"There's only one guy in this country that does it well, old style," Irvine said.

The whole Jones family believes in the garden to table philosophy. It started with Chef's Garden, providing truly organic produce ready to pluck and eat right out of the soil.

Then 10 years ago, they started Veggie U. Now the program is in 29 states across the country, with plans to get it into every fourth-grade classroom in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., with a sponsorship from Chipotle.

That's what Saturday night was all about, hundreds of staff and volunteers bringing in cash to keep the program going.

It costs $450 to get the program started in each classroom. The money from Saturday's tickets to the event and dozens of silent and live auction items, including dinner compliments of many of the chefs done up right in your own home, will keep the program going for awhile.

But anyone can be a sponsor for a classroom year-round. Once a teacher gets started, the program is sustainable from year to year, teaching kids about the value and tastiness of cooking with vegetables straight from their own gardens.

Tasting booths across the Veggie U grounds Saturday, each manned by a different chef, were prime examples of how to use the garden.

Chef Zane Holmquist, of the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Utah, has been coming to the fundraiser for seven years.

Planning his menu, he wanted to bring in the Scandinavian feel of the lodge's Olympic champion skier from Norway, and the Utah elk -- landing him with a Swedish elk meatball with huckleberry jam, pickled kohlrabi and a deviled egg.

He keeps coming back each year because the weekend recharges his battery.

"There's a lot of people here who understand what I do," he said. "They don't go home at 5 or 6. We're there until the work is done, at 8, or 2 a.m."

And the Jones family, he said, are on a mission to make garden to table nutrition a viable thing for all children.

That's why Richard Gras, a sous chef at the St. Regis Bel Harbor in Florida, comes back every year, too.

"This is the way every chef should cook," he said. "It represents the best; the way people should eat."

The Barcelona and Florida influence dish he whipped up, literally, with a green pea and mint mousse-like topping over rabbit with a radish on the side, used ingredients right from the Veggie U garden.

"They do such an awesome job of making it pure," Irvine said about the Jones farming and cooking philosophy. "They're genuine, beautiful people."

Coming Monday

Pick up a copy of Monday's Register for a Q&A with Food Network Chef Robert Irvine, host of Restaurant Impossible.

Learn what he makes of his Ohio visits, including a recent trip to Moss, in Elyria, where he went to check up on the chef and how her restaurant is doing since he took two days and $10,000 to revive the business.

And why does Irvine seem so mean on his show? He's not. He's intense. Read about his reasons why.

Check out the video interview with him above.

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