2016 Get Local Party

Harvest Dinner Memories and Insight From Simon Joseph, Head Chef

September 21, 2018 |

Above: Simon Joseph with some of the team—wife Rebecca Brown (L) and Sarah Humpula—during the 2017 Harvest Dinner.

Simon Joseph became one of Traverse City’s iconic restaurateurs when he played a central role in launching the TC food truck movement and then followed by opening Harvest restaurant, Gaijin (now closed) and Alley’s Market. What is less known is that Simon has brought his talent and team to run the kitchen at Harvest Dinner ever since the original event. This year marks the fifth time he has done so. One big change for 2018 has been connecting early with other chefs in town to plan the menu and to play a bigger role in coordinating the many food details. We asked Simon to take a break from restaurant work to share some thoughts about the Groundwork Harvest Dinner on October 13, and why he’s still all in for a fifth year.

Can we start by asking you to think back to that first Harvest Dinner? What memories float to the top?

When we were first approached, it just seemed like a good fit. Back then we had Roaming Harvest food truck and had just opened Harvest restaurant, in the alley. We were about street food, and Harvest was a community-positioned event, so it just seemed natural. We had nine people back then, so a dinner for 450 people was a big lift. I stayed up for two days! I reached out to other chefs who came that night and were a big help.

Below: Imploring people to do the obvious thing at Simon Joseph’s Harvest restaurant.

Are there any Harvest Dinner traditions established yet?

One thing I’ve always loved is the idea of it being a family-style meal. Everybody is sharing. And the first thing that happens is we bring out a big salad and a big loaf of bread. We cut the bread, but not all the way through. And the first thing that happens, then, is people tear the bread, and it’s an ice-breaker. It disarms people. It gets people talking. That tradition has carried through.

This year’s chef collaboration model seems right for Harvest.

I think it is a better fit, when you think about what Groundwork stands for, and the farmers, chefs, beer makers, winemakers and everybody contributing what they can to make a true community event with local food and having a celebration of that.

There is a core group of six chefs doing the planning and menu development, and they will all be there day-of, but I’d anticipate another four to six showing up to help, be hands on. Fortunately, we have an environment here in TC where we are all willing to be dishwashers. None of us has to be the chef up front. It’s more about collaboration, contributing equally.

Below: Harvest restaurant bar.

And the farmers …

I do think the relationship between the farms and restaurants here is unique. It is a positive and beautiful thing. It’s a really great thing that a chef can call a local farmer and run out and grab this or that, and then spend time with the farmer learning more about what’s growing. Or even learning more about farming, like, why the tomatoes are turning out great on top of the hill, but not as well down the hill. It’s this hyper-connectivity to local agriculture that creates an environment where we cannot screw up the good things grown.

You’ve mentioned a couple of times that this is a big lift, yet you stay involved. Why?

I look at advocacy through action. Roaming Harvest food truck is a form of advocacy for eating local. And that dovetails with everything Groundwork does … Line 5, school lunches, transportation, that all dovetails. It’s moving forward on more local, more sustainable, more organic.

Below: Simon and the Harvest restaurant map of states, each given a pork nickname.

What about any lasting impact from a straight-up food culture standpoint?

This is a good way to open people’s eyes that this kind of event is even possible with local food. But it also proves that we can eat this way every day if we want to. This needs to become the rule as opposed to the exception. And we are on our way. For this event to have grown to this size … it’s an impactful thing.

Anything else?