By Dan Nienaber
---- — ST. PETER — With her fingers already nimble from scrubbing a bushel of potatoes, Lupita Marchan made her way through rows of basil at her Living Land Farm just north of St. Peter.
The tasty leaves were fresh and fragrant as she plucked them from their stems and prepared them for shipment. They didn't have far to go Tuesday, just three miles to be exact. Two hours later Marchan's pile of basil was washed and heaped in a cafe kitchen, one of the main attractions in a television shoot for a cooking show set to air this fall.
A crew from Twin Cities Public Television was at River Rock Coffee in St. Peter Tuesday filming a segment for "Farm Fresh Road Trip," a show that will highlight Minnesota cafes that use locally grown produce and meat for the meals they serve. The show is the second one to be filmed through a partnership between the television station, the Minnesota Farmers Union and the union's Minnesota Cooks campaign.
Six restaurants, stretching from Duluth down to St. Peter, will be used to highlight an appetizer, a starter dish, a salad, a lunch, a dinner and a dessert. River Rock Coffee owner Tamika Bertram and her chef, Montana Rasmussen, were taking care of the final dish: blueberry basil coconut Bundt cake. It was served with a cold glass of basil lemonade.
Being in charge of dessert will make River Rock Coffee the last cafe shown on the show.
"So St. Peter will be the exclamation point on our tour around the state," said the show's public television host, Mary Lahammer.
The idea for "Farm Fresh Road Trip" shows started at the Minnesota State Fair. Every year Minnesota Cooks hosts a show at the fair that, like the show, gives area chefs a chance to show the ways they use locally grown goods in their recipes. Many of the chefs, and the farmers who supply them, are also featured in a Minnesota Cooks calendar that is released during the fair.
Lahammer started her relationship with Minnesota Cooks as a celebrity taster at the fair. She is now the host of the fair show and said she is hoping to do more road trip shows after the one featuring River Rock Coffee airs.
Minnesota Cooks is an educational outreach program for the Minnesota Farmers Union. Its staff educates the public about local farmers, the benefits of locally grown foods and the businesses that use those farm products.
"We're trying to show people locally grown food that can be produced in simple and easy ways in restaurants and regular kitchens," said Bruce Miller, Minnesota Cooks statewide director. "I'm hoping people come to a better understanding that Minnesota grown and locally grown foods are an important part of keeping family farms alive in Minnesota."
Marchan and her husband, Adam Ellefson, were featured in last year's Minnesota Cooks calendar along with Bertram and Rasmussen. All four were also at the fair last year, showing a crowd how to cook a favorite dish. That led to the selection of Living Land Farm and River Rock Coffee for the second road trip show, Miller said.
The local farmers and cooks were at last year's fair because River Rock Coffee is one of Miller's favorite places to stop for lunch when he's traveling to Mankato for meetings with the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and other farm organizations.
Bertram has focused on using Minnesota grown products since she opened River Rock Coffee 12 years ago. She said local food is healthier and better tasting because it doesn't spend days or weeks being hauled across the country in a semi trailer. The attention her cafe has gained through the fair and television shows has helped her get that message out both locally and throughout the state.
"This is great because we love teaching people," Bertram said as she prepared her kitchen for the television crew. "It gives us an awesome opportunity to talk about what we do. Plus it's fun.
"Whenever it's about flavor, everything tastes better if it gets to the table faster."
Well over 50 percent of what Rasmussen uses to prepare her dishes year round is produced in Minnesota. Now is a prime time at the cafe, she said, because many of the favorite foods that can't be stored through the winter are being harvested.
She said she was looking forward to cooking for the television show because it will show Twin Cities viewers that the trend of using local meat and produce in restaurants isn't just happening in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Each of those cities will have a restaurant featured in the show, but the three remaining restaurants besides River Rock Coffee are in Duluth, Vergas and Hutchinson.
Ellefson said the publicity is helping his business, too. Supplying the cafe and St. Peter Food Co-op makes up about a third of the business for Living Land Farm.
He and Marchan also supply about 75 residential customers with produce. Those customers receive weekly boxes of produce for 18 weeks by buying a $530 annual share or bi-weekly boxes of food for nine weeks by buying a $290 half share. They have drop off sites in both St. Peter and Mankato.