Wellness Wednesday: Harpke Family Farm Dinner Series Featuring Chef Cleophus Hethington
The sun begins to set behind a plot of coconut palms, sprinkling the rest of Harpke Family Farm with sporadic rays of golden sunshine as “Joe’s Classic Daiquiri” is handed to me with a smile. Joe Durkin, co-founder and head distiller of South Florida Distillers Inc., eagerly explains the nuances of the welcoming cocktail - comprised of Fwaygo white rum, Florida Key lime, and sugarcane that was harvested that very morning.
The drink goes hand in hand with the atmosphere on Harpke Family Farm, warm and inviting with an air of anticipation for the Dinner Series featuring Chef Cleophus Hethington. Guests wander about, admiring the green heads of lettuce popping out of long hydroponic beds and noshing on boiled peanuts soaking in a liquid so filled with umami it tastes like it’s been cooked in meat stock (turns out it was just a top-secret blend of delicious spices). As snacks and drinks disappear into keen bellies, people begin making their way to the wooden tables set lavishly under the farm’s idiosyncratic chickee huts.
Tamer and Claire Harpke have the farm dinner routine down pat. Once Claire greets the last few stragglers ambling onto the property, Tamer gives an introductory speech and hands the floor over to Chef Cleo. Without giving too much away, he explains his background in multiple acclaimed restaurants - from The Cypress Room to Matador Room - and a bit of context in terms of his culinary identity. After working in so many French-style kitchens, Chef Cleo felt an urge to produce food that celebrates the African diaspora and his own cultural roots.
The menu for the night includes traditional components such as tamarind and oxtail, yet refuses to remain limited, venturing into fusion food from cassava leaf pesto to collard green kimchi (a highlight of the evening). The descriptions and ongoing theme of balancing modern technique with ingredients rich in history are set off by a mind-blowingly scrumptious starter of fried okra battered in coconut milk and cornmeal.
The satisfaction standard is truly set from the very first plated dish - doubles comprised of shiitakes, green onions, garlic, chickpeas, curry leaves, and cilantro. As much of the ingredients as could be harvested from the farm are included throughout the meal, which creates a profile blending freshness and comfort. The mussels are soon served, paired with local tamarind and cassava leaf pesto while swimming in a smoky stock that could entice even the strictest vegetarian and was even claimed by one guest to be “the best [they’ve] ever had”.
Primary dishes devoured, the meal intensifies with insanely tender oxtail sitting beside a mound of a carrot-cashew combination, which in turn gets uplifted by creamy celery root, dates, and a refreshing herb verde. The flavor fiesta is joined by a collard green kimchi that is so insanely good with its kick of spice and fermentation going on at least a year, I attempt to ask for a jar to take home. The savoury portion comes to a close with a dish of Senegalese snapper that guests literally witnessed the chef cook over an open fire just moments earlier together with a Kil’t composed of Harpke greens and a bacon Mostarda.
Dessert provided by pastry chefs Jeremy and Alissa Frice continues to amplify the collaborative energy buzzing amongst the producers of this feast. A pumpkin cornmeal pudding steamed in Seminole Pumpkin Blossoms (freshly sourced from Harpke, of course) takes innovative sweets to the next level as it melds together with a young ginger and kaffir lime ice cream as well as other playful components such as candied pumpkin seed toffee and bronze fennel garnish. The entire dish screams creativity and sums up the ongoing balance felt throughout the experience, from Tamer’s on point wine pairings to the aforementioned dishes to the pleasant company of curious consumers.
French press coffee is soon set out just in case anyone needed more soul-soothing, and friendly farewells are doled out as guests bask in the hospitable afterglow for as long as they can.
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