By Jolee Keplinger (C’20) | Principia Center for Sustainability
Bakers & Hale is a locally owned and operated farm-to-table restaurant that opened its doors in June 2018. Unlike the average restaurant in the Alton/Godfrey, IL area, this one is championing the local food movement. This sit-down restaurant specializes in American cuisine and features classic comfort foods.
The Power of Word-Of-Mouth Marketing
I learned about this restaurant through word-of-mouth, thanks to a local Principia College faculty member. I immediately acted on this newfound knowledge, and informed my Sustainable Food Systems professor of its existence. I was helping coordinate a local food panel, and this seemed like the perfect location to meet. Just a few days later, a class field trip was scheduled!
The Local Food Panel
This panel met in April 2019, and consisted of two small-scale, sustainable farmers (Amy Cloudand Crystal Stevens), the Elsah General Store owners (Blair and Dory Smith), a representative of Alton’s farmers’ market (Sara McGibany), and one of the restaurant’s talented chefs. This panel took place during the time Principia’s Sustainable Food Systems course would typically meet in the classroom. This field trip is an excellent example of experiential education.
The five panel guests, five students, and our sustainability professor sat around a long table which happened to be painted by the art class led by panelist Crystal Steven’s. There, we enjoyed a multi-course, family-style meal. Each panelist eloquently explained their role in the local food system, and how they arrived where they are today. After each of the panelists spoke, students asked questions. At the end of the event, one of the restaurant’s chefs passionately described his background, role in the business, and explained where the locally sourced ingredients were from.
The first dish was a colorful place of crostini spread with kale pesto and creamy goat cheese. It was then topped with thinly sliced radishes, a light sprinkle of parmesan, and finally, a drizzle of olive oil. This combination struck a perfect balance of flavor and texture. The fresh, toasty bread complemented the creaminess of the cheese, the pesto provided a pop of flavor, and the radishes served as the fresh, seasonally appropriate element.
Local Highlights: The fresh bread was from Duke Bakery, located in the neighboring town of Alton, IL. The “world renowned” artisan goat cheese was from Baetje Farms, which is located just south of St. Louis, in Bloomsdale, MO. The house-made pesto incorporated fresh kale from Double Star Farms in Benton, IL.
The next course was a salad consisting of farm-fresh red romaine lettuce, Baetje Farms goat cheese, and sweet roasted walnuts, all tossed in a house-made chardonnay vinaigrette. Even if you don’t consider yourself a salad person, I highly recommend giving this a try; it will not disappoint! This simply delicious salad is currently listed on their menu.
Although I would’ve been completely content filling up on the appetizers, I’m glad I saved room for the two side dishes that followed. The first one was a gnocchi made with locally sourced potatoes. It was complemented with kale from Double Star Farms, Gateway Farm garlic, James Wright’s oyster mushrooms, chicken broth (from chicken sourced from Rustic Roots farm), plus fresh herbs from their garden.
The flavor profile was absolutely incredible! The herbs and spices created notes of warmth with a hint of spiciness. Even though the kale adds a healthful flare, I still consider this side dish to fall into the “comfort food” genre.
Side Note: When studying abroad in Slovenia, I fell in love with gnocchi, and my standards for this dish became very high. Two years later, gnocchi has come to me, and I can sincerely say it has exceeded my high standards.
I didn’t have a chance to snap a photo for the second side dish, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. This dish combined locally sourced fettuccine (made by Midwest Pasta Co) with oyster mushrooms, greens, and a well-balanced combination of herbs and spices.
Although sourcing local is becoming more cost neutral, the chef noted that the artisan pasta, which is sourced from St. Louis, is more costly. What makes this pasta worth purchasing is the fact that it’s crafted fresh to order in small batches using high quality ingredients and Old World techniques.
The Main Dish
Shortly after the two side dishes were served, platters full of roasted chicken were brought out. What makes this locally-sourced chicken significant is the high standards the farmers practice in raising them.
Unfortunately, most chicken served at restaurants is factory farmed (aka, not raised humanely), and more often than not, chickens are fed so much, they can barely stand. People don’t like to talk about this, but I feel it’s important to acknowledge the reality, and encourage mindful meat consumption.
Fortunately, the chicken Bakers & Hale sources is an exception. They specially source their chicken from a small-scale farm which is located in the neighboring town of Brighton, IL. Rustic Roots Farm pasture raises their chickens. This means that they can experience sunshine and eat the fresh grasses and plants which are sewn in the field they graze.
After a full plate of absolutely delicious food, dessert was served. Each guest was given a small plate with a perfectly gooey, made-from-scratch brownie. Each brownie was carefully drizzled with a house-made mint glaze, which contained mint picked from their very own herb garden. A light drizzle of raspberry sauce added a pop of color, and nicely complemented the mint. Freshly whipped cream sourced from Rolling Lawns farm was served on the side and garnished with a few freshly harvested mint leaves from the herb garden. A bit of candied ginger was included, giving the composition a spicy-sweet element. This ginger was locally sourced from EarthDancefarm, which is located in Ferguson, MO. (Fun fact: Panel guest Crystal Stevens serves as their marketing coordinator!)
The Chef’s Perspective
Sustainability is a topic which was evident throughout this dining experience. As we enjoyed our dessert, one of the chefs stepped out of the kitchen and talked to us and answered questions. Since he was brought up eating organic, that aspect of his upbringing definitely influences his career as a chef. He revealed that in rural areas like Godfrey, it’s harder to get people behind the local food movement because there’s a common perception that it’s just a trend, rather than a significant way to support the local economy, and human and planetary health.
This connects to the theme of education. The chef emphasized that educating customers regarding the concept of sustainable and local food is a process, and hopes consumer awareness will increase over time. In a restaurant setting, with many responsibilities, it’s difficult to educate customers. The chef admitted that they don’t educate as well as they should, but this is understandable, considering the multi-faceted, fast-paced nature of the job.
One question the chef answered was about how, and where, they source their beef. This is significant because conventionally raised beef is one of the least sustainable foods one can eat. Even though many of the restaurant’s ingredients are locally and sustainably grown/raised, at the time I visited, the beef wasn’t. One reason for this is due to the fact that most locally-raised grass-fed beef is expensive. Even though grass-fed (rather than grain-fed) beef is more natural and ethical alternative, the chef emphasized that the customers are not used to the flavor (since it tends to taste similar to lamb).
Sustainable Operations Extend Beyond the Ingredients
Food waste is an inevitable part of the restaurant business, but Bakers & Hale is addressing this issue by composting unusable and uneaten food. Additionally, they utilize ingredients well. For example, leftover chicken bones are used to make broths, stocks, and roux (which was used in the gnocchi we ate).
Overall, this restaurant experience, paired with the local food panel, was a real treat. The food was delightful, and the company (plus the experiential educational element) made this meal one of my all-time favorites. It’s clear that Bakers & Hale doesn’t just make delicious food. They support the regional food community, and local economy, by sourcing ingredients from local farms and food producers. Ultimately, they play a significant role in the area’s local food movement.
Want to Visit?
Bakers & Hale
7120 Montclaire Avenue
Godfrey, IL 62035