Cecil Creek Farm in Mickleton, New Jersey, has embraced the farm-to-table philosophy on a very personal level: serving fine-dining meals on its property every Friday and Saturday night.
What this pop-up restaurant serves is more akin to a family meal than a traditional dining-out experience. The daytime marketplace is transformed into a dining room for the two nights, with a large table that seats 14 and that is typically booked by a single group of 10 to 14 people. However, on one Friday every month it becomes a community table, when smaller parties can book it and dine with people they don’t know.
“We initially tried offering community seating all the time, but it was a better experience if there was one large group,” says head chef Mark Ulrich. A couple outnumbered by a group could feel a little uncomfortable, he explains.
Cecil Creek has no trouble filling the table—it’s booked two to three months out—and typically there are 14 people at each dinner. The meal costs $115 per head and ends with dessert outside around the campfire.
Because of the seasonality of food available on this organic farm, the menu changes weekly. Chef Ulrich, who’s there both nights, is in constant contact with the farm to find out what produce they have so he can create menus and order non-farm items as needed. “I’m constantly experimenting,” he says. “But sometimes I just come in and create the menu on the fly.”
Before guests dine at Cecil Creek, Ulrich sends them the eight-course menu so they can pair wines (the farm is BYOB) and advise if they have allergies or special dietary restrictions. He can accommodate anyone, he says, and this makes his job even more interesting.
Along with vegetable production, which will soon be year-round when a new greenhouse is completed, Cecil Creek Farm also has egg-laying hens; broiler chickens; Berkshire pigs; and Black Angus–Hereford cows. During the winter months when the farm’s output is lower, Ulrich uses products from other local farms’ greenhouses—all in either New Jersey or Pennsylvania.
For Ulrich, who also works as the executive chef in a Philadelphia hospital and has previous stints in fine dining, this work is very satisfying. “I get to express myself for one table rather than do 400 dinners in one night. It’s more personal.” He spends his nights at Cecil Creek Farm cooking directly in front of the diners, working behind a granite bar that contains a stove and a cook top as well as a camera, so his prep and cooking are broadcast onto a screen giving all guests a view into what’s going on. But on a typical night, diners may end up at the counter, watching him directly and asking questions.
Chef Ulrich also holds a three-hour cooking class ($85 per person) at Cecil Creek Farm, allowing eight guests to tour the farm and then sit around the counter, learn about what he’s preparing, and take turns helping him. Once the food’s cooked, they enjoy a meal together. “People are into food these days, but they’re even more into the face behind it and knowing about their food,” he says.