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25 January 2013

The salty beach town of Anna Maria Island, Florida, might not immediately come to mind when the conversation turns to chili peppers, but you can find anything if you put your mind to it.

Being a chili pepper fanatic, I ferreted them out during a visit to this gorgeous place. I enjoy cooking with chili peppers, which is obvious to anyone who has purchased my books or visited my web sites.

Of course I had found some in grocery stores, and quite happily spicy and fresh varieties from the local farmers market, where I picked up some outstanding habaneros and red jalapenos. I cook chili peppers into everything, but why should I be the only one?

What a wonderful surprise when we found the advertisement for “Table to Farm” at a local fish market. It sounded wonderful and exciting, the postcard declaring proudly “Re-defining Dining. Our goal is to re-connect our diners to their food and to showcase the local farmers and chefs who bring it to life.

Farm to Table in Bradenton, Florida

Ingredients for the meal are almost all local and picked and cultivated inches from your table.

Can you guess the first thing that popped into my mind? They simply must grow chili peppers! I called the number on the ad and spoke with Antonia “A.J.” Latteri, the Owner/Creative Director of “The Loft 5”, the group who set up this enticing experience.

A.J. was very accommodating, despite the fact that her engine began to spew smoke on the road as she answered my questions. With her crisis averted, I explained that I am a food writer with a heavy chili pepper focus and asked if they ever cooked with chili peppers. She said she would ask the chef, and would email along a menu the night before the event.

Talk about a happy surprise for me! When I received the menu, A.J. had kindly incorporated chili peppers into many aspects of the meal, which I will share with you below. I was thoroughly excited and couldn’t wait for Wednesday evening.

Chili Peppers

The Table to Farm Experience

Wednesday night arrived and I found myself zipping through Bradenton traffic, only to grind to a halt at every stop light. It is hard to believe that a farm can exist out here amongst the bustle.

Bradenton, Florida, is not a huge city by any means, more of a sprawling suburban town, really, but farm? Yes, there are farms. Guided faithfully by my wife’s GPS, we turned onto a side road, rounded a slight curve and nearly missed the sign for “King Family Farm”, an unadorned wooden sign hitched to a fence, nearly lost along the tree line.

We turned in and rode the sloping path through the aged trees that hunkered over like willows. The farm is quite large – 104 acres, to be exact. I parked near the empty farm stand where visitors were just beginning to mill, expectant.

There would be 20 diners this evening, making for plenty of conversation. We were presented with welcome drinks, listed on the menu as “Dakin Family Farm Hot Chocolate Milk with Marshmallow Vodka and Chili Pepper”. Yes, they included chili pepper in their welcome drinks. I was already in heaven.

We took a quick tour of the farm, which consisted of feeding a donkey named Bubba, who dutifully protects the chickens from the constant onslaught of coyotes (even though Bubba was hiding out at the moment), observing several farmhands wrestle colossal avocados from a gnarled and knobby tree, and visiting the sheep pen.

All the braying made us realize we were truly on a farm. That, and the fact that we were escorted about the property on a hay bale covered trailer.

Past the peach and blueberry trees and the singular avocado tree, we were delivered to our dinner location, a long wooden picnic style table with bench seating nestled beneath a curved tree that reached out horizontally like a welcoming arm. Decorative lights dangled from it in the dimming evening.

The table had been adorned with cloth and pseudo candle lights, perfect for an outdoor dining event. Being January, the evening grew cool, but a propane heater flared nearby for a bit of comfortable warmth.

The Guests at “Table to Farm” – with Plenty of Chili Peppers

The event is BYOB. My wife and I were prepared. We had stowed a 6 pack of Shock Top beer and a bottle of Riesling in a cooler. Happily, just about everyone brought their own wine. Just so you know, when you bring wine, it becomes a community bottle, spread out amongst the diners. It actually worked out for me, as I got to sample my own wine, a Chardonnay, and a red that tasted sweet.

Of course this whole experience sounds like it should be all about the food, but it was more than that, really. It was about people sharing food. It was about people talking with one another, getting to know one another, connected by a mutual love and passion for food.

In our own ways, we were all “foodies”, or connected to a foodie in the group. The event was created, I believe, to facilitate good conversation, to encourage socializing. And it worked.

We met some incredibly interesting people, from the epicurean fellow with a passion for cinematography; the retired Canadian nurse who ran a large clinic and greatly enjoys food and travel; the farmers from out of state; the physical therapist who loves the idea of food blogging; a local food magazine editor; the home gardener with a passion for organic products.

A local musician played guitar and sang softly, completing the ambiance as the wine and conversations flowed. And then the food arrived!

I’ll first share with you the menu we all received, printed on cream colored card stock in a script font that was difficult to read in the low light:

-Welcome Beverage & Starter-

Dakin Family Farm Hot Chocolate Milk with Marshmallow Vodka and Chili Pepper

Mini Three Cheese Soufflé with King Family Farm Peach jam

-Amuse Bouche-

Cherry Bomb Stuffed Pepper


Butternut Squash & Apple with Coconut Milk and Curry


Roasted Beets & Shaved Fennel with Burattta Cheese and Annah’s Vinaigrette

-Palette Cleanser-

Tomato Water


Local Catch Wrapped in Prosciutto over a Bed of Cabbage topped with a Medley of Assorted Peppers puree’

Accompanied by Romanesco with Herb Butter Drizzle


Blueberry Gillette with Chile Verde Sugar & Honey Lemon Whipped Cream

Wow! The entire table was pleased.

The peppers were not hot to me, aside from some well places Serrano peppers with the main course, but that is not always the point of chili peppers. It is something I discuss constantly through my own web sites. Of course I love habaneros and even the superhot chili peppers that can melt your tongue, but that is not true of most people.

Chili peppers do not need to be overly spicy, and the meal this evening was the perfect example of this. Tonight, we dined on chili peppers and they were simply delicious.

I had a great chuckle when Ben King, the farm owner, brought out a few bottles of ghost pepper beer – “Ghost Face Killah”.

A gimmick, sure, but it just goes to show you the lengths the even people go to in order to make every detail count. It was a very thoughtful addition, actually, given the impromptu theme of the evening.

Why Should You Try Table to Farm?

You don’t have to be a foodie to enjoy this experience. You’ll certainly walk away with a full and highly satisfied belly, but the way I see it, you’ll walk away with two powerful things:

One, you’ll realize how good you can eat with fresh foods straight from the farm.

Two, you’ll enjoy easy conversation with people you are unlikely to forget. I should stress the social aspect of this. By the end of the night, so many of us swapped phone numbers and email addresses. I know I did. I hope to compare notes, stay in touch, shoot off questions like, “hey, can you recommend a good local restaurant in town?” My wife and I encountered so much friendliness there.

My only regret is that I wish I could have spoken to the chef. I imagine it would be difficult to present to a group this size while preparing the elaborate meal, but it would have been nice to get her perspective on approaching fresh ingredients, choosing foodsfor the menu, discussing her take on the power of eating local and supporting farms.

Perhaps that is something they might incorporate into future experiences. I think most of the visitors would have enjoyed this.

I spoke with A.J. about the endeavor, and this is what she had to share.

FROM Antonia {A.J.} Latteri, Owner/Creative Director

Why did you start the “Table to Food” experience? To tell you the truth, I should have started years ago. It is something that has been in the back of my mind and close to my heart. About a year ago almost to this date I went to the farm and met Shelby King on a Friday and that next Wednesday. We were doing a dinner. Mostly also because I had a vision, when I see open land I look at it like {WOW} that is a great space for an event. Hence, the “re-{defining}” comes to play.

What would you like to see it become? That depends. Of course we would love for our dinners to grow – thinking up to 100 people – but only 2 times a year for that head count. The team and I and The Kings are all on the same page on that. Sometimes smaller is better so you don’t lose the magic. But I must say, it would sure be nice to fill at least 20-35 seats each week.

Also, I’d love to travel to other states during our off-season. “Outstanding in The Field” does a really good job at that and I’d love the chance to work with them and Sunny Girl’s Farm and Lyons Farm Matte’ as well.

What do you hope people get out of the experience? Our goal is really to have people enjoy the food and get a chance to meet the farmers and make new friends. We love what we do and are all about the details – and of course the beautiful surroundings. What more can you ask for?


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