BLOOMINGTON — Ken Myszka is equally at home wearing a straw hat with dirt on his hands in the field as he is in chef whites.
While “farm to fork” has become a popular term, Myszka moved into new territory when he decided to leave a prestigious career in high-end restaurants in Las Vegas to become what he describes as a “CheFarmer” back home in Central Illinois.
He still is expanding his initial concept.
“It’s more than farm to fork, it’s ‘integrated cuisine,’ ” Myszka explains.
The menus are designed with ingredients in mind that will be available from the farm. What is grown, how it is grown, prepared and served to a customer is all part of the plan.
As Myszka walks the fields of Epiphany Farms, named for the epiphany he had to responsibly grow the food he serves, he sees the fruits — and vegetables — of his labors. (See related story, page 18.)
He takes a break from carefully pruning tomato plants to prevent fungus from growing and produce healthy plants to see how things are going across his fields of garden plots.
Myszka stops to sample fresh peas, taste a white turnip, pull a red turnip and feed it to the goats.
The hard winter left some damage in its wake, ruining the peaches, delaying blackberries and killing bees and other pollinators. But, he is optimistic.
“Next year might be an epic peach year,” Myszka says.
A walk across the field includes seeing the “eggmobile,” a converted trailer nestled in the trees with chickens outside and hogs nearby enjoying a shady pasture amongst the trees.
In addition to the 10 acres Epiphany Farms owns, the operation rents an adjacent 10 acres to have more room for its gardens and animals.
About 50 of the hogs raised annually are destined to be featured at their restaurant, Station Two Twenty in Bloomington. Others will be sold to five high-end restaurants in Chicago supplied by Myszka. Part of the fun is to grow a “crazy variety” for the restaurants, he says, including a candy-striped beet.
As Myszka walks among plots, he easily identifies the different berry plants, what color the beet is under the ground and knows the subtleties of varieties.
There are no labels on the plots. But, he concedes with a grin, he keeps a map of what’s where in his phone for reference if it’s ever needed.
“Tomorrow it’s going to rain, we’ll work in the greenhouse,” Myszka says looking at the sky, which was cloudless at the time.
The farm also features almost every vegetable imaginable, a small orchard, a giant root cellar and hoop houses for winter growing. Near their house is a smattering of chamomile which he, his wife and daughter will harvest for tea.
Other areas of the farm are dedicated to growing compatible groups of plants, composting and other sustainable practices.
When Myszka first returned to Bloomington, Epiphany Farms was based at his parents’ farm near Downs in McLean County. He and a fellow chef made house calls serving special meals to raise money to start the restaurant.
Now, he is the CEO of Epiphany Farms Hospitality Group, director of operations/co-owner of Station Two Twenty Restaurant and Anju Above Restaurant, which is upstairs in the same building.
The popular restaurants, formerly a fire station at 220 E. Front St. in Bloomington, are only 4.2 miles from the farm.
His two partners are CheFarmers Stu Hummel and Nanam Myszka, his wife and mother of their two children. They also have skills and duties to make everything work.
Myszka’s brother, Matt, is farm manger of the enterprise that raises 2,000 chickens, 100 hogs, goats and rabbits and produces honey, fruits and vegetables.
“Our goal is to increase production by 400 percent every year,” Ken Myszka notes.
While the menus are based on items raised in a sustainable environment, about 20 percent of the food served at the restaurant is produced on the farm.
“We still serve coffee and buy lemons,” he says.
While locally grown food is more expensive, Myszka wants to keep it accessible to people. He estimates his prices are 10 to 15 percent higher than other restaurants in the area to provide what they do.
Still, prices are far from Las Vegas, where he previously worked. Dinners featuring imported, exclusive ingredients were $380 per person before tips and taxes. That’s not what he wanted.
Instead, Myszka likes the idea of introducing people to things they can try at home or allowing them a chance to try something they would never prepare.
“We want to change as many lives as possible,” he says.
Hummel, who Myszka met in Las Vegas, has been involved since the early days and has been key in developing the lively Anju Above Restaurant upstairs at 220, where he prepares food with flair in an open kitchen.
It features a rustic pizza kitchen where guests can watch food be prepared as well.
Hummel also likes the educational component of the enterprise.
“People don’t realize that every choice they made has an impact on our culture,” he says.
What people choose to eat, where they dine, it all has an effect. Choosing sustainably raised food is one of those choices, he notes.
“This business is built out of things we enjoy,” says Hummel.
On the farm and in the restaurant, staff members have a common connection. The enterprise is growing quickly, going from zero to 60 employees in five years, making it essential to find the right employees.
Potential employees get a group interview and after working for a period are subject to a peer review.
The owners have just one vote. Co-workers help decide if the new employee gets the permanent job.
The schedule is hectic and hours are long. The restaurant is closed Sunday and Monday, allowing a potential day to rest and a full day on the farm.
“It requires a certain amount of sacrifice,” Myskza notes.
The future could include a winery, and a bed and breakfast.
“We’ve come a long way in five years. I’m amazed and blessed. It drives me more,” Myszka says.