SUMMER LIVIN': Plating sustainability

New dinner series highlights local food

Chef Wendy Armstrong is something of a pioneer.

When she opened Thrive on Whitemarsh Island, no one but hardcore health foodies had ever heard of nitrate-free meat or gluten-free cooking; now those terms are common dinnertime vernacular. Years before others began sourcing organic food and cutting down on packaging and water waste, Armstrong worked to make Thrive a green-certified restaurant - the first and only one in Savannah to hold that official title.

She can also be credited for introducing these parts to farro salad.

Now the culinary revolutionary is ahead of her time once again with Thrive's new dinner series. Combining delicious dishes with green ethics, each monthly meal will feature a four-course meal sourced exclusively from local farmers paired with a flight of organic, sulfate-free wines. But don't expect to just get served: Armstrong has incorporated cooking demonstrations and visits from the purveyors to explain the benefits of eating locally and sustainably.

"My chef friends would tell me that I needed to do a fancy dinner, but that didn't quite fit for me," says Chef Armstrong.

"By making it an interactive learning event, it all clicked together."

The premiere dinner takes place this Friday, June 23 and boasts a menu for conscious carnivores: Hunter Cattle Company will provide the star ingredients for an appetizer of sweet Vidalia onions stuffed with beef sausage and entrée choices of grilled skirt steak and pecan-crusted chicken. (Vegetarians can opt for mushroom-stuffed eggplant rolls as their main dish.) Local artisan cheeses whet the palate for the first course, and the main courses will be accompanied by a skewer of fresh vegetables from the Forsyth Farmers Market and a farro risotto. (Farro is a high-nutrition grain similar to barley or spelt.)

Based in Brooklet, GA, Hunter Cattle raises their cows without hormones or antibiotics and lets them forage in pastures instead of feeding them corn. Grass-fed beef is considered healthier and more humane than commercial beef, and Hunter's proximity to Savannah fits with the sustainable precept that ingredients travel as few miles as possible. Representatives from the family farm will be at Friday's dinner to discuss more about their green philosophy, part of Armstrong's mission that the dinner series educates while it satiates.

In addition to the vendor's food for thought, diners will get a crash course in how to cook what they're eating. (Taking notes isn't necessary; recipes will be sent home.)

"I read recently that the reason Americans are so obese is because no one knows how to cook anymore," bemoans the chef. "People want to eat stuff from the farmers' market, but not everyone knows what to do with it."

While Armstrong plans to invite other chefs to guest teach at future dinners, she'll serve as the head instructor at the first event. One of her topics? How not to overcook your grassfed steak.

No fine meal is complete without carefully chosen wine, and Armstrong extends her sustainable ambitions here as well. This month's vintages come from Stellar Winery, South Africa's top organic wine producer and a leader in fair-trade practices that includes shareholders' trust for its workers. Famous for its innovative oenological techniques, Stellar is also the number one maker of no-sulfate wine in the world, happy fact for those who are allergic to the preservative.

"They've been a huge trendsetter globally," says Armstrong. "And they've got some great reds that go well with the Hunter beef."

Thrive sells a selection of organic wines in its retail shop, and thanks to a new tasting license, other favorites from the cellar can be served at the 40-seat series, which Armstrong plans to host inside and on the reclaimed-wood patio. Prospective menus she's considering are sustainable seafood, a vegan spread using summer produce and a superfood theme consisting of extreme nutritive ingredients like goji berries, quinoa and that ubiquitous house favorite, farro.

Though the importance of sustainably-raised proteins and locally-grown organic veggies has found their way into the mainstream, Armstrong knows there are still many minds and palates to convince. Getting them on board with the food revolution will take more than a lecture.

"It can get very preachy," she admits, referring to the serious tones of the sustainability movement. "We can feed people good food and show them how to prepare it themselves. Then maybe people can make baby steps towards change."

"Doing it this way makes it fun."

Thrive Sustainability Dinner

When: Friday, June 23 7 p.m.

Where: 4700 Hwy 80

Cost: $49.99 includes wine

Reservations: 912.898.2131




Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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