Tami Cecil’s laugh is an eruption. Born deep in the diaphragm, it requires a slight tilt back of her head and rivals the belted verse of a Broadway star.
The gusto of the Licking County chef is a telling symptom of life at Woodhaven Farm. Out here, property is identified by fence row rather than house number. Rolling cornfields hold back housing developments, and driveways deserve street names.
Centered on the farm’s 10 manicured acres, a converted barn wraps an immense gourmet kitchen and three cozy dining rooms. Inside, Cecil hosts an array of cooking classes as well as family get-togethers and parties. But this culinary retreat asks more of its guests than to simply break bread.
“The food is merely the facilitator,” Cecil explains.
For the stockbroker turned restaurateur, cooking is an analogy for life. It demands communication, problem solving and teamwork. The love of food is a primal and universal bond, she explains. So at Woodhaven Farm, before anyone eats, everyone cooks.
A culinary chorus
On this day, the New Albany Area Chamber of Commerce has convened in the barn’s largest dining room for a morning meeting. Just after 11 a.m., they are summoned to the kitchen.
Cecil divides the group according to the day’s menu. Hands are washed and aprons tied as she dishes out assignments. From there, a sort-of concert begins.
The cadence of clanking utensils and the melody of conversation overtake the room. Cecil waltzes between two stoves and three tables conducting her ensemble. “Cut them bigger … just keep stirring … put the whole thing in … put a lid on it – not you, the pot.” Her trumpeting laughter provides the refrain.
Cecil directs the kitchen with the command of an executive chef but puts even rookie cooks at ease. “You know your way around a spatula, don’t you?” she says playfully.
At first, individual ingredients introduce themselves to the nostrils: onions, vinegar, fresh-cut rosemary. Soon, they swell into a nameless, warm aroma.
But the pork tenderloin, redskin mashed potatoes, green beans, caramelized onions and apple bread pudding soon seem forgotten. With the oven doing its work, calm returns to the kitchen. Guests gather in small groups passing the time with chitchat. By now the scene resembles a family reunion more than a business meeting.
And for Cecil, that’s the point. There is no CEO, no receptionist, no boss or employee. Everyone works side by side for a common goal. It’s as much about learning to cook as it is learning about each other.
Living simply, cooking well
So forget the traffic, the cubicle and rushing the kids to soccer practice.
“It’s a simpler way of life out here,” Cecil says, a sentiment echoed in the farm’s tagline: “Go to the country, learn to cook.”
She notes that as a child, family business was handled at the dinner table, and “you were expected to be there.
“(Today), kids aren’t learning how to cook, the quality of the food is so much less and you don’t have the family contact on a daily basis,” she says.
To draw people back to their kitchens, Cecil crafts her recipes with ingredients that can be found at any grocery store. She showcases locally grown food, including eggs, meats and cheeses.
“Truly, I want to be an ambassador of cooking,” she says.
And there are few more qualified. Cecil has trained at the Culinary Institute of America, operated her own cafe for five years and worked for the upscale Cameron Mitchell restaurant chain in Columbus. So it’s surprising when she says the most important thing about cooking is to not take yourself too seriously.
“We’re just making food … So what if you break a few eggs … It’s not like it’s your last meal,” she says.
And her trumpeting laughter provides the refrain.