Dining out at a fine restaurant is a pleasure but when your family name appears on the menu, it’s simply a thrill. That’s the feeling that brothers Matt and Chris Vodraska of Rittman Orchards get when dishes created by northeast Ohio’s finest chefs revolve around the fruits or vegetables grown on their Wayne County farm.
The 125 acres that host the orchard, corn and some field crops had been used for farming and fruit trees for almost 100 years before their parents, Dale and Peg Vodraska, bought the land in 2004, returning to farming after having kept orchards in both Ohio and Washington state. “It was a move that brought them out of retirement,” said Matt, “but Chris and I thought it was a temporary arrangement for us.” Both brothers left to pursue college degrees, Matt earning one in fine arts and Chris earning one in biomedical engineering. “Neither of us considered coming back to the farm,” said Matt, “but then we weren’t having that much fun being away from it either.” By 2007 all four Vodraskas were back in the fields.
“Before our parents bought this place, it had been neglected for a long time,” said Chris. “It was not producing anything.” Oaks sprouted up among the apple trees and poison ivy with stems as thick as tree trunks vined throughout the orchard. An old market barn had a raccoon in residence, beehives in the walls and was slowly caving in.
“We were also facing some serious erosion issues,” recalled Matt. “The orchard sloped in every direction and natural erosion started moving topsoil and cutting fissures into the hills. Nothing could be rehabilitated.” So the family put their efforts into reforming the land, starting from scratch.
“We replanted in ways that were naturally viable, reflected how we wanted to farm and the product we wanted to put out,” said Matt. Berries were among the first plantings: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. They also established an orchard of stone fruits and multiple varieties of apples including the popular Honey Crisp, Cameo, Fuji and Pink Lady. They also took on the challenge of growing antique apples, varieties that are harder to grow, don’t produce as heavily and might not store as well but are superior in terms of flavor and texture. Varieties like Baldwin, an aromatic apple; Esopus Spitzenburg, the historical favorite of Thomas Jefferson; and Calville Blanc, a classic French pastry apple. This is what caught the attention of area chefs including Karen Small of Flying Fig, Ben Bebenroth of Spice Kitchen and Bar, Adam Lambert of Bar Cento, and Doug Katz of Fire Food and Drink—just a few among a strong and growing contingency of northeast Ohio chefs and restaurant owners who make it a priority to put locally sourced ingredients in their kitchen and on the menu. Over shared tastes in good food produced locally, the Vodraskas made fast friends and steady customers with chefs and centered themselves in the local food movement.
“Chefs have a standing invitation to visit our farm and orchard and we see them regularly,” said Chris. “We show them exactly where the food they prepare for their customers is coming from, answer all their questions about production and are completely transparent about how we farm.”
While the brothers develop a plan for what they are going to grow each year, they still rely on their chef customers for input. “They tell us what’s on their minds for their menus,” said Chris. “It’s how we’ve increased our banana pepper production five times in the past couple of years and we’re working on becoming the single source for ingredients for another chef’s house pickles.” And it’s not just about the main ingredients, but the details, too like the rosemary used to season the fries at Chef Michael Symon’s Lola’s and Lolita’s.
Keeping chefs happy and their restaurants supplied with seasonal produce involves a certain level of difficulty, a task that the brothers undertake every growing season. “For chefs to operate efficiently, they expect sources and products that are reliable and dependable,” explained Matt. “It’s great to have a red raspberry dessert on the menu, but when a farmer can only supply small quantities, it creates a problem,” he added.
“What we bring is the volume to meet their needs so there’s no question about our ability to deliver.”
Matt and Chris are quick to acknowledge that Ohio farmers and chefs are doing a great job in partnering to promote and support local food movements. “The character of the people in this part of the state is to be resourceful,” said Chris. “We all agree that in such a globalized food market it doesn’t make much sense to eat an apple that comes from New Zealand when the same variety is grown right here in one of the best fruit growing regions of the world.”
Ben Bebenroth, chef/owner of Spice Kitchen and Bar, has worked with Rittman Orchards for five years. It is among 50 farms providing ingredients for this Gordon Square District restaurant in Cleveland. “We get stone fruits, berries, apples and cider from them,” said Bebenroth, “and in the summer we do a lot of canning, pickling and freezing.” While the menu changes with the harvest, the one theme that endures all year long is local foods, so expect to find menu items featuring peach puree in the winter and pumpkin in the spring.
“Growers like Matt and Chris help chefs get past ‘writer’s block,’ if you will,” said Adam Lambert, executive chef at Bar Cento in Cleveland’s Ohio City. “They call us two weeks before a product hits its peak of flavor and I’m inspired to find a place for it on the menu.” Customers will find dishes that combine the best of farm-sourced products and foraged delicacies like pasta with Ohio peaches and wild mushroom or a truffle and kale salad with red and thinly sliced green strawberries (yes, unripe!) that deliver a refreshing tart quality.
13548 Mt. Eaton Road
Doylestown | 330-925-4152
Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate and The Locavore’s Kitchen.