Farmstead Chef: Interview with John Ivanko of Inn Serendipity

Images courtesy of John Ivanko

John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist run Inn Serendipity, an eco-friendly bed and breakfast on their farm in southwestern Wisconsin. It’s where they grow most of their own food, raise their son Liam, earn their living, educate others, write their books, and live their passions.

Ivanko and Kivirist’s passions are many: sustainable energy, integrated communities, vibrant rural life, lively conversations, and, of course, good food.

The couple’s latest book, Farmstead Chef (New Society Publishers, 2011) includes 150 recipes inspired by life on the farm, dishes they cook for their guests and their family. These are homey, personal dishes, some of which, like Latvian pirages (bacon rolls), pierogies, and sauerkraut, reach back into their Baltic and Eastern European heritage. Others are international favorites that have become staples on the American table, like sushi and spring rolls. For the most part, they are temptingly familiar and unintimidating recipes, light on technique and easy to accomplish with ingredients right out of your fridge — or farm.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

Scattered among the recipes are 10 profiles of people from around the country who have inspired — or been inspired by — the principles Ivanko and Kivirist practice at Inn Serendipity.

We talked with John about their new book, their life in an eco-tourism haven, and eating well through a Midwestern winter.

Tell us the story of how Farmstead Chef came to be.

It is the culmination of years of effort here, of experimenting and relearning how to eat local, seasonal, sustainable, fresh foods, and to do it year-round. We’re always limited in resources, so we learned frugality and self-reliance, how to be more mindful and incorporate local foods into recipes over the years.

Our backgrounds are not rural. I grew up in Detroit and Lisa in the Chicago suburbs. The scope of our growing things was annual flowers you put in a pot. Our backgrounds are in marketing; we met in Chicago at an ad agency. Then we went through a really premature midlife crisis. I decided I’d better go walk about and figure out what I wanted to do with my life — and it wasn’t selling Super Nintendo entertainment systems, which is what I was doing at the time.

The first three or four years [on the farm] were bumpy. We managed to actually kill zucchini and then we froze our potatoes on the front porch. Now we grow enough food to supply about 70 percent of our food needs on the farm and for the B&B, and we over-produce renewable energy on site. Our first collaborative book, Rural Renaissance, goes into that whole story.

We’ve spent the last 15 years working out what works in the kitchen. For example, strawberries freeze well, so we have the berry smoothie recipe [in Farmstead Chef].

But the truth is, we shouldn’t be eating strawberries in this part of the country in January and February. We have to sit on our hands and wait until mid-June and that makes them taste better. And we do eat them at just about every meal. Same with asparagus. We like that kind of seasonality in eating and want more people to experience it. You really are able to savor food at its peak ripeness. When you’re doing that, it’s pretty hard to mess up.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

Well, right now we’re looking ahead to a long Midwestern winter. What are you and your family planning to cook and eat this winter? [Note: We talked with John in mid-December.]

A lot of it is doing some preparations. If you haven’t made those preparations and didn’t stock up and tray-freeze strawberries in June, it becomes a little more challenging.

Another thing is focusing on what is available locally, like pumpkin. We love pumpkin. We make pumpkin and winter squash fritters. (Yes, they’re fried. We’re healthy in an everything-in-moderation way, unlike other cookbooks that stay away from sugar and oil. A little fried food as a treat every once in a while is fine.) It’s all about thinking things through in a different way, rather than just thinking jack-o’-lanterns and pumpkin pie.

I’m still eating raw [foods]. I’m eating our five-gallon pail of carrots that we yanked out of the garden a week ago. We have a number of potatoes and other root crops that are still quite accessible. And more and more winter farmers markets are growing quite a bit. In Madison, there are quite a few people doing microgreens, Swiss chard, and other things year-round.

With freezing things, most of the nutrient value is still there. We’re still eating the summer, we’re just eating it in the middle of the winter. We have enough zucchini bread in the freezer to last me for months. That’s my breakfast, and for lunch we’re doing stir-fries because we have the carrots and frozen peas. That’s how we strategize — mixing things up that way. Leveraging things that we have with things we’ve preserved.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

What’s the role of Inn Serendipity in your sustainability adventures?

It is very central. It’s about 30 to 35 percent of our livelihood. And it’s very much tied to what we do, especially in the spring, summer, and fall. The B&B has a seasonality to it. We don’t have nearly as much traffic now through April. Business slackens off, as does the garden, so that’s when we do more writing and photography and consulting.

We see the business as the engine that allows us to reinvest into the air and the water and the environment, allowing us to put in, say, more cover crops, rather than spraying [pesticides and herbicides]. It’s a different approach that requires more time and energy on a personal level.

On many occasions, after guests pull out of the farmstead driveway, we think about new things to try. We never know when guests show up what kind of conversations we’ll have — and, conversely, they will think about things differently when they go away from here.

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About the Author

Tricia Cornell

Tricia has been called the mother of “world-class veggie eaters” in the Star Tribune (that is patently untrue) and an “industrious home cook” in the New York Times (true, but was it a compliment?). She loves Brussels sprouts, hates squash, and would choose salty and sour flavors over sweet just about any day. Her first cookbook, Eat More Vegetables, was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2012.

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One Comment

  1. Lovely story. Sometimes, many times I wanna do this. Forget big city life and connect with soil…

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