South Dakota’s palate is evolving. Here, like anywhere else, our food has been largely influenced by our heritage. Whether we’re descended from Native Americans of the Great Plains or 19th century settlers, meat and potatoes – in its many incarnations – has been de rigueur. While many South Dakotans still enjoy steak with a side of mash, our ancestors’ diet of necessity is no longer all there is – as evidenced by the increasingly adventurous flavors being concocted in our home kitchens, and the increasingly high culinary standards of restaurants like Sioux Falls’ Ode to Food and Drinks and Rapid City beacons like Tally’s Silver Spoon and Juniper.

“There’s always a way to take the most delicious dish you can think of, and then deconstruct it on a piece of paper, then find a new way of putting it together to tell a story,” said Levi Venner, chef de cuisine at Tally’s Silver Spoon. “All of our dishes are carefully planned, strategically composed, and confidently executed. Each ingredient or element of a dish has a specific purpose, or sometimes even a deeper and not obvious meaning. Everything is done with intent.”

Venner and his mentor, Tally’s Silver Spoon owner Chef Ben Klinkel, take pride in wowing guests with elevated versions of comfort food classics, and a big part of that is sourcing top quality – often local – ingredients.

“We work closely with many different farmers, ranchers, butchers, fishmongers, and specialty stores to not only use the freshest ingredients they have available, but also to provide input on what we’d like them to grow or produce for us to accommodate our menu that changes with each season,” explained Venner. “These relationships are of the utmost importance to us. Nurturing the symbiotic relationship from farm to table is the essence of what we do.”

This includes sourcing local microgreens year-round from the Rusty Bucket Greenhouse and buying regionally-raised meat from Spearfish’s Prairie Harvest Specialty Foods, then honoring the ingredients. For example, the heirloom tomatoes Venner’s team receives from Muddy Pumpkin Farms are never refrigerated. He asks that we think of biting into a tomato picked fresh from the garden, still warm from the sun. That, he says, is the way a tomato is supposed to taste. A refrigerated tomato has been changed at the molecular level, and will always taste a little “off.” Working directly with growers extends shelf life, too, since no time is spent in a warehouse. And in order to avoid waste, extra tomatoes and other produce are turned into jams and preserves.

Across town, Rapid City’s Juniper is building a reputation for showcasing locally-sourced ingredients, as well.

“You go local, and it’s 10, 20 times better,” said Juniper co-owner Matthew Sullivan. “The flavor profiles – they pop. And it shows. People can tell. In town, they know when you’re using local ingredients, as opposed to importing them. It sounds better and it’s just wonderful – a much better product.”

In fact, Sullivan believes many customers choose to dine at Juniper because they want to experience those local ingredients as a chef would prepare them. He loves the diverse flavors that come from specialty growers, recalling a caprese salad on a recent Juniper menu featuring a particularly tasty heirloom tomato with a distinct lemon flavor. Culinary experiences like that simply don’t happen without getting to know the growers, and getting intimate with the product.

“Some guests even know the people we buy from, and they’ll come in because they hear from Zita [Kwartek of New Hope Farm] that we’re selling her product,” he added. “We get business by going local, for sure. People appreciate it. When you talk to people around here, they want to shop local, they don’t want to buy online – just for general merchandise – they want to shop local. They want to support the people who are here, the small businesses that are striving to succeed.”

Sullivan and his wife, Alexis, feel that by choosing to source ingredients like produce and beef locally as often as possible, they are building priceless relationships that enhance all areas of their business – and not just with the producers. They view their regulars as family, and first-time Juniper diners as new additions to a collective culinary journey.

Chef Bob Allen of Sioux Falls’ Ode to Food and Drinks shares Venner and the Sullivans’ ardent belief that when one seeks quality, relationships are everything, and that corners should never be cut. When Allen plans his menus, he dances on the fine line of sourcing regionally and integrating something of his West Coast background.

This dichotomy means guests will enjoy eggs from Flandreau, custom-roast java from Black Dog Coffee, and 100 percent maple syrup from Little Man Syrup – plus, Nebraska beef that Allen and his team grind in-house to create the perfect blend of brisket and ground beef for their signature burgers. In season, many of the herbs and vegetables that appear on the plate come from his own garden.

Allen’s California influence emerges in the use of unique herbs, spices, and pastes – like curry and miso – employed in dishes like pho bowls and seabass entrees. These specialty items can be difficult to find in South Dakota, but Allen is a proponent of shopping at ethnic stores like Thanh Mai, an Asian market in central Sioux Falls. From there, it’s a game of trial and error until he finds just the right product.

“You have to kind of use them and see,” Allen explained. “I’ve gone through a couple different misos, and I like the ones that I get now. I personally started with a lighter misos, and moved on to a darker miso. And then, for the green curry, I’ve always liked the Mae Ploy blend. They have that at the store where I shop. I like that brand, and I think they make pretty consistent stuff.”

He continued, “You have to shop around. Usually in the ethnic neighborhoods, you’ll find the ethnic stores. Research online and make a couple calls.”

The fresh and local sensibilities of these culinary experts translate to the food that emerges from their home kitchens, as well.

“We have a lot of local ingredients in our fridge, but at the end of the day, the home meal is how tasty can I make what I have to use up in our fridge,” said Sullivan. “We love coming up with crazy stuff. It doesn’t always turn out well, but it’s a lesson learned. We don’t skimp on ourselves when it comes to local or organic food, and the way we operate at the restaurant is the same.  The best meals are created using quality first.”

At home, Venner’s wife does a lot of the cooking, and he revels in her comfort foods from all cultures. And from these meals, cooked with love, he finds inspiration for the culinary creations he serves at Tally’s Silver Spoon. Further inspiration comes from trips to the farmer’s market, where he bolsters relationships with food producers, and generally feels like a kid in a candy store.

“When I go to the farmers’ market, the first place I might stop by is Aleaha’s stand and top off a bottle of Edith’s Brew kombucha,” said Venner. “From there, it’s off to shake the hands of old and new friends. To me, the farmers’ market is all about the produce. The East River sweet corn, and Hal’s heirloom tomatoes. Colorado peaches, and Matt’s bite-sized strawberries that burst in your mouth with flavor.”

Sullivan says Alexis gravitates to the beautiful squashes found at the farmers’ market, but for him, it’s all about the peppers. “I love the heat. I love the spice. We do use peppers in some of our entree features, but it’s definitely more of a personal choice.”

Allen finds himself beelining toward the fresh herbs, and feeling nostalgic for his grandmother’s kitchen.

“When I was growing up, my grandmother had a little garden in the backyard and she had fruit trees, so when I go to the farmers’ market and smell that stuff, it just kind of reminds me of her,” he recalled.

While local is often best, simply being local doesn’t make an ingredient the correct component for a dish. Sullivan recommends tasting the product first. “Be there and sample it, because if they don’t have the right ingredient, then someone else does.”

Venner adds that food is meant to be enjoyed in the company of those we love. And whether that means exploring new tastes at restaurants like his, or putting a new twist on a home-cooked favorite, we should do our best to eat fresh.

Allen agrees, imploring us to skip the processed items as much as possible. “Be kind to your body and take the few extra steps to cook from whole ingredients that are not so full of preservatives and chemicals. Not only will it taste better, you’ll feel better, too!”

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