Food, Food Artisans

From Devon to Dexter

Meet Zingerman’s Newest Managing Partner, Kieron Hales

We wanted to get the scoop on how Zingerman’s Cornman Farms came to be so we sat down with the guy who got the event space up and running 

Zingerman’s News: Can you give us a bit of background on your career?

KeironKieron: I grew up in the small farming village of Stoke Gabriel in Devon, England. As a child I studied the bassoon and was a member of National Children’s Orchestra and I got to travel a lot at a very young age. That experience made me realize that I wanted to see the world when I grew up but not because of music. While I was in music school, my home economics teacher saw how much I loved cooking and sent an application for the Specialized Chefs School in Bournemouth (a resort town on England’s south coast). I studied there for four years and graduated at 17 when I became a member of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts.

As a musician and a chef I’ve traveled extensively—Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, Austria and the USA, to name few—and I’ve cooked in every kind of restaurant, from Michelin star restaurants to the Goldman Sachs dining room in New York to family owned independent restaurants.

Kitchens really are hidden worlds and everyone has their own memories of the kitchens they’ve inhabited. How did your experiences in all these different kitchen shape you and your work?

Being in so many different places really got me thinking about where food comes from and how it is produced. I’ve worked in kitchens where all the food is loaded off the same truck and kitchens where we went to the local market to select what we’d serve that night. I think that was when I started to realize that we’re all happier and healthier (both my restaurant guests and the restaurant staff) when we know where our food comes from. And I don’t mean just that we can say that it’s from this or that farm or producer but that we actually develop a relationship with the folks providing the food we eat. I discovered, after coming to Zingerman’s, that that idea is central to how all the business here operate. Every business develops close relationships with the folks that provide their raw materials—think about the Coffee Company’s ties to Daterra Estate in Brazil or the Bakehouse’s work with Westwind Mills or the Creamery’s work with their local goat’s and cow’s milk suppliers. 

How did a kid from Devon end up here?

That path was unconventional to say the least. I was working at Fishes, a restaurant and B&B in Norfolk England, and buying cheese from Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy. One Sunday morning, on my only day off of the week, Randolph called and said Ari was flying to London and going on a cheese tour and was hoping to stay at Fishes for the night. I had been to Zingerman’s and met Ari before on a visit to my sister, who lived in Saline with her family, and I jumped at the chance to cook for him. That evening was filled with conversation and great food and I joined Ari and Randolph for the cheese tour the next day. Within six months of Ari’s visit to England, I was back in the US visiting my sister, and we went to Zingerman’s Roadhouse for dinner with family friends, Wayne and Cheryl Baker. Wayne is a professor in the Ross School of Business and a long time friend of Ari’s, and he helped arrange for another meeting between Ari and me. Eventually we started talking about me coming to work there. 

Did you start working on the Events at  Zingerman’s Cornman Farms idea while still running the Roadhouse kitchen?

Cornman was actually founded by Chef Alex three years before I arrived at Zingerman’s in 2005. Anyone who has worked with him knows he’s tireless and apparently, running a nationally-renowned restaurant wasn’t enough for him so in his spare time he double-dug a garden plot in his backyard. I think he put in some potatoes and tomatoes. He tended it all summer and brought the harvest in one night make a few special plates for some regulars in the restaurant. As he tells, the experience of planting, growing, harvesting and serving food and seeing the reaction of his guests was overwhelming. At that moment, he started down the path to becoming a farmer. 

I’d already spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to source the food I was preparing and already recognized how important it is to source locally so this seemed like the logical next step: cook in a restaurant that actually raises the food they serve every night. When I came here Alex was already building up his little garden into Cornman Farms and the whole idea got me very excited. As an organization, Zingerman’s is always pushing everyone who works here to think big, to think beyond their current position. So, I began scribbling down a vision for what I could do at the farm.

A few years ago, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to purchase the land on Island Lake Road from the Hoey family and it included the Greek-revival style house and a barn that dates back to 1837. That’s when the idea for our events business started to really take shape.

And, what exactly is that business?

My team and I are operating the events at Zingerman’s Cornman Farms. The barn has been beautifully restored by an amazing team headed by long-time friend of Zingerman’s Louie Marr. Rudy Christianson, a barnwright from Ohio, came up last summer to take the barn apart, piece by piece, ship it back to Ohio and restore the wood before sending back here to be reassembled by local builder David Haig (and I can’t let this interview end without a shout out to Craig who has been on site, tending to every detail for the better part of a year). Local architect Chuck Bultman oversaw the whole process and we couldn’t have done this without him. We’ve also completely remodeled the house and installed a commercial kitchen where we, along with the folks from Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Zingerman’s Deli, as well as San Street and Café Memmi, prepare food for our events. 

The space is even more beautiful than I’d dreamed when I was writing my vision. The barn is amazing. It’s got all the rustic charm of a building that is going on 200 years old but it also has every modern amenity. The farmhouse is perfect for intimate gatherings, small farm-to-table dinners, and it has a full suite of rooms upstairs for brides to get ready for the big day. We had an event a couple weeks ago and by the end of the night, most folks had moved into the kitchen. It felt like I was hosting a party in my own home. 

We’ve also got a huge tent out by the gardens which can hold upwards of 400 people. It’s a space that can serve so many different functions from galas to very large weddings, corporate events, anniversary parties but also more intimate gatherings. 

What makes Cornman Farms different from another event space?

I think the biggest thing that sets us apart is that we are operating on a real working farm. It’s not just a pastoral backdrop. Chef Alex is still running the farm with his family (his wife Kelly is the Herd Manager) and longtime Farm Manager Mark Baerwolf (who also worked with me in the Roadhouse kitchen). Having a full scale farm has led to some interesting escapades. We’ve had to tell more than one curious guest to please not venture over into the adjacent goat barn at night. If our goats are going to give us great milk, they need their rest!

Putting on the events that we do, I feel absolutely blessed to be able to get much of the food right from the farm. I could envision a dinner where the guests could take part in harvesting the food they’d enjoy that night. This sort of idea is more common in Europe, the Italians call it agritourismo, and I can definitely see it catching on in a community like ours. 

What events will Cornman Farms host?

I think the only limit is the guest’s imagination. We’ve done a handful of events so far and I really think the sky’s the limit. Weddings, birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs, anniversary dinners, farm dinners, brunches. I envision wine, beer or coffee classes and tastings, cooking demonstrations, farm tours. Maybe we should have a contest where people try to describe and event that we actually can’t do! 

What does that mean to you to be Zingerman’s newest managing partner?

It means everything. It’s such a high standard to live up to. The partners here have been encouraging me and helping me grow for so many years and now I’m in a position to have the same impact on the lives and work of others as they’ve had on mine.

For more information about Cornman Farms, check our our website!