It is unseasonably cold for early October in Austin. Just last week the heavy warmth of a late summer still lingered, but today the air is crisp and clean as rain clouds shade the sun from our eyes. It’s still early as Chefs Ben Runkle of Salt and Time Butcher Shop & Salumeria and Todd Duplechan of the critically acclaimed Lenoir restaurant pull up to Boggy Creek Farms to ensure they have the first pick of today’s produce. As soon as you pull onto the small gravel road leading up to the farm, it feels like all of the reality of Austin melts away. Here there are no traffic lines, no flashing lights, no advertisements or billboards, just the earth and people who have devoted their lives to healing and encouraging the land.
Runkle and Duplechan are planning their menu for the first Luck Social event at Willie Nelson’s Luck, Texas ranch, an intimate dinner and concert experience for 50 lucky guests. Runkle, chosen for not only his talent but also his dedication to local farms and sustainable agriculture, has been Luck’s Culinary Director for the past several years stepping into the role of Head Chef for charity dinners the night before Luck Reunion, and curating food trucks for the Reunion alongside the Austin Food and Wine Alliance. This year, Runkle is hosting Duplechan for a collaborative, family-style meal for the Social. Though they have an idea of their main dishes, the final choices will be made based on what is fresh and available as they head back to the source to Boggy Creek and Eden East farms in East Austin.
The two chefs immediately beeline for the small produce stand tucked behind the trees and original farmhouse at Boggy Creek to pick shelling beans, butternut squash, fennel, and wild greens among other freshly picked produce for the Social dinner. Boggy Creek has been a staple in locally owned organic farms for over 20 years since its inception in 1992 and a source of community and inspiration for the quickly growing urban farming movement. Led by Carol Ann Sayle and the late Larry Butler, Boggy Creek has been described as “the center of the plate, the heartbeat of the local food scene,” by former Austin Statesman food writer Kitty Crider in Butler’s obituary after his passing in July. Both Runkle and Duplechan concur, expressing their appreciation and respect for Sayle and Butler and are greeted warmly by Sayle upon arrival. Sayle knows their favorites and their investment in clean produce and proceeds to take us on a full tour of the farm. Tucked behind the farmhouse and stand are rows of carefully placed crops, from squash to carrots to greens, each row has been immaculately tended by Sayle and her team. Rows of greenhouses full of herbs and a large pen full of chickens line the other side of the walkway and Sayle’s trusty farm dog nips at our ankles if we get too close to the flock. Runkle and Duplechan chat and laugh with Sayle as they make their final selections and are ready to head to the next location.
Right down the road less than half a mile away, we arrive at our second stop of the morning, Eden East Farms (formerly Springdale farm). This area of East Austin is home to many local farms as much of the land is fed by Boggy Creek as it winds its way south to the Colorado River. Eden East now hosts a farm to table restaurant of their own offering weekly brunches and special occasion dinners. Tucked behind the outdoor restaurant seating is a small farm stand hosting not only East’s own produce from the grounds, but also offering selections from other locally grown, organic farmers as well. Tables are overflowing with veggies, local honey, microgreens, natural balms and salves made from local herbs and other goods. Here, the soil is so fertile we notice a stray squash growing right in the walking path. Runkle and Duplechan finish their shopping, gathering the last of the summer’s sweet peaches to be made into pies for the Social’s final course. We part ways as the chefs determine their final menus for the Social the next day.
Thursday arrives and the Luck, TX ranch is alive with activity as all of the finishing touches are made in preparation for the night’s event. Runkle and Duplechan arrive with their teams as the early afternoon sun gleams overhead and begin to build their kitchen just off the path to Willie’s Headquarters. First over the coals is Runkle’s porchetta to be slow roasted on a spit for five hours leading up to the dinner. As the pork slowly turns, the ranch is filled with its mouthwatering scent and eventually, butternut squash from the farm is placed underneath to catch all of the drippings. Next, preparation begins for Duplechan’s grilled, stuffed fish driven up fresh from the Gulf and wrapped in hoja santa leaves - a traditional Mexican herb with notes similar to eucalyptus and Root Beer - to be accompanied by shelling beans, smoked mushrooms, tomato jam, and green beans. The chefs and their teams remain hard at work as the sun sets behind the hills and the first guests begin to trickle in.
One long communal table is set up in the middle of the path from the chapel down to Willie’s Headquarters. Set with artisan ceramics from Keith Kreeger, hand-dyed indigo linens, fresh flowers, and candles, the Luck Social dinner is ready to begin. Our guests stroll through the little town of Luck, taking their seats and meeting their neighbors and the first course is served. As the moon rises and the stars come out, the twinkling lights of the candles illuminate plates full of delicacies as the plates make the rounds served family style (come back for seconds!). Free flowing local wine, Lagunitas beer, and Mountain Valley Water keep the guests’ thirsts quenched as relaxed laughter echoes through the ranch - a sign of a successful and satiating meal.
From farmstand to table, the chefs’ dedication to the sourcing and preparation of quality ingredients shines through in the consistently outstanding menus such as Runkle and Duplechan’s; demonstrating the importance across Texas’ culinary community of honoring the source of it all.