Local cooking competition hopes to improve food economy


Photo Courtesy of Land Connection’s Facebook

The Land Connection sells assorted root vegetables and kale at the Champaign Farmers Market on May 26. The organization strives to grow the local food economy and increase food accessibility.

By Jillian Little, buzz Editor

The Artisan Cup & Fork is a culinary competition that has fought to stop food insecurity in Champaign-Urbana for five years. Each year, local restaurants compete and prepare cuisines for guests with tickets, each ticket getting a person three locally sourced meals with a dessert. This year’s competing restaurants include Neil St. Blues, Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant and Wood N’ Hog Barbecue. All the event’s proceeds will go to The Land Connection to help its mission of growing the local food economy and accessibility. Buzz got a chance to talk with Taidghin O’Brien, the marketing and outreach manager at The Land Connection, on how this year’s Artisan Cup & Fork will look. 

buzz: When the Artisan Cup & Fork started five years ago, what was the original goal? How has that changed over the years?

Taidghin O’Brien: The Artisan Cup & Fork began to get our community more involved and educated about local foods. The purpose has always been to highlight local farmers, producers, brewers, restaurants and their work within our food system in a fun and engaging way. The competition aspect of the event not only increased the engagement and interest of our community but pushed the chefs to think outside the box and try and create something exceptional while working with local farmers and producers and local and seasonal ingredients. While not intended to be the annual fundraiser for The Land Connection, the event’s popularity turned it into a helpful, albeit modest, tool to raise funds and share its mission and vision with the greater community.

buzz: How is this year going to be different from previous years?

TO: Typically, we gather about 300 local food lovers at a great location and surround them with five to seven chefs that have created a unique “little plate” using local ingredients that are sourced from the growers and producers on their team. This year, pretty much everything had to be changed. We had to pare down the number of participating restaurants and the number of attendees due to the complex logistics of transitioning from in person to a large-scale curbside pickup. But, the changes we needed to make have created a new dynamic for the event and allow us to try some new things. Instead of getting several tiny food plates, a ticket gets someone three full meals on three nights. People can now safely enjoy your meals wherever they like, making the event more kid- and family-friendly — no babysitter needed. We will still have judges vote on a winner, and attendees will still vote on the People’s Choice winner. In the end, everyone will get to enjoy delicious, locally sourced food while supporting local businesses and The Land Connection. Other than that, everything is different in some way. 

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
Thank you for subscribing!

buzz: What are some restaurants that have competed in the past? Who has won?

TO: Some of the restaurants that have competed in the past include V. Picasso, The WheelHouse, Baldarotta’s, Black Dog Smoke & Ale House, American Harvest Eatery. We’ve also had chefs compete that didn’t work at a restaurant. Some chefs that have competed own food trucks, work in catering, are personal chefs or work as chefs at the University. Food trucks won the first two years, chefs from American Harvest Eatery won the following year, and two chefs from the University won last year.

buzz: How will the winners be picked this year?


TO: A panel of three judges will vote on the Juried Winner, while all attendees will score the chefs on the same criteria to determine the People’s Choice winner. The dinner portion and desserts will be scored individually in the following categories: taste, presentation, execution, creativity, overall satisfaction and use of local ingredients. 

buzz: What are some other things The Land Connection has done for the community?

TO: The Land Connection started the Champaign Farmers Market in downtown Champaign to provide increased food access to the food deserts that exist just north of downtown. The organization continues to be a champion for food access initiatives throughout the C-U area through the market and other collaborative efforts with local and regional partners throughout the community. The Land Connection has continued to provide direct farmer training, technical assistance and farmer training resources to the local, regional and statewide community. Everyone interested in farming, no matter their background, can get the support they need. We also provide free educational resources for consumers and aim to teach people about why local food matters and how best to support local farmers and producers to ensure that the local food system is healthy and continues to grow.

buzz: What do you hope for in terms of the competition’s future?

TO: Hopefully, we will be in a better place regarding the pandemic next year and will be able to host some sort of hybrid event. We came up with some of the ideas this year to enhance the overall event if we were to go back to the original format. I think the event can continue to grow. We just have to be thoughtful, creative and conscientious. The needs of our local food system show no signs of disappearing any time soon, so the event will continue to be necessary to The Land Connection, our community and the organization’s ability to support the food system and those that rely on it. 

Tickets for the 2020 Artisan Cup & Fork are still available for its remaining competition dates on Thursday and Oct. 1. For more information, visit The Land Connection’s website. 

[email protected]