Denver resident Cassie Parsons will embark on a new journey next month, one made possible in large part by her homegrown success.
The Upstate New York native, who moved to Lincoln County more than 10 years ago, is chef and owner of Harvest Moon Grille at the Dunhill Hotel in Charlotte. She also runs and lives on Grateful Growers Farm on Mack Ballard Road, from which she supplies pork products for her restaurant.
In keeping with the local-foods movement, she uses seasonal produce from within a 100-mile radius, 60 percent of which comes from Lincoln County. By featuring locally sourced ingredients, Parsons believes her food tastes better, is more nutritious and helps boost the local economy.
However, she will soon be exploring foods that are anything but local.
Parsons is set to travel to Ljubljana, Slovenia on April 12, serving as one of America’s first chefs in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) Arts Envoy Program. The focus of the trip will be participation in an eight-episode TV series “Zabeljeno po Ameriško” (“Seasoned by Americans”) on POP-TV, Slovenia’s most-watched channel.
“There’s a purpose,” she told the Times-News last week. “I’m going in with eyes wide open.”
As part of the show, Parsons will have the opportunity to learn about the history and food culture of Slovenia.
“That’s what I’m all about — real people, growing and cooking real food,” Parsons said. “As a pork farmer and as a chef, being introduced to the regional diversity of Slovenia while being able to share my passion for local, sustainable ingredients is an opportunity to grow personally while sharing the vibrant, growing movement of Americans that embrace small, local farmers and the clean, beautiful food they produce.”
Parsons knows what it’s like to start out small. Though she has since received much recognition for her success (she was approached by show producers after they saw her featured in The New York Times), her restaurant began as a food cart located in the heart of Uptown Charlotte.
It became a phenomenon that opened the door to forming a partnership with Dunhill.
“It was just really meant to be,” she said.
Parsons had been a chef for many years but got out of the business to start farming. However, when her attempts to sell her products to chefs throughout the region proved unsuccessful, she put it upon herself to demonstrate that it is possible to both buy local and make money.
These efforts began with the food cart and will continue as she explores the regional foods used in recipes throughout Slovenia.
Parsons’ trip, which will last through April 30, will include a food expedition through the country, funded by an ECA grant awarded to the U.S. Embassy in Ljubljana.
Chef Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul, Minn., will be accompanying her.
The project, conceived by the Embassy’s Public Affairs Officer Christopher Wurst, will focus on “food diplomacy” to showcase American culture and diversity as well as sustainable development and environmentally friendly practices in the U.S. It will be the first large-scale program following the announcement of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership Initiative, launched by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Wurst believes that one of the greatest characteristics of the U.S. is its amazing diversity, especially its food culture.
“There are so many regional differences, so many ethnic choices that represent our immigrant character and, now, so many examples of community building through food,” Wurst said in a press release about the show. “We wanted to use food, something that Slovenes take very seriously, to highlight America’s diversity while also disproving the notion that Americans only eat unhealthy fast food.”
The TV series will take the chefs throughout Slovenia (Parsons in the east and Russo in the west) to discover traditional Slovene ingredients, dishes and preparations. They will encounter various traditions, unique characters and amazing landscapes while sharing their experiences and expertise with the Slovenians they meet and occasionally recreating the Slovene dishes.
“I love historical foods,” Parsons said, adding that she is looking forward to the chance to learn about other agriculture-driven communities.
The show will be produced by Felina Films, an award-winning Slovene production company with several food-show credits to their name. The primary culinary consultant for the show will be Dr. Janez Bogataj, who is considered to be one of Slovenia’s most knowledgeable food experts.
In addition to the TV series, the chefs will participate in American food nights at top Ljubljana restaurants and food evenings hosted by U.S. Ambassador to Slovenia Joseph Mussomeli.
Wurst said the American chefs were chosen because of their philosophies and strong backgrounds in “farm-to-table” food.
“Because Slovenia is small, with only two million people, but regionally diverse, we wanted regional diversity among the chefs,” Wurst noted. “We wanted chefs who were passionate about what they did, but whose vision and philosophy transcended mere business — in other words, two progressive chefs who walked the walk.”
Parsons opened Harvest Moon Grille in 2010. In 2011, she was named Carolina’s Restaurateur of the Year. She was the U.S. Green Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012.
Despite her international travels and accolades, Parsons emphasized how proud she is to be among those farmers who call Lincoln County home.
“It’s why I live and farm there,” she said.