O RANGE — It is a crisp, sunny autumn afternoon and the guests are beginning to arrive, drawn down the winding road to a local farm by campfire smoke that tells them they are headed in the right direction. Chickens scuttle in the dirt and tables are arrayed with amber glass goblets, vases of flowers, and assorted plates and bowls. The grass is spread with vintage Persian carpets and comfortable cushions to sprawl on; there is a generous supply of hand-knit afghans to ward off the chill. Above the fire, trussed lamb legs spin, stew pots bubble, and whole heads of cabbage slowly char.
This is a celebration and a fund-raiser for Open Hearth Gatherings, a new venture from Aly Lopez and Judy Yao, friends and now business partners who met working on Nibble Kitchen, a Union Square culinary entrepreneurship program and restaurant from the Somerville Arts Council. Lopez also worked at the nearby Farm School, as well as local restaurants and catering companies; Yao was a butcher at Savenor’s. One day, the two attended a goat slaughter together, and an idea was born.
“What could that look like as a more formal experience?” Lopez says. “In the food industry, there’s not really a way you can connect to both the farm and the food at the same time. There’s always a separation. You can go apple picking, you can buy an apple pie, but you never really have the chance to be at the farm, eat at the farm, see the farm. It’s not very accessible.”
Open Hearth Gatherings is their answer. It flips the farm-to-table model of dining, instead bringing the diners to the farm. Each event culminates in a meal, but the purpose lies as much in the gathering, the experience of the land, the connection of harvesting and slaughtering, preparing and cooking, and enjoying food together, all on the same ground.
“The reason both of us fell in love with food in the first place is because of what surrounds it: the people, the farmers we work with, and appreciating the land where our ingredients come from,” Yao says. “We were looking for ways we can pay respect to all of these aspects and at the same time gain nourishment and community through it.”
Communal work is central to the gatherings. “You’re not going to experience the same thing twice,” Lopez says. “We are based on what the land is providing and the season and the people that are going to be part of it.” The group might process corn and make tortillas, process maple syrup, seed or harvest flowers, or learn preservation techniques. Past events, geared toward invited groups rather than the general public, have centered around the slaughtering of chickens.
At one such event, there were about 10 guests, along with five farmers and the cofounders. When participants arrived, all of the stations of the chicken slaughter were set up and waiting.
First the group gathered in a circle, to introduce themselves and share something for which they are grateful. One of the farmers, whose family is from Nepal, talked about what it means in his culture to take a life, explaining that we are all connected, that we all come from the same place. This concept is not incidental at Open Hearth Gatherings, which brings all comers together in a spirit of mutual respect. Lopez and Yao, both queer, immigrant women of color, wanted to create an inclusive space that doesn’t put people in boxes but just lets them be themselves.
Then they slaughtered the chickens. “It’s pretty intense and there’s a lot of blood, if you’ve never seen something be killed before,” Lopez says. “We let people know it’s OK to step out, take a walk, process on their own time. There’s no pressure on anybody to participate in the slaughtering process at all. There are different ways to participate.” Afterward, guests cleaned and bagged the birds, working quickly to adhere to food safety protocols. Some of the chickens were then brought to the fire to cook. “We had a variety of veggies we put over the fire and had a pot of beans cooking and had the chickens hanging, and people brought drinks they wanted to share.”
It was participant Yasmin Hussain’s first time processing a chicken, but it was something she had wanted to experience for a long time. “There’s a big disconnect in food systems here, going to a grocery store and picking something out and not understanding the gravity of what this life has gone through. For me, it was just really important to reconnect with that as a meat eater,” says Hussain, who is global operations manager for a nonprofit. The spaces Open Hearth Gatherings creates are profound, she says; in addition to offering a direct understanding of where our food comes from, they bring participants together.
“Food is a connector, and it’s therapeutic. Working collaboratively really elevates and accelerates relationships,” she says. “The conversations that flowed after that, the relationships — I met someone from [Somerville’s] Bow Market and we were crying together as we were slaughtering this chicken. That runs deep.”
Today’s event — a lamb roast — also begins with everyone in a circle. After each person speaks, there is laughter and supportive commentary. One of the farm’s proprietors nurses her baby. The scene is deeply cozy, intimate and warm. There are people here from the Farm School, the nonprofit world, restaurants, bars, and catering companies. It’s more of a party to celebrate Open Hearth Gathering’s official launch than a regular event — “we pay taxes now,” Lopez says drolly — so the tasks are light, social: stretching and preparing a lamb hide, cracking acorns and black walnuts with rocks. It’s easier to talk to people you’ve just met when your hands are busy. Soon, everyone is sharing beer and wine and getting to know one another. Music plays and the afternoon grows unexpectedly warm. The vibes are on point.
Then the meal is served. It may not be the whole purpose of the event, but it is a seriously delicious part of it: lamb stew and roast leg of lamb with horseradish labneh, chimichurri, guajillo salsa, bourbon-mustard sauce, and garlicky toum; fire-roasted potatoes and cumin carrots, an autumnal salad with apples and maple vinaigrette, spicy purple cabbage slaw; and tender flatbreads made with yogurt, rolled out in the open air and flipped onto a skillet over the flames. Guests sip hot cider and demolish a coffee maple crepe cake, a layered labor of love. Then it’s time for a stroll around the farm, to visit the animals and take in the scenery.
We’ve been outside all day. The event brings people together, feels meaningful. Open Hearth Gatherings wasn’t designed to be an ideal COVID-era dining experience, but it is.
“We’re not starting a catering company. It’s more of an experience and a community company. That’s what’s special about it,” Yao says. “People don’t know each other beforehand, and the chemistry throughout the day is magical to witness and experience. That’s our goal. Being on this beautiful land, hands on with the ingredients that came from that specific space, gathering around the fire — there’s no better community building than that.”
For information about Open Hearth Gatherings’ upcoming events, go to www.openhearthgatherings.com or follow them on Instagram @openhearthgatherings.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.
Work at Boston Globe Media