It’s a beautiful morning in Stillwater. The warmth of crisp sunlight shines in patches, and a soft breeze carries the chattering conversation of sparrows. Rounding the corner to Parasole Executive Chef Tim McKee’s home, I see a typical backyard scene: lush green grass, abundant wildflowers, a wooden swinging love seat. Typical, that is, until I spot the chickens strolling leisurely around the yard, squawking and chirping to their hearts’ content.
McKee is one of many Minnesotans with a small backyard farm, although his chicken coops weren’t necessarily inspired by a lifelong dream of having his own flock. “One year, my sister thought it would be cute to buy chicks for Easter — what she didn’t know is that they aren’t good for much until they are about 26 weeks old,” he says. The chef agreed to keep the birds and ended up adding a few more along the way.
The journey was not without its roadblocks, though. “Since technically chickens are farm animals, I worked with other locals interested in keeping them and went through a long process of changing the ordinances in Stillwater,” McKee says. Today, the city’s residents can keep up to five of the birds.
For many aspiring foodies, a culinary proclivity toward farm-to-table food has resulted in a renewed interest in backyard agriculture, often referred to as homesteading. In response to popular demand from those wanting control over the production of their food, three years ago Williams-Sonoma launched its Agrarian line, featuring luxe items like chicken coops made from sustainably harvested Western red cedar and freestanding vertical gardens. In St. Paul, Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply offers a range of products that act as inspiration for those wanting to tap their own maple syrup or raise a flock of fowl. McKee says that crafting your own backyard farm might be simpler than you imagine: “There are actually plans online for how to build cages, and you really can find everything you need at Fleet Farm.”
The chef raises three different breeds, and with help from his family, collects fresh eggs to use in his home kitchen or bring to work for the Parasole team. For a salad featuring boiled fingerling potatoes tossed in a Champagne vinaigrette, homemade mayonnaise with Dijon and cumin, pickled mustard seeds, and hot, pickled pearl onions, the final touch is a perfectly soft-boiled egg hatched from one of the hens clucking around outside. “You can tell when store-bought eggs are lifeless,” McKee muses. “These ones are brilliant and will stand up a little prouder.” As he splits the egg and lets the bright yellow yolk drizzle across the salad, it’s clear that this liquid gold is the epitome of a farm-to-table ingredient — and that simplicity is never overrated.