(Sept. 24) Imagine a delicious culinary retreat. You settle into a homey lodge bordering the forest overlooking a winding river. Birds chirp from their playground outside the window of the gigantic kitchen where you have access to all the latest equipment and technology. You step outside the kitchen to pick from a garden of rare, flavorful heirloom vegetables for your recipe development. When you’re finished, you go up to your private quarters and relax in a giant Jacuzzi with a glass of wine and a good book.

It’s not just a dream. It’s the beginning of the reality that will open in Huron, Ohio, in October. It’s called the Culinary Vegetable Institute.

Many of America’s famed chefs have been waiting for and helping shape this vision for a long time — but not as long as founders Bob, Lee and Bobby Jones. The family, which owns specialty vegetable farm The Chef’s Garden Inc., started dreaming of a place for relaxation, inspiration, education and team building for chefs 10 years ago, Lee Jones says.

He expects CVI, which opens for chef visits in October, to be completely finished and available for functions the first of the year.

DREAMS OF REJUVENATION

Outside the 12,500-square-foot facility, you’ll find no other buildings. Instead, you might see deer, pheasant, coyotes, turkey and bald eagles on the 100-acre property, half of which is wooded with the Huron River running along the back.

You can fish, canoe, hike, read or visit the Chef’s Garden vegetable research and development plot, which is only 150 yards from the building.

CVI is 3½ miles from the main operation of The Chef’s Garden. “It needed to be somewhat removed, because here (at Chef’s Garden) there’s pressure to keep moving. We wanted this spot to be a place to come away, relax, get in touch with their souls and unwind a little,” Jones says.

THE ULTIMATE KITCHEN

The kitchen at CVI is a chef’s dream come true. Each of the 14 distinguished chefs on the advisory board of the nonprofit institute submitted their kitchen wish list to kitchen designer Mark Stech-Novak. He designs all of famed-chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s kitchens worldwide.

He compiled the ideas and set to work on designing the 1,500-square-foot kitchen filled with shelves, cabinets, coolers, ovens, sinks and gadgets. Among them is a mesquite grill, rotisserie, pasta machine and ice cream machine.

Once equipment companies grasped the impact of this kitchen on the American culinary world, they were quick to become involved in the dream with their latest products, Jones says.

DREAMS OF EDUCATION

If you could take the inspiration you absorbed from the natural environment into a comprehensive kitchen, imagine the energy you could infuse into your culinary endeavors.

With all parts of your being creatively focused, think of the training dynamics of the moment.

The Jones’ dream incorporates a significant learning component into CVI.

The kitchen is equipped with video cameras, large screens and a satellite hookup. Windows from above and straight on allow groups to watch the creative culinary process.

The opportunity to transmit live cooking shows to grade school children and students at culinary institutions excites all those involved.

“The chefs on the advisory board feel there are really some opportunities for young people. So many have one-parent families that work 10 to 12 hours a day, and children are left to open a can of SpaghettiOs on their own with no knowledge of food, nutrition and the health and spiritual values of food and its relationship to life,” Jones says. CVI might allow them to transmit a food show to every third-grade class in country and build programs to help children.

The kitchen will be equipped to handle video and DVD taping. “If a chef comes to do a concept, he can take it back to the rest of his team if economics prohibit the entire group from coming,” Jones says.

If a chef’s entire culinary team can come, CVI is equipped to handle them. In addition to the main chef suite, the lodge has hotel-like accommodations for groups. Only one chef (and his staff) are allowed at the lodge at one time.

An on-site library is equipped with old agriculture books, culinary books and computers tied in to culinary schools for training sessions.

GARDEN DREAMS

Learning opportunities abound beyond the kitchen and library into the two gardens on the property.

The Chef’s Garden conducts research and development in its experimental plot located a short walk from the lodge. The company grows more than 350 rare items in limited quantities in its test plot from which chefs around the country order mystery boxes of up to 15 items. Chefs are asked to offer their opinion of the vegetables. Items that get rave reviews are transferred to the main farm and grown in abundance, Jones says.

The top 50 items from the experimental plot will be planted in the kitchen garden outside the CVI kitchen. So chefs will ne able to walk out the door and select a unique vegetable to learn about and incorporate into their cuisine.

COMPLETE VISION

Jones sees the value of CVI and fully expects it to continue long after the family is gone, he says.

Mary Hegeman joined as coordinator/director of CVI. Most recently she was chef Charlie Trotter’s assistant. Trotter, owner of Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, is on CVI’s advisory board.

“I’ve been a foodie since before it was cool,” Hegeman says.

She believes CVI can help enlighten people to what vegetables can really be. She looks forward to seeing people’s eyes light up as they see vegetables a new way — and that they don’t come from a can and they aren’t olive green, she says.

Christopher Hastings, owner/chef of The Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, Ala., sees the potential for chefs to discover and work with vegetables and methods they can’t do anywhere else. He serves on the financial and technology committee of the culinary advisory board.

He looks forward to bringing his culinary team to CVI where they will have access to research and development, the library, the Internet and have the ability to film and document cooking demonstrations.

He looks forward to the opportunity culinary students will have to go to the library and look back at old preparation techniques from hundreds of years ago and have Internet access to chat with European chefs about their produce recently introduced in the United States. Students will be able to study soil types and their impact on vegetables. “There are so many things that could be discussed and thought through.

“This is one of those unique things that comes along every so often that if we are able to complete it as we envision it, it could be a place where chefs from around the country could come and research and develop ideas that could truly change the face of American cuisine,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for us to elevate ourselves as we’re viewed around the world to be the place where great and forward-thinking cuisine takes place.”

EXPERT ADVICE

The whole concept of The Culinary Vegetable Institute was shaped by a group of America’s most renowned culinary experts who are on the Culinary Vegetable Institute’s advisory board:

Lidia Bastianich, FelidIa’s, New York
Daniel Boulud, Daniel, New York
Ed Brown, The Seagrill, New York
Alain Ducasse, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, New York
Gale Grand, TRU, Chicago
Christopher Hastings, The Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, Ala.
Thomas Keller, The French Laundry, Youngville, Calif.
Michael Lomonaco, Noche, New York
Wayne Nish, March, New York
Bradley Ogden, The Lark Creek Inn, Larkspur, Calif.
Douglas Rodriguez, Chicama, New York
Rick Tramonto, TRU, Chicago
Charlie Trotter, Charlie Trotter’s, Chicago
Norman Van Aken, Norman’s, Coral Gables, Fla.
Jean George Mongerichten, Jean Georges, New York