Ruth Hampton.
Ruth Hampton.

By Kelli Boylen

Simply put, Ruth Hampton wants people to enjoy food.

“I love providing really good food full of rural realness,” says the Decorah chef.

Hampton, the owner and operator of Trout River Catering, will share her love of cooking at the second annual Feast! Local Foods Marketplace Saturday, Dec. 5, at the Mayo Event Center in Rochester.

Her cooking demo is at 11 a.m., featuring one of her favorite signature recipes – Apple Cider Syrup.

Chef’s background
Hampton grew up on good home-cooked food, and often enjoyed experimenting while cooking. Then in high school she attended Scattergood, a private Quaker boarding school near Iowa City. The students did all the cooking, and it was there she first experienced cooking in quantity.

“I loved it but I never thought that was what I would do,” says Hampton.

She moved to the Twin Cities after high school, going to college for urban studies. She worked for restaurants while going to class.

Then in the early 1990’s, Hampton got a job at the Loring Bar about the time it was expanding its dining area to include a café.  It was there she met Chef Lenny Russo and other great chefs.

“It was a great experience,” she recalls. “It was all hands-on while working with good people. I didn’t even realize how much I was learning.”

Working with Russo for about three years not only taught her about how to set up a kitchen, but also “how to work with really fresh ingredients.”

She then decided it was time to move away from the Twin Cities and back to Iowa.

She started out looking for a place in Allamakee County and ended up near Decorah. She landed a job as the first manager of the Oneota Co-op Deli.

Actually, she did more than manage the deli – she created it. At first they just sold sandwiches and brought in about $600 a week, and when she left 13 years later sales were ten times that amount.

“People wanted it and we answered the call,” Hampton says.

Hampton tends to stay away from actual recipes and instead “taste as you go,” is her motto. At first she did all the cooking for the co-op deli, but as they grew she realized they needed written recipes for others to follow, which was a bit of a challenge.

Catering

While managing the deli she moonlighted as a caterer.

“Catering is a good fit to my personality,” she says. “I like the buildup, the craziness of the event and the rest afterwards.” She laughs and says that they were the “caterer who would go where no other caterer would go.” They didn’t shy away from events that were outdoors or receptions held in old barns.

In 2009 she left the co-op and took on catering as her main profession. She caters weddings, business gatherings and even multi-day conferences.

Though she has catered groups as large as 400 people, her preference is for smaller events ideally around 150 people.

Catering is a very physically demanding job; she says she cross country skis in the winter not just because she enjoys it, but also because it keeps her in shape for the catering season.

She uses local and organic food whenever possible.

“This is such a good area for local everything. That’s a big part of why I can do what I do – the people who are growing this fabulous food.”

Hampton regularly blogs on awesomecookery.com and she also is one of the main people behind “Edible Alien Theatre,” a group that produces “produces one-of-a-kind events combining fabulous food and performance art to help usher people into a greater enjoyment of both.” They have created eight events since 2001.

Hampton said an offsite catering menu needs a balance between creations that are ‘fussy’ and dishes that she dubs “patient food,” meaning food that can be prepared ahead and is still good when served. Polenta is a favorite “patient food”, along with meats such as beef or bison chuck roast slow-roasted with Moroccan seasoning and dried currants.

Feast! Local Foods Marketplace
Hampton’s Apple Cider Syrup is one of her signature dishes, and that is what she chose to demonstrate when she is the featured chef at Feast! Local Foods Marketplace.

She describes the syrup as a complex blend of flavors from tart to sweet with similarities to balsamic vinegar. She serves the syrup with a mix roasted root vegetables including beets, rutabaga, sweet potatoes, leeks and onion along with apples.

She will draw upon her experiences of teaching some cooking classes as well as her love of theatrics.

“I will be doing something that I enjoy: sharing my passion for food while at the same encouraging people to look to their local producers when sourcing ingredients - we live in an abundant region.”

Feast! Local Foods Marketplace festival, Dec. 5, will offer the community a great opportunity to discover new tastes with fun chef demos including the one by Hampton. Attendees will also be able to sample many locally grown and artisan foods from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

This event will be held at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minnesota, and is open to the public. Admission is $5/adults and $2/children.

There is an additional charge for sampling local beer, wine and hard cider.

For more information about Feast! Local Foods Marketplace, please visit local-feast.org. To keep in touch with the latest updates, like Feast! on Facebook, and follow @Local_Feast on Twitter.