In October 2012, during her first year at Eat Retreat, Heather Marold Thomason taught her fellow participants how to kill a chicken. Early in the morning, she led the group to an outbuilding on a Northern California farm and demonstrated the art of butchery, encouraging everyone who could summon the courage to get involved.
Established in 2011 by Kathryn Tomajan, 35, and two other friends, Eat Retreat is an annual three-day "summer camp for foodies" that brings together food writers, chefs, and other members of the culinary community for workshops, meals, and networking. "I want to bring people from all different areas of the food world and let them spend time together and cross-pollinate," Tomajan says of the retreats.
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Inside the outbuilding on that October morning, Thomason showed the near 25 attendees, many of whom had never encountered a live chicken before, the basics of cutting off the bird's head and cleaning out its insides. That night, the Eat Retreat participants on kitchen duty roasted the chickens and served them at dinner. As culinary pros, the diners even appreciated the feet as a delicacy.
Based on the success of her butchery workshop and intrigued by the possibilities of the organization, Thomason, 36, took on a leadership role three years ago, and she has been co-organizing the retreats with Tomajan ever since.
Both Tomajan and Thomason have long been interested in food and work full-time jobs in the industry in addition to running the retreats. Tomajan is an olive oil producer and consultant and Thomason is in the process of launching a new business, Primal Supply Meats, in Philadelphia.
But despite their packed schedules, the pair continues to evaluate and evolve what Eat Retreat has to offer. Realizing early on that hands-on lessons were a necessary component, they developed workshops in topics including how to press olive oil, smoke salmon, build clay ovens, and sharpen knives. And after holding the retreats in California the first two years, they decided to expand geographically and have since hosted retreats in the Finger Lakes region of New York and southeastern Pennsylvania.
Over the years, the events have spawned an active Facebook group and an in-person network of more than 100 alumni in the food industry, including food writers, chefs, farmers, jam-makers, cooking instructors, coffee roasters, brewers, cheesemongers, photographers, fishermen, and grocery store buyers. Both Both Tomajan and Thomason also point to the "professional marriages" the retreat fosters.
Several projects have already been born out of the event, including The Future Market, a project of alumni Mike Lee and Emily Dellas that looks into the future of the grocery store, and a photography show at the Milan Expo 2015 by alumnus James Collier that resulted from a conversation with fellow alumna Sari Kamin of Heritage Radio Network.
In addition, the organizers appreciate the impact they can have by buying food in the areas where they host the retreats. "We put great effort now into really sourcing everything locally," Tomajan says. "Nothing comes from purveyors outside the region. It's kind of a cool thing to be able to go into a food region somewhere in the country and drop $5,000 to $10,000 into that local food economy."
The duo recently selected the group of people it will include in the sixth-annual retreat, which they will hold at a camp outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in September. In addition to charging attendees $675 plus a $15 application fee, which helps fund scholarships, Tomajan and Thomason are looking to secure partnerships to supplement costs. Past sponsors have included Squarespace, MailChimp, OpenTable, and Hatchery.
Despite the workload—and the fact they are only paid for part of their time—Tomajan and Thomason see Eat Retreats as a nascent movement they want to help nurture and grow. They plan to continue holding alumni events to support the community they're building, and they are considering hosting international retreats in the future.
"We want to have more of an impact. That's our dream," Thomason says. "Every year, we have a different idea about how we're going to do that. We try it some ways and it works, but then we're like, 'We can do it better.'"
F&W is thrilled to partner on a this series about the American Food System with the award-winning CivilEats.com, run by Naomi Starkman and Twilight Greenaway. Here, the site's expert contributors will share interviews and news about the entrepreneurs and activists making a difference right now.