Cookie Till bought a farm.

By Regan Stephens
October 28, 2020
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Credit: Susan Beard Design

“This isn’t just farm to table; it’s this farm to that table.”

Cookie Till waves out behind her, toward the fields of Reed’s Organic Farm. The 62-year-old restaurateur, sporting her signature blond curls and thick, black-framed glasses, casually commands the barn. It’s a cavernous, bare-boned space filled with picnic tables, twinkly lights, and a handful of her most ardent friends, supporters, and staff.

The dinner, organized by Till and her team as a fundraiser for the farm, is prepared by Ed Crochet and Justine MacNeil, the husband-and-wife duo from Philadelphia’s Fiore, an Italian restaurant in the city’s Queen Village neighborhood that Till adores. The chefs pulled together the five-course meal—a rustic procession of just-picked produce transformed into turnip fritters, roasted rings of delicata squash, and swiss chard rotolo pasta—from inside a food truck parked behind the barn. The flowing Italian wine and heartfelt speeches make it feel more like an intimate wedding reception than a fundraiser to help bring to life Reed’s Organic Farm, Till’s newest and most ambitious project to date.

Till has been at the helm of Steve & Cookie’s, the celebrated Margate, New Jersey, restaurant (known in most circles as the Jersey Shore’s best) for 23 years, recently earning a James Beard Award nomination for Outstanding Restaurateur. The new American restaurant famously opens its reservation book on the first day of spring each year. As hard as it is to score a table, the spot has plenty of regulars—many with standing weekly reservations who come for plates of crab pasta and tomato salad, and to see and be seen down the Shore.

Credit: Susan Beard Design

For years, Till bought produce for Steve & Cookie’s from the century-old, family-run Reed’s Farm in Egg Harbor Township, about a 15 minute drive inland from the restaurant. When, about five years ago, the owners announced their plans to sell, the restaurateur immediately saw its potential.

“I thought, it’s such an amazing space," she said. "This needs to stay a farm, but it needs to be an organic farm. And it needs to be a community space. I just felt very strongly about it.”

There was one small problem: the farm has been fallow for the last few years, and Till had never farmed before. Also, it was March of 2020, and a global pandemic had just touched down in America, shuttering businesses everywhere.

“The shit had just started hitting the fan,” she said. “But to be out there was a blessing. As hard as it was, we were in this bubble, in our world, healing the earth.”

After a donor contributed a new greenhouse, Till and her team just started planting. “I thought, ‘We’ll just figure it out!’ You don't even know what you don't know,” she said with a laugh. “You’re just so innocent about it.”

Credit: Susan Beard Design

Arming herself with her the same intrepid spirit that’s made her businesses a smashing success—Steve & Cookie’s and Ventnor 7311, the coffee shop she opened in 2015 with baker Kim Richmond—Till gathered a passionate and loyal team. She formed a non-profit called A Meaningful Purpose with healthcare company exec Beth Senay and liquor entrepreneur Lenny Varvaro, and the three are growing and operating the farm.

The team is scrappy. Varvaro, who grew up on a farm and raised animals, just performed an impromptu surgery on one of Reed’s resident guinea hens. Guided by an expert via FaceTime, he amputated its wing to save the bird from dying.

Till then hired four farmers and brought on Brian DeRias as the farm’s manager, and also connected with Rodale Institute, which teaches farmers, including large-scale, conventional farms, how to transition to organic.

The team sees the 78-acre expanse as much more than a farm. Besides growing produce like lettuces, turnips, and squash blossoms, about ten acres total so far, there’s a small animal sanctuary currently home to chickens, the guinea hens, two pot-bellied pigs named Clementine and Rosebud, a pair of mother and daughter alpacas, and Violet the donkey. A small farm stand on site sells the produce in a pay-what-you-can model. A compost garden is both a learning process for the group, and, eventually, will be a teaching opportunity. “When we master that, we can teach the community how they can do this at home,” said Till.

Much like when a group of loyal friends and workers mobilized to help open Steve & Cookie’s in 1997, a raft of volunteers has pitched in to get Reed’s up and running. Some drop by once in a while, and some—like Judy Fisher, who helps with the donkey and horses—come nearly every day.

Credit: Susan Beard Design

The goal is for Reed’s Organic to be a place for growth, in all senses of the word. They’ve partnered with an operation called Gloves on the Ground, led by combat veteran Damon Smith, to cultivate a “healing garden.” The organization’s mission is to help allay PTSD through planting and gardening. Reed’s will also be open for youth education, and aims to offer equine therapy someday.

For now, Till and the team are focusing on the farm’s infrastructure. They’ve hired Amish builders from Lancaster to construct a new barn. The space will have a teaching and production kitchen (next time, the Fiore team won’t have to cook from the confines of the food truck), plus a market that sells the harvested produce. A coffee and herbal tea bar will spotlight fresh herbs from the fields that patrons can plunge right into their cup of hot water. She’s also focusing on medicinal herbs, tinctures, and salves, with the help of a local herbalist.

So far, they plan to sell the vegetables grown on the farm to Steve & Cookie’s, and directly to shoppers at their on-site farm stand, while donating the extra to a local food bank. Right now, there are no plans to sell produce to other restaurants. “We'll see how it goes,” she said. “I don't know, I feel like the market will be really busy.”

If any of Till’s other projects are an indication, she’s right.