Founder of Epiphany Farms backs farm to table system

By Farah Bassyouni Nov11,2022

Ken Myszka goes where he’s needed, and today he’s on the farm. He collects the eggs that were laid that day and hand washes them in the back room of the farm’s largest building, just beyond the banquet hall that he’ll use to host 50 people in two days.
After sundown, he’ll make his way to Epiphany Farms Restaurant to prepare a dish for the Peoria Food and Wine Festival the next day. In the morning he’ll head back to the farm before he gets his catering crew ready– he’s got a big vegetable harvest to tend to first. 

The Downs, Ill. native began his journey in culinary service at his local grocery store, baking bread and handling produce. Today, Myszka, the founder and president of Epiphany Farms Hospitality Group, owns and operates four restaurants in the Bloomington-Normal area: Epiphany Farms, Anju Above, Harmony Korean Barbeque and the Bakery and Pickle. 

His 100-acre company farm, located within 10 miles of each restaurant, supplies ingredients to all of them and acts as a venue for large gatherings. Most importantly, it serves as the foundation for his vision: to create a farm-to-table food system that’s completely self-sustaining, one that’s healthier for us and for the land we cultivate. 

Myszka was in eighth grade when he figured out he loved caring for people through food. He started by decorating cakes with his mom, and by high school he was cooking for others every chance he got. 

“I could bake a cake, or make a pie, or cook dinner for someone and see how happy they became from that. It was really powerful for me,” Myszka said. 

Growing up, he wasn’t a dominant athlete, but in the kitchen he had a competitive edge. Myszka thrived in high-intensity kitchen environments and grew fond of the brigade-like structure and rules of high standard kitchens. 

Myszka’s competitive drive propelled him to work for some of the most revered chefs and restaurants in the culinary world. 

“There’s this pedigree in the industry that you’re only as good as the people you’ve worked for. If you want to be great, you can almost trace where that greatness came from,” Myzska said. “A chef in New York told me to go work for 10 chefs in 10 years, to go see a bunch of different systems.”

Myzska  worked for Thomas Keller in Vegas, who at the time had the two top rated restaurants in the country. He worked in a French Bistro in Caesar’s palace, and later went to an Ovengard, James Beard-winning best new restaurant in the country at Bradley Ogden’s. He worked for five high-caliber restaurants, all while they first opened, and developed a vision for his own place. 

He sought out the best in the industry while going to school for business and hotel-restaurant management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Though he was learning from the best restaurateurs and brushing shoulders with the best chefs, something about his experience in food service was missing. 

“As a chef, I no longer wanted to just order food from a truck, manipulate it and make money from it. I wanted to be connected to the food,” he said.

He’d cooked plenty of potatoes in his lifetime, but he’d never seen a potato plant before. He was involved in the purchase of dozens and dozens of pounds of fruits and vegetables, but he didn’t understand the process by which they were created and harvested. 

Myszka’s interest in agriculture sparked at Caesar’s Palace. The prices of ingredients at the French Bistro puzzled him. As a restaurateur, why would he pay so much for little sprouts that he could sprout himself in two weeks? He converted a portion of his Las Vegas apartment into a small garden, and started growing vegetables under lights that he could sell to the restaurant he worked at. First it was sprouts, then beets, then peas. That’s when he had an epiphany. 

“So many of the world’s problems are caused by the way that we care for the land and care for ourselves. The way we cultivate, what we spray on our fields, what we feed our animals and ourselves, and how we respect the dinner table,” Myszka said.

In 2005, Myszka started drafting his business plan for a farm-to-table food service operation and got to work on solving his first major setback– he had no idea how to farm. He had spent his culinary career learning about the “godfathers” of cooking. Now, he had to learn about the “godfathers” of organic agriculture.

“If I became a good cook by shadowing the best restaurants and brushing shoulders with the best chefs, then I need to be next to and brush shoulders with the best farmers and gardeners in order to be good.”

He went to lectures by notable farmers and read books on pre-industrial agriculture. He visited some of the best farms in the country, and sometimes even worked on them for free to gain hands-on experience and knowledge. He found mentors. 

When Myszka graduated from UNLV in 2008, he returned home to Downs Ill. to put his vision into action. Central Illinois was in the food and hospitality “dark ages” — completely saturated with chain restaurants and hotels. This was where he thought he could make the biggest impact. 

He struggled through his first season of farming with his business partner from Las Vegas, and many of their crops died. Luckily, Myszka knew a guy who could help them out, a farmer named Dave Barren who he’d met at a farmer’s market years ago.  

“We went to his house and sat down with him for like three hours. He gave us gardening books and catalogs and told us to come back in a couple days,” Myszka said. “We went back and he took us to his garden, and he told us, ‘today, we’re going to plant beans. Tomorrow we’re going to plant corn,’ and so on.”  

During the first two to three years of running his own farm, Myszka went to Barren’s farm at least once a week to lend a hand. Sometimes Myszka would have a crop failure, and Barren would let them sell his crops at the farmers market if he came and harvested them.

Today Myszka’s farm creates a variety of produce and meat products, many of which go directly to his restaurants.

“Since we’re one company, we’re in control of everything,” Myszka said. “Instead of a server saying, ‘We bought these carrots from so and so farm,’ they can say “I was at the farm the other day and I was helping weed these carrots.’” 

Their self-sustaining system allows them to engage in innovative farming practices, ones that enhance the health of their farmland instead of depleting it. 

All of the waste that they generate from their restaurants goes back into the farm and serves as the foundation for their fertility system. When Myszka plants his garlic, tomatoes or radishes, he isn’t using synthetic chemicals to fertilize it. Instead, he brings organic matter back into the land with food waste from the restaurants and manure from his chickens. The live compost he uses has more biological load than conventional chemical fertilizers, and creates a healthier system.  

Decades down the line, his farm should look more like a forest than a conventional farm. “It’ll be a big mixture of row crops, trees, fields of hay, gardens and forage,” Myszka said. “The soil will have a lot more organic matter, and there’ll be a lot more health in it. Over time, we’ll have to add less and less inputs to get more outputs.” 

Myszka spent the first five years of his Epiphany enterprise proving he could farm and supply much of what his restaurants needed. The next five years were spent proving it could be profitable, which is a pursuit he’s still chasing. Because his production isn’t completely mechanized and his contracts aren’t huge. His production costs are still higher than purchasing ingredients from traditional farm operations. 

 “Having the right machinery to drop labor costs down is the only way to compete with vegetables coming in from conventional markets. To size up you need land, tools, tractors, implements, machinery, washing machinery, buildings . . . it’s an immense amount of things to pay for and afford,” Myszka said. 

What he needs to make it more commercially viable, he said, is an economy of scale. 

“I see us becoming more efficient. The cool thing is now we’ve bought land and financed equipment to actually do it.” 

 The scale of commercial output he’s striving to build is what inspired him to open so many restaurant options in the Bloomington-Normal area, along with his diverse interest in worldly cuisines. “Because of the size of the property, we need to get all of the production up and need the restaurants to utilize more,” Myszka said. 

Myszka’s Epiphany Farms Restaurant in downtown-Bloomington is a popular rustic-American spot, and their Asian mashup restaurant Anju Above is located on the floor above it. Their third restaurant, Harmony Korean Barbeque, is located on Currency Drive in Bloomington. 

Their modern speak-easy spot, the Bakery and Pickle, reopened this November on Main street in Bloomington after closing in 2020. 

“Epiphany Farms can’t take advantage of tatsoi or Japanese turnips, but if I have a restaurant that’s using that cuisine then I can grow the veg for that type of restaurant, ” Myszka said. “The idea is that someone can come to town, eat at all our restaurants and have a completely unique experience, but with the same attention to detail, local production and unique flavor.”

Myszka enjoys fine dining and preparing sushi, pizza, and Korean barbeque, but what he loves most is utilizing the farm product, whatever that may be, and making it all work. 

By being a successful “chefarmer” in his community, Myszka said he can encourage other farmers in their own regions to do the same. He wants to prove that this type of production can feed the world. 

He said he gets pissed off when other farmers try to justify their conventional farming practices as a necessary condition for ‘feeding the world.’

 “Feeding the world junk food probably isn’t a great thing for the world. I’m not going to thank you for it,” Myszka said. “We need to know how to feed ourselves before we can say that we’re going to feed the world.”

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