The drive from Detroit to Zingerman’s Cornman Farms winds through a dramatic shift in scenery. The first 20 minutes or so on I-96, the main thoroughfare, which offers a straight shot to the event venue’s base in Dexter, ventures throughout southeast Michigan’s metropolitan areas. Busy neighborhoods and business headquarters frame the freeway as impatient drivers inch their way through traffic. Just past Plymouth, though, green pastures become the backdrop of the remaining drive. The road veers into a lush pastoral valley of verdant golf courses, agricultural preserves, botanical gardens, and hilly trails. Though less than one hour west of the city, the voyage can feel transformative — as if you’ve crossed state lines even. And for the vast majority of Cornman Farms clients, that’s one of the picturesque venue’s many draws.
A stately white farmhouse greets guests at the entrance of the premises. Eight sturdy pillars cage the 1834 Victorian homestead, which anchors the 27 acres of land it sits on. It becomes the canopy for outdoor wedding ceremonies, a grand backdrop for photo ops, or a sweet place to commune with nature from the vantage of the white rocking chairs perched on its porch.
The concept for Cornman Farms is what managing partner, Tabitha Mason says “makes perfect sense.” She sees some of Zingerman’s existing businesses — the Delicatessen and the Roadhouse, which offer robust catering menus; and the Bakehouse, which makes decadent wedding cakes — as a natural segue into an event service. “We want unique businesses that can support and sustain each other,” she says. “We follow the same guiding principles at the farm, the same service recipes so if someone trusts Zingerman’s, they know we’re going to deliver an excellent experience.”
Mason explains that all new business ventures at Zingerman’s are generated by a singular person rather than by conceptualizing an idea and trying to find someone to run it. “We know that businesses are most successful when the person at the helm has that personal heart and that real drive.” The heart of Cornman Farms, she says, is founding partner and Executive Chef, Kieron Hales.
A celebrated chef hailing from Stoke Gabriel, a small village in Devon, England, Hales is in fact the visionary behind the very concept of the farm. As head chef at the Roadhouse in 2013, it was his idea to launch an event space supported by a catering service centered on farm fresh ingredients. Beginning his studies in culinary arts at the early age of 13, Hales’ career led him to Michelin-rated restaurants across the globe, where he’d cooked for three United States presidents and Queen Elizabeth II.
Extravagant though his food may have been, Hales recognized one deficit in his skillset. “I’d worked in some high-end establishments,” he says. “But I didn’t really know anything about where the food came from and was embarrassed that I had never been to the farm we were buying our ingredients from.” To hone his knowledge in food history, Hales returned to the U.K. to work for an independent restaurant in England, where he says farmers would deliver vegetables by the wheelbarrow to the establishment’s door, and fish would be mongered by boat daily. “At the time, I could make pretty plates and cook amazing food, but this allowed me to really get to know about the food. It was one of the best, most humbling experiences.” An experience that has influenced the culinary ethos at the farm.
I explore the “chef’s garden” — still in the throes of a frigid spring, I relied on my imagination to envision what the beds of tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, and other produce might look like in summer — peer into the basil barn, an unkempt shed filled with, well, basil, while parsley, bay leaves, and other herbs grow nearby on the property; and make my way past the stone milkhouse turned smokehouse where salmon filets are being infused with flavor.
A few weeks prior, I’d met Hales at an event in Southfield. His quick wit and exuberant nature electrify a room — his jokes as charming as they are naughty. When I mention the oddity of seeing him at the helm of such a serene retreat to Mason, she laughs. “I think that dichotomy in some way speaks to who we are,” she says. “It’s this beautiful piece of property, this farmhouse that’s incredibly designed, but also, we aren’t stuffy or formal. That’s part of our charm.” She compares a visit to the farm to a trip to a family member’s estate. “You might have a crazy uncle, right? And that’s a lot like Kieron!”
Today, Hales is preparing a sampling of the farm’s summer menu, shuffling around the farmhouse’s country-style exhibition kitchen in his socks and I realize the well-worn motto, “This is your home,” is genuine. The space, both inside and out, feels vastly beautiful without being pretentious, and the familial sentiment billows about the property. Photos of Hales’ parents and grandparents, children and wife, hang throughout the farmhouse. And for the farm’s Sunday Roast Dinners, Hales says he blasts “Handel’s Messiah” as he cooks as an ode to a family tradition. “It’s what my parents would play on Sundays as they gardened and cooked.”
While other venues have opted to cram several events into a single day, Cornman Farms opts against renting each of the spaces on the property at once — the farmhouse sits alongside a tent pavilion and refurbished 1837 barn — and instead prides itself on offering guests free reign on all 27 acres of the property, be it an intimate wedding party of four or a corporate gathering of 135. Without this guiding principle, guests would not have the luxury of venturing away from their party to explore the fields, discovering the patch of Blue Hubbard squash from Mason’s hometown in Frankenmuth, or the rutabaga that Hales smuggled from his mother’s garden in England.
As a result, the farm does in fact often feel like a grand home of your own. “It’s important for us to protect that sense of exclusivity,” Mason says. “That’s our line in the sand.”