Food, wonderful food. A food movement and subculture is well under way in America that finds urban dwellers growing their own organic produce, even tending chickens for fresh eggs and raising rabbits for fresh meat, in order to create healthy, sustainable, self-reliant food production and distribution models that bypass dependence on corporate, profit-driven systems with their higly processed, pre-packaged products and that provide relief for the food deserts found in many inner cities. This trend towards fresh, locally produced ingredients is well-entrenched among the culinary set, where enligntened chefs and restaurants often grow much of their own produce or else get it from local farmers. At Metroplitan Community College the Institute for Culinary Arts operates the Sage Student Bistro, a public eating venue whose gourmet meals are prepared by students under chef instructor supervision. The Bistro works closely with the Horticulture program across the street to serve up menus thick with fresh ingredients grown in the campus gardens and greenhouses and aquaponic tanks. My new cover story for Edible Omaha features this culinary-horticulure marriage. You can find my related stories on this blog about the Omaha ventures No More Empty Pots and Minne Lusa House.
Culinary-Horticulture Marriage at Metropolitan Community College
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the Harvest issue of Edible Omaha
Culinary arts and horticulture studies are close, interdisciplinary tracks and next door neighbors at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.
With the whole farm to table and sustainable movements in full bloom, it’s no surprise collaboration happens there to give students and diners at MCC’s Sage Student Bistro fresh, organic food grown by the horticulture team.
It’s all about working with and enjoying quality ingredients as close to the source and ground as possible.
Metro’s quarter-acre production garden is just a few hundred feet from the Bistro, which also has a cutting herb garden on its patio dining area. Locally sourced food “doesn’t get any closer than this,” says chef instructor Oystein Solberg.
“It’s hyper local,” says horticulture instructor and garden manager Patrick Duffy.
“It’s an incredible difference being able to talk to guests about it and point to where a lot of the vegetables grow,” says Solberg. “During the summer when we’ve got the herb garden going our guests can sit out there and smell the basil and mint and oregano we’re using to cook with.
“There’s few restaurants that do what we do, that are a learning environment teaching both our guests and our students.”
Solberg says this is only the third or fourth harvest season for the garden and the Bistro is making more and more use of it.
“It’s marvelous. By growing we’ve been able to use more local than we’ve ever done. Keeping it growing and evolving is excellent.”
He says having the school’s horticulture program be a key producer for its culinary program is “a little bit outside the box,” adding, “There’s not that many schools that have it, but there’s a lot of restaurants starting to have it. Like they maybe have a little garden up on the roof. When you go to Calif., really all along the west coast, there’s a lot of restaurants that have attached gardens, so it’s getting more common
“Our goal is not really to try and be as everybody else, we want to try and push the boundaries and see how far we can go with it.”
Institute for Culinary Arts dean Jim Trebbien says, “We have had people come to study our model from across the country. It is quite unusual because most culinary programs do not operate a restaurant such as ours and have the expertise we do and most horticulture programs have not adopted new sustainability methods into their curriculum as quickly as we have.” He says this integrated, collaborative resulted from discussions with local leaders in food sustainability, including MCC’s own Brian O’Malley, Jen Valandra and Todd Morrissey and No More Empty Pots’ Nancy Williams and Susan Whitfield.
Solberg oversees the Bistro. Under his and fellow instructors’ supervision culinary students prepare gourmet meals for paying customers and are graded on their performance. Solberg works closely with Duffy to determine what can be effectively grown and delivered to meet the Bistro’s schedule and end up on its menus. The garden is also a teaching tool for both horticulture and culinary students. The Food Cultivation course uses the garden as an outdoor laboratory.
“Patrick tells me what they want to do with their classes and then I write a menu of what I want to do with my classes. We met back in Jan.-Feb. and tried to figure out what they were going to plant, what was going to be done when, then we tried to make the menus out of that. With the greenhouses they have over there we can start growing fairly early because they keep the temperature and the soil fairly high.
“Then if I’ve got some changes, if i have other stuff I want to play with, to kind of fit in spots here and there, or I randomly think of something I haven’t worked with in a while, I’ll pitch it by him to see if it’s something he can grow. We’ve got to work within the timeline. Starting in Jan. we’ve got to have ready greens by June. We have to see what we’re able to get with the weather and climate. It’s a lot of stuff that has to match up. It’s kind of a never-ending process.”
Sage Student Bistro
Duffy says, “I’m getting better at timing things out. We need to make sure our peaks coincide with the school quarter, so we don’t have too much excess. It’s challenging. Down the road we’d love to do a farmer’s market where that excess would feed into, but that’s a couple years away. But it’s certainly like the next level where we would bleed off that excess. Right now it gets composted.”
For this summer’s menu Solberg’s arranged for Duffy to grow a long list of ingredients to be used in various ways and dishes:
“It’s an early summer menu, so there’s no tomatoes, and there’s more likely zucchini blossoms than zucchinis,” says Duffy. “Then when the Bistro opens again in Sept. there’ll be big sexy stuff like tomatoes. We’ll grow a lot of tomatoes. We do a pretty intense production. We do vertical trellising. We’ll focus more on red tomatoes this year and less colored tomatoes. We’ll play around a lot. We’ve done some grafting on tomatoes. To up the vigor of our hybrids we take an heirloom and graft it onto a hybrid root.
“We’ve backed off on things like pumpkins because they take up so much space and we don’t have that much use for them. When you go from being a backyard gardener to a production grower you need to start doing more lettuces and cabbages and lots of them and all these background things that go into salads.”
Duffy says young culinary students can particularly benefit from learning about the production side.
“The truth is they don’t know what’s available, they don’t know there are white tomatoes, white watermelons. One thing I do is walk them through everything and say, ‘These are your options.’ I tell them you’re only as good as what’s coming off the truck if that’s what you’re going off. Wholesale distributors are only delivering certain things. Once you know your options then you and your imagination as a chef is the limiting factor.
“So I try to push them.”
The more students understand the food chain, Solberg says, the better. “It just makes them respect the food in a whole different way. It makes them see what labor and blood, sweat and tears go into growing those things. It makes them think twice before throwing it away or using it carelessly.” Solberg also impresses upon students the varieties available to them. He uses tomatoes as an example.
“Some are better for roasting, some are better for stewing. You can use different tomatoes for different end products. Like the Striped Cavern has thick hearty walls great for scooping out and filling and roasting. There are differences in flavor and texture. The Nebraska Wedding and Amish Paste are sweet and delicious.”
He always advises to go with what’s fresh and best.
“Like getting tomatoes in Dec..Yes, you can do it but you really shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be doing BLTs and caprese salads in Dec. It just ties into menu-writing and the way you think. It ties into everything we should be about. If you’re writing a Christmas menu you use more winter hearty greens because the product will be at its best instead of getting cardboard tomatoes from wherever. It’s just wrong.”
Solberg says he’s learning all the time himself about varieties. “It’s awesome.”
Duffy’s also open to Oystein’s opinions. He recalls first meeting the chef, a native of Norway, at the Metro garden and Oystein asking, “Where are the currant bushes going to go?” Duffy says, “I had not even thought about putting currant bushes in but being from Norway he immediately went to berries and I went and bought 10 currant bushes and we’ve grown that. They’re a permanent part of the garden. It’s a commitment you make.” Duffy also added raspberries.
Additionally, Duffy grows apples and pears on the trellises “Those are just now starting to come into their own,” he says.
Horticulture supplies more than just things that grow in the ground. Its aquaponics tank raises tilapia and its barnyard provides fresh eggs, rabbit, squab and honey.
As a result Metro is offering a small animal husbandry class and a small farming degree. “We’ve had a lot of interest already,” says Duffy. “It’s going to start this fall.”
The more the relationship between horticulture and culinary grows, says Duffy, “I’m learning what to bring – greens, root vegetables. We grew potatoes one year but those take up a lot of space. I bring catalogs and we go through them together. I usually start with what I call the Christmas List and have them say everything they want. I don’t want them to edit themselves on their side and then I see what I can do on my side and then we try to meet in the middle. It’s a back and forth.”
Duffy adds, “When I deliver things I try not to edit myself. I was at first. Like I was cutting off the radish tops before I brought the radishes but he (Solberg) wanted the radish tops too, so I have to make sure I don’t edit myself and just give them as raw and complete a product as I can because then they have more uses.” And when he sees something like bok choy on a menu plan he inquires what variety’s desired.
He says he occasionally pitches things to the chefs. One year he tried selling them on dandelions. “It didn’t really fly. Too bitter. I might try it again sometime.”
His goal is for the garden to receive USDA organic certification. He envisions more gardens around campus one day. The barnyard could one day also raise pigs and goats.
Both men agree the collaborative is a success.
Duffy says the burgeoning relationship “better then we ever could have imagined.”
“It’s been a joint effort really,” says Solberg. “Like I’ve always enjoyed cooking out of the garden and they’ve always enjoyed growing stuff for us to use. It just happened pretty organically. It didn’t ever have to be forced.”
And if some things don’t turn out, Solberg adds, “I’m flexible, I just work with whatever Patrick gives me.”
The Bistro is open for lunch and dinner this fall. For menus, hours and reservations, call 402-457-2328.