Shaping the Next Generation of Locavore Chefs

February 12, 2010


In the kitchen at the California Culinary Academy(CCA) a student makes fresh pasta. At the center of a mound of green-tinted flour, he begins slowly working in a golden pool of liquid egg. The pasta will be served on the students’ final day in CCA’s teaching restaurant, Careme 350, and it’s the addition of powdered green garlic says chef and instructor Amy Toder, that will make the pasta green.

The green garlic comes from Everything Under the Sun and the farmer, Bill Crepps, is visiting the class on his way home from the Tuesday farmers market. He’s there to meet with students, answer questions about things like organic certification and his path to farming (“I got into it more as an environmentalist”), and to put a face on the food he’s delivering for this month’s menu. Toder shows Bill how she and her students plan to incorporate his produce. She picks up the garlic-infused dough for Bill to smell, and asks: “Isn’t that wonderful?” Toder then details her plan for a salad that will use a combination of Bill’s fresh and dried Mandarins, with the dried ones sprinkled on top at the very end of the process, “almost as a nut replacement.”  Bill wonders aloud why he hasn’t tried that — he’s a man with no shortage of ideas — and asks if he can get a copy of the best recipes to share with his customers.

Like her students, Toder is clearly inspired by the farm-fresh produce. (“It was probably picked around 24-hours ago,” says Bill.)  She retrieves a radish from the school’s walk-in cooler and compares it to one she gets out of a box of Bill’s produce. “You can see that this one is a living thing,” she says, pointing to Bill’s radish. “It has so much vitality!”

CCA classes don’t just graduate once a year; instead, a small group of them graduate every six weeks. Until recently, each graduating class was asked to prepare and serve something called the “Grand Buffet.” They worked hard on a wide variety of entrees, salads, and sweets for Careme 350 guests — all made with conventional produce bought through a large distributor. “If you can cook with these ingredients, you can do anything,” says Toder. This year, thanks in part to a collaboration with CUESA, the school has shifted to what they are calling the Farmer Program; instead of the buffet, they plan and prepare a final lunch and dinner with produce from a single small-scale farmer.

Within the context of a year-long curriculum that Toder says addresses sustainable food for just about one day, the Farmer Program could have an important impact on tomorrow’s emerging chefs. Sarah Henkin, CUESA’s Market Chef, is a CCA alumna who came to CUESA as a volunteer intern because she wanted to familiarize herself with local farmers and the food they grow. She’s hoped for the day when her alma mater would institutionalize this important aspect of culinary education. “Many of these farmers supply San Francisco’s top restaurants and it’s important that young chefs are exposed to the local produce available in the Bay Area,” she says, adding, “this is a great opportunity for graduating students to make connections that could last them their for whole careers.”

Chefs are a crucial piece of the food system and their choices have a significant impact on the local food economy. Sourcing directly from farmers can cost more, so Toder says she’s also working with students to think about cost-saving measures such as controlling portion size and reducing waste. The move away from the “Grand Buffets” concept was part of that process.

The CCA is only one campus of the Cordon Blue, a network of culinary programs in cities all over the country that each plan to integrate farmers into the curriculum in one way or another. Chef Instructor Damon Barham, who works with Toder, is excited to see such a system-wide shift. “It’s really being incorporated into the corporate model” he says. “Going forward, over the next 10 years, I think working with local, sustainably-produced food will be the model.”

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