Johnson & Wales Takes a Bite of Local Food
It’s not just elementary school kids who get to go on field trips to the farm. Students of the Johnson & Wales University Culinary Arts and Food Service Management program enrolled in the university’s new Wellness and Sustainability concentration get to visit farms as well as seafood suppliers and local food purveyors.
The curriculum, carefully calculated like any new culinary venture, also includes class room visits by farmers, chefs, cheesemongers and other local food artisans.
Lectures, quizzes and cooking assignments are interspersed with conversations with those who eat, sleep and breathe sustainability, including, among others, well-known and well-respected local chefs like north’s James Mark, Tallulah on Thames’ Jake Rojas, Birch’s Ben Sukle and Aspire’s Rolando Robledo. Through such encounters, students get “up close and personal” with locally sourced produce and proteins that chef-instructors challenge them to turn into fabulous tasting meals.
“Wellness and sustainability is a topic near and dear to my heart,” said visiting chef Derek Wagner. Wagner, owner of Nick’s on Broadway, is a regular guest speaker. “There are so many layers to sustainability; it’s not just about supporting farmers or getting the best possible tasting food or making a better or lower impact on the environment. It’s about all those things.”
Challenges await chefs who cook this way, Wagner warned the students, as budgeting, sourcing and making connections with so many suppliers is demanding. By doing so, however, chefs can improve the quality and flavor of foods on their menus and contribute to their local economy. Wagner should know; he works with some 50–60 local seafood suppliers, meat, dairy, egg and chicken farmers, among others.
The Wellness and Sustainability concentration began in the spring of 2012 with 17 students. Today, it’s at full capacity with two sections of 20 students each, said William Idell, one of three chairs of the Culinary Arts program. His 11-week class, Sustainability in the Culinary Kitchen, explores economic, agricultural, political and ethical issues impacting chefs’ use of sustainable foods and addresses practical issues in the food service industry today.
The wellness focus is in its infancy, said Idell, but chefs don’t need nutrition degrees to cook healthfully. “If we can get people motivated to buy local, there’s more freshly harvested produce and other good-quality food for the everyday consumer,” he said, adding that chefs’ purchasing power can impact their customers’ health.
A visiting farmer, Freedom Food Farm owner Chuck Currie, urged students to ask questions about how produce is grown, how animals are raised and how workers are treated. After only two seasons, his Johnston- based leased farm, which sells produce, heritage pork, eggs and Freedom Ranger chickens, recently relocated to Raynham, Massachusetts, with expanded acreage. The Johnston landowners he leased from were planning to sell the land to a developer.
In addition to field trips to the farm, lectures from visiting chefs and local purveyors, the concentration includes three kitchen “lab”-based classes titled Conscious Cuisine, Plant-based Cuisine and Farm to Table Desserts. They each run for nine days, six hours each day. During the labs’ final days, students create delicious, healthy, seasonal and locally sourced five- to eight- course “Chef’s Table” tasting menus, to which guests from on and off campus are invited for the final meal.
Idell, instrumental in developing the program, explained that participating professors played pivotal roles in bringing the program to fruition. He expressed delight that this concentration, one of a wide variety offered by the university, could have fresh local food delivered from Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Market Mobile, which allows chefs to place one order for all their local produce and proteins directly from multiple local farms and producers.
Just as professional chefs face price and availability constraints, so too do students preparing Chef’s Table menus. At least half the ingredients must come from Market Mobile, and every highlighted item or main component must be locally sourced. Limited by a $100 budget, each five-student team must create the menu, set the table, prepare and serve the meal to their four invited guests, and describe each course’s local themes. Invited guests then provide feedback on presentation, taste and appearance.
In the kitchen lab, just hours before the Plant-based Cuisine Chef’s Table meals were ready for serving, instructor Chef Brandon Lewis circulated around a remarkably calm kitchen infused with reggae music and populated by 20 focused, purposeful students.
Asking questions and critiquing items’ appearance, taste and plating, he offered suggestions to student Isis Cook about how she might best plate her pumpkin wrapper wontons and scallion pancakes for maximum eye appeal. He recommended another student reduce her appetizers’ portion sizes.
As the clock ticked closer to serving time, calls of “Yes, Chef,” and questions like “You done with this flour?” permeated the air, redolent with smells of sautéeing garlic, onion and squash.
Student Adam Baffoni, whose family owns Johnston-based Baffoni’s Poultry Farm, prepared roasted celeriac with an acorn squash and apple purée.
“I’ve worked at Baffoni’s since I was 17,” he said. “I’ve been interested in sustainability before it became a trend in restaurants.”
Other students found exposure to locally sourced foods eye-opening.
“To actually visit the farms,” said student Heather Ireland, “makes me appreciate the work that goes into growing produce.” Asked why she chose this concentration, she said, “I didn’t know much about it but it’s a growing trend that I think is going to stick.” Given what she’s learned, she shops at farmers’ markets and farm stands when possible and always, always shops seasonally.
As she prepared a vegetable carpaccio, student Jasmine Johnson expressed appreciation for her teachers’ passion. “Going to farms is especially great for me, as I grew up in Chicago,” she said. “To pull a crop from the ground and use it in a meal that same day … I have a great deal of respect for all that we eat.”
Carrot peelings and onionskins sit in shallow metal dishes for future composting; a large trashcan near the dishwashers holds compostable materials. JWU’s composting program started last fall, said student Travis Harmon, who expressed mild disappointment that no vegetable or herb gardens grace the Harborside campus.
Meanwhile one team was hard at work creating a New England harvest theme, the other a Japanese theme; both menus featured apples, squash and other autumn produce in abundance.
Sustainable cuisine has multiple applications, yet some culinary students are not so sure about dessert, said Chef Lauren Haas, a Farm to Table Dessert instructor. “We make savory things too, including some jams,” said Haas. “They learn a lot more than just how to make ice cream.”
In another exercise in the lab classes’ final days, students receive “Mystery Baskets,” akin to those on the Food Network show “Chopped,” containing excess food from Market Mobile that they must use to create starters, entrées and a family meal.
When hard-hatted Jim Fuchs, a JWU instructor, prepared to sever the head of a gutted, 185-pound hog from Blackbird Farm, one student murmured, “This is going to be intense.” Smart phones were out in full force videoing and photographing the breakdown, as Fuchs explained myriad snout-to-tail uses of pork parts.
Asked whether the concentration might grow into a stand–alone degree, Idell said, “We are currently working to figure out how we can expand the Wellness and Sustainability concentration; we very much want this to happen!” Although he envisions some logistical challenges, he is sure they are not insurmountable.