Green Acre Radio: Teaching sustainability to Seattle's student chefs

A Seattle Central Community College program gives students a head start on getting with the seed to plate movement, food justice, and affordability.

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Sweet Genovese basil

A Seattle Central Community College program gives students a head start on getting with the seed to plate movement, food justice, and affordability.

The art of "seed to plate" cuisine is growing strong at the Seattle Central Community College's Seattle Culinary Academy. Grow the seed or the plant in a nearby greenhouse. Then put it to mouth watering good use in dishes such as tea smoked duck and micro greens or creamy riesotto served with freshly harvested baby red beets. The academy is among the first in the nation to teach sustainability.

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Culinary students step outside the kitchen to a greenhouse tucked down the street behind a parking garage. Chef Sarah Wong teaches the art of identifying herbs. “Currently we have three kinds of basil growing in our greenhouse, basil Genovese, traditionally used in pesto. I’ll ask you to go ahead and just pick out a leaf from one of the lower levels so you can understand what that tastes like.” She crushes a leaf and passes it around. Is it spicy, she asks, are the aromatics profound? Student chef, Dustin, “It’s mild and has a little bit of spice but not anything overwhelming.”

Growing herbs is the latest step the Seattle Culinary Academy is taking in the sustainable seed to plate movement. Grow the food as close as possible to the plate you’re serving. What you get is a zero carbon footprint and in this case, a plate full of unforgettable food.

A program of Seattle Central Community College, the academy is among the first in the nation to offer formal sustainability courses. Big questions are asked here: the why behind sustainability and environmental stewardship, and the how of food justice and smart food economy. The college normally spends $1,500 a quarter on herbs. As the greenhouse ramps up production, they hope to grow all herbs and plants used for cooking and baking— basil, thyme, geranium, amaranth. The same goes for micro greens, beets, and cabbage grown in a small garden beside the greenhouse. “Micro greens are typically $3.50 a pint so they’re pretty expensive and not very labor intensive. We broadcast the seeds and then about two weeks later we have a pretty mature — for micro greens — crop.”

Back in the culinary academy’s kitchen, the herbs and micro greens are put to mouth watering good use. Take the lemon geranium. Student chef Jennifer: “That is going to be used to make a lemon geranium oil that is going to garnish my second course which is a smoked halibut with a jelled fume faro cake and dried porcini sabayon sauce.” In their last quarter each student becomes Chef of the Day with a three-course meal served in the academy’s One World Dining Room, one of two dining areas. Micro greens go with Jennifer’s first course, geoduck.

Her theme is “foraged and found”. “So all the ingredients on my ‘COD’ could theoretically be foraged for, grown, hunted, fished or found somewhere, even if it’s at a farmer’s market.” All are from the Northwest. “I’m using geoduck, halibut, venison and blackberries that I pickled in August.”

Wong shows off the cabbage freshly dug from the greenhouse garden to student chef Andy. “I’ve got an heirloom variety of Napa cabbage called ‘little jade’ for you. No pesticides have touched it. It’s completely usable.” What is she going to make with the cabbage? “I’m going to make sauerdraut out of it. I have a big passion for fermented foods. I think probiotics are key to our health and well-being.” Start with as fresh and healthy a cabbage as you can. “You chop it up and mix it with the brine, a salt to water mixture. You allow it to ferment at room temperature over time. It takes on a cheesy flavor that’s pretty remarkable.” But first she needs to finish sandwiches. It’s lunchtime. The culinary academy’s casual dining hall, Square One Bistro, is serving smoked salmon on foccaia bread with fresh made aoli, garnished with carmelized fennel.

As for the last of the garden’s baby red beets, they’re being deep fried, leaves and all. Madison, another chef in the making, says the beets go with a creamy riesotto, a vegetarian dish made with rye instead of rice, served with a carrot ju made from orange zest, madras curry powder, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Chef Karen Jorgenson, instrumental to starting the Seattle Culinary Academy’s sustainable cuisine program, does the taste test. “It’s delicious and it’s done. Yay. It’s lovely like a salad. You should try it.” Madison’s time here is coming to an end. “I’m almost done. Hallelujah!”

She knows she’ll find a job. The placement rate is 100 percent. Apart from learning the art of deep frying red beets, her goal is to own a pig farm. “Making organic material more affordable and available to low-income families is really what I’m interested in — getting it in the school systems, stuff like that.”

Niche markets, vegan cooking, using the whole animal — it’s all on the table, the seed to plate table.

If you go: The academy’s restaurants are open to the public. Details on hours, which vary with school schedule, are here. They are currently closed until Jan. 11.

Green Acre Radio is supported by the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby. Produced through the Jack Straw Foundation and KBCS.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.