The kitchen may seem like the obvious place for aspiring chefs to start learning to prepare food, but students at the Lorain County Community College Culinary Arts Institute are learning that meal preparation actually begins on the farm, among herds of cattle and rows of produce. By partnering with farmers throughout Lorain County, LCCC’s culinary program provides students with locally grown ingredients and opportunities to experience the farm-to-fork process first-hand.
“When you’re a college that was built on farmland, it’s important that you don’t lose sight of that,” says Chef Adam Schmith, director of the Culinary Arts Institute at LCCC. “To have the students engage with the farmers and utilize products from these farms builds a strong foundation, a legacy of using local products.”
The college’s commitment to local food is embedded in the curriculum for the culinary arts associate degree program, which launched six years ago. Students participate in an eight-week Farm-to-Fork course, and operate a student-run restaurant, Sage & Seed, that showcases locally sourced ingredients.
Straight from the source
When the culinary program debuted, “the food was sourced in a conventional way,” Schmith says, meaning that he worked with vendors who supplied products. He tried to stay as local as possible, but because ingredients were delivered in a box, he felt there was a missing link in the food supply chain. He wanted to instead take students straight to the source.
“We had been receiving product from these farms through local vendors for several years, indirectly,” Schmith says. “Through this new initiative, we were able to go directly to the farms.”
The college’s administrative leadership team worked with the Lorain County Farm Bureau to develop connections with local farms that could provide ingredients and educational opportunities for students. Two years ago, the college secured partnerships with five local farms, including Lettuce Heads in Wellington, that work directly with Schmith to supply top-quality ingredients for the culinary coursework and capstone restaurant.
“This has put tremendous product in front of the students,” says Schmith, who works with partner farms to plan crops around the program’s needs and specifications. “It’s extra work, but it’s important because we’re supporting the community.”
Sage & Seed
Fresh ingredients play a vital role in the restaurant capstone project each spring, when students showcase a locally sourced menu at Sage & Seed, the student-run restaurant inside the Norton Culinary Arts Center.
“It’s modeled after national culinary institutes where students have to facilitate the operation of a restaurant as a realistic stress test,” Schmith says. “It’s important that they learn customer service in the front of the house, and also how to manage a dinner rush from the back of the house.”
The student-run restaurant opened in 2014 and rebranded as Sage & Seed last year. The new name represents the “sage” wisdom of instructors building on the community’s agricultural past, to plant the “seed” of new beginnings for students in the culinary program.
For each eight-week cycle of the capstone, the menu shifts to highlight the freshest local ingredients. Last year’s menu featured appetizers such as goat cheese fondue and roast pork belly, and entrees included the all-local burger made with beef raised at Flynn Show Cattle in Wellington, organic tomatoes grown at Coleman Gardens in Avon Lake, hydroponic lettuce grown at Tyler’s Farm in Oberlin, and cheese from Lake Erie Creamery, made with milk produced at Grim Dairy Farm in New London.
On the final night of the capstone, teams of students compete in a challenge akin to the cooking competition “Hell’s Kitchen,” where they must develop a four-course meal from a mystery box of ingredients. Diners vote on their favorite dish to determine the winner.
“That night used to only entertain about 40 people, and for our last one, we took reservations for 120,” Schmith says. “It’s a great show of support by the community.”
Sage & Seed is open to the public by reservation only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (5 to 7:30 p.m.) from January through May. For more information, visit Sage & Seed.
Down on the farm
Today, more than a third of the product that comes into the culinary program is sourced locally, including 75 percent of the produce and about half of the meat. But this partnership is about much more than just ingredients because of the valuable experiences that local farmers offer students.
“One of the differences between our institution and others is that we’re actually getting students out in the community to continue their development,” Schmith says. “Instead of staying in the classroom, students go to actual farms to get a hands-on experience.”
In August, for example, students in the Farm-to-Fork class visited Coleman Gardens, a two-acre produce farm. Owners Joe and Marcia Coleman provided seeds and approximately 3,500 square feet of land for students to plant a variety of greens and herbs. After six weeks, the students returned to harvest their crop, reaping nearly 400 pounds of lettuce.
“The hands-on experience of rolling up your sleeves and working is always valuable,” Joe Coleman says. “If they can see what it takes to not just buy produce, but to actually produce it from seed — that gives them the added benefit of just how much hard work goes into it.”
Students tour several farms each year to see operations first-hand. In September, they toured Flynn Show Cattle, where Eric and Adele Flynn raise show calves, breeding stock and freezer beef that supplies the program.
“For some of these students, the only farm experiences they’ve had are these visits through the culinary program,” says Adele Flynn, who previously served as president of the Lorain County Farm Bureau before being elected to the board of the Ohio Farm Bureau earlier this year. “When they get to see what we do every day, and how much time and hard work goes in to that product, it teaches them to take care of their food.”
This translates back to the kitchen, where Schmith sees students take ownership over the ingredients after visiting farms.
“When they see the hard work that happens in the fields, they appreciate the product a little more,” he says. “They don’t waste as much. They treat it with more respect.”
Fueling the local movement
As much as these local partnerships benefit culinary students, Schmith hopes that the collaboration will, in turn, teach Cleveland-area restaurants and consumers about the vital role that small farms play.
“Everyone — not just culinary students — should be aware of where their food is coming from,” says Joe Coleman, who regularly hosts tours of his farm for other groups. “It’s important for us to educate as many people as possible about the value of local food.”
Through this partnership, local farms are building awareness around their products, giving the public access to the same quality ingredients used at LCCC to train the next generation of culinary professionals.
If nothing else, Schmith says, the community can taste the difference for themselves when they eat at Sage & Seed or attend an event that the college hosts with the Farm Bureau, featuring food sourced in Lorain County and prepared by culinary students.
“The fact that we have a well-run program in our county that produces excellent food and produces high-caliber chefs that are going on to (work at) local restaurants, that’s preaching the importance of local,” Coleman says.