Food Service Class Collaborates with Local Agency on a Community Garden
On a warm afternoon last Fall, a group of students in the PCCC Continuing Education food service program gathered for a lesson about herbs in the Howard Sterling Memorial Garden at CUMAC, a non-profit agency dedicated to alleviating hunger, with headquarters on Ellison Street, just a block from the College’s Paterson campus.
“Describe what you taste,” said Robert Eckert, the chef instructor, as he picked a leafy green and held it out to a student, who sniffed the plant, then popped it into his mouth. “It’s mint,” he replied. Chef Rob declared the answer to be correct, then took the lesson up a notch. “Now tell me the secondary note you detect. Is it sweet? Pungent?”
The hour-long lesson had students plucking, sampling, and identifying by taste fresh oregano, parsley, basil, and other herbs from the garden plots located at the rear of CUMAC’s busy shipping and receiving area where trucks pulled in to unload donations at the ministry’s warehouse.
The gardens were started in this unlikely urban location three years ago by Laura Purdy, the director of operations at CUMAC. “It was always my dream to have a garden here,” said Ms. Purdy who wanted the ability to provide fresh produce to CUMAC’s clients, the many community residents who depend on the food pantry.
“The seeds for the garden were donated by Trader Joe’s, the soil is organic, and no pesticides are used,” said Ms. Purdy, who initially maintained the gardens herself.
When the CUMAC green space came to the attention of Chef James Hornes, the director of food service training at PCCC’s Continuing Education, another seed was planted, this time for a collaboration between CUMAC’s community service and PCCC’s educational mission.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity for our students to learn how to grow their own fresh ingredients,” said Chef Hornes.
That was two years ago. Now PCCC’s food service students cultivate the gardens and, along with clients of CUMAC, enjoy the yield, which has included tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and other vegetables, in addition to the herbs.
“While gaining this hands-on experience, the students are also participating in the community, which is an important part of attending a community college,” explained Chef Hornes.
The class meets once a week at the gardens, where they check on the progress of their plantings and have a hands-on lesson with Chef Rob, who brings more than two decades of industry experience to his classroom.
“Teaching has been the most rewarding part of my culinary career,” said Chef Rob, an eight-year instructor at PCCC’s Office of Continuing Education. “It’s very fulfilling to train students and see them develop and go on to successful jobs in the field.”
Enthusiastic about the garden, the chef instructor said it “enables the students to prepare and experience a farm-to-table meal.” His lessons focus not only on food preparation, but also on the details that make a food business successful.
Holding up a sprig of parsley, Chef Rob told the students to “think about how the green parsley will look on a white plate,” stressing the importance of presentation when serving a meal. “We call this culinary arts for a reason,” he explained. “There’s an art to making food look as good as it tastes.”
Moving on to the economics of running an efficient professional kitchen, Chef Rob explained how to get several meals out of a single set of ingredients. “You should end up with as little waste as possible,” he advised.
After the class identified and collected several herbs typically used in Italian cooking, Chef Rob announced they would be making a pasta dish with pesto cream sauce the following day. “Everybody like that?” he asked. He didn’t have to ask twice.
As the class came to an end, students continued chatting with one another about which herbs they easily recognized and which one they sampled for the first time. “I love the garden,” said Lakingy Brown as she fingered some plants. “I like everything about this class,” she added. “I’m here because I plan to own my own restaurant someday…soul food.”
The collaboration between PCCC and CUMAC continues this spring.
Article and photos by Linda Telesco