Kathleen Konwinski is learning more than knife skills and proper braising techniques as she studies to be a chef through Elgin Community College's culinary program. The second-year student from Sycamore also is learning how to tend a garden full of organic herbs and vegetables and how to tell when a tomato or okra is ready for harvest.
This past summer the culinary department expanded its 4-year-old project, taking over another raised planting bed on the pedestrian-accessible roof of an adjacent instructional building. The culinary department now maintains two large areas where flowers and other plants once provided a tranquil outdoor study and gathering spot.
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Students can now take a study break amid rows of basil, rosemary and arugula or relax in the shadow of towering tomato and okra plants.
"I started the garden because this is what's going on in our industry," instructor/chef Jill Russell said referring to the farm-to-fork movement that attempts to reconnect people with the source of their food.
"We created an interest and it caught on with them and this year we were able to more than double the planting area," Russell said.
With seed donations from Rosemont-based US Foods, Russell and two others plotted and planted the areas in mid-June -- later than most people put in their crops because the harvest had to coincide with students returning to campus.
Despite this summer's drought, the culinary garden have produced bumper crops of basil, tomatillos, okra, peppers and other vegetables. Students are even trying their hand at growing peanuts.
Much of the harvest ends up on the menu at the college's students-run Spartan Terrace Restaurant that serves lunch and dinner.
During a recent lunch service the chefs-in-training turned a variety of tomatoes and herbs into a refreshing gazpacho, simmered okra into Creole gumbo and sliced eggplant for a vegetarian and gluten-free Parmesan dish that also featured baby arugula and a vinaigrette made from oven-dried garden tomatoes.
"We have maps of the garden so if the students need anything, they can go right upstairs and find what they need," Russell said.
As second-year student Konwinski dished up a bowl of gazpacho she noted the flavor difference.
"I got the tomatoes this morning; we have a lot of good stuff up there," she said.
Russell is glad the students are making connections between the produce they work with and its source, yet she dreams of expanding their farm-to-fork experiences.
"I want a farm," Russell said. "I want a house that we can turn into a restaurant. I want chickens and eggs and honey bees. I want to make our own cheese and start a trout farm."
Russell envisions the farm as an interdisciplinary experience where business students can keep the books and building trades students can tend to mechanical equipment while auto students maintain farm vehicles.
She's planting the seeds of the idea now and hopes the rural community around Elgin's campus will help her plan take root and grow.