The Farm at Kirk Douglas: a Student-Run Farm-to-Table Experience
I ladle a spoonful of chili into the fifth of 72 bowls to be served this evening. The Farm at Kirk Douglas is once again sold out, or close to it. All around me, students are executing their various duties with practiced hands: salads are being plated, the milk-based batido with blueberries and strawberries is being served; a student works the cash register in a flurry of activity. All of this is overseen by the watchful eyes of our expert in residence, Josh Taillon. Josh is a chef at the nearby Big Spoon Kitchen, and one of two chefs assisting us in the program. On the menu for the evening: a starter salad containing Napa cabbage coleslaw, with carrots, kale, and sunflower seeds -- all of this in a roasted garlic scape vinaigrette; the entrée is a three-bean vegetarian chili, with garlic toast on the side; the whole affair concludes with a dessert of toasted tortillas dusted in cinnamon sugar and dipped in an apple and pumpkin puree.
We are merely one step in the massive effort that goes into running a restaurant. There is an entire separate team that spent the afternoon preparing all of the food that we are currently serving. Not only that, but in the days leading up to Wednesday evening, students harvested the vegetables that we are currently serving. I can even tell you where the majority of the ingredients were sourced. The Sustainability Program (a St. Lawrence program in which students spend a year living on a University-owned farm, producing the food that they eat, and taking an interdisciplinary course load focused on sustainability) provided the three types of dry beans, tomatoes, carrots, sweet peppers, hot peppers, Napa cabbage, kale, onions, garlic, pumpkin, and garlic scapes. A local CSA farm, Birdsfoot, provided additional tomatoes. Martin’s Farm stand, a local farm stand, provided the apples. Carriage House Bakery provided the bread for the garlic bread.
At this point, you may be wondering what this enterprise entails. This program is called the Green Café. It is a course set to be offered every fall semester here on campus at SLU. Its first iteration was in the fall of 2019, but this was precluded by years of hard work and planning by professors Sara Ashpole, Sam Joseph, the students of the Sustainability Program, and many others. Additionally, some pilot cafés were held in the spring of 2019. The course aims to provide students with hands-on experience in the realm of farm-to-table dining and sustainable agriculture; however, it strives to do far more than just execute a weekly restaurant. It aims to imbue students with a greater awareness of the relationship between food and culture, and all the related complexities. It explores far more than just a surface-level relationship with food.
The Green Café also presented plenty of obstacles and challenges. A farm-to-table restaurant is an incredibly dynamic enterprise, requiring a true entrepreneurial spirit. As a teaching assistant/intern for the course, I had the privilege of working with five other colleagues, each of whom brought their own unique set of expertise to the table. The dedication of Sara Ashpole, Sam Joseph, Will Trithart, Josh Taillon, and Georgia Grzywacz was remarkable. Additionally, the course was filled with students from all four class years, each of whom displayed incredible fortitude, adaptability, and problem solving in a course that was entirely uncharted waters. If something needed to be done, whether it was staying an extra hour to finish washing dishes, or creating a poster for marketing, it was done. Additionally, our dining services on campus, Dana Dining Services, encouraged this program every step of the way, and were crucial in its success. They allowed us to use their preparation spaces, collaborated on food orders, provided dishware, etc. The Sustainability Program provided us with fresh produce, abundant hard work, and dedication. The wider North Country community also played a pivotal role in the success of the Green Café. The nearby Cornell Cooperative Extension provided us with the space in which we cooked. Finally, numerous local farms provided us with the fresh produce incorporated in the delicious food that we served.
If this sounds like an atypical classroom experience to you, you would be correct; however, I would not consider my experience in the Green Café to be one atypical for St. Lawrence. Rather, it was a quintessential representation of the St. Lawrence experience. This is in large part due to the special culture of the St. Lawrence community. Students, faculty, and staff collaborating to turn an ambitious goal into a reality reveals what we have here at SLU: A voraciously curious community, not afraid to set lofty goals, and above all else, excited to tackle them in a collaborative manner.
As the final diners of the evening say their thanks and shuffle out the door, I allow myself a small internal celebration. We have once again pulled off another week of the Farm at Kirk Douglas. Based on the overwhelmingly positive reaction of our customers, and the sparse amount of leftovers to be composted, it was another successful evening; however, a small internal celebration is all I get. There is still much to do before the kitchen is shipshape. Already, my fellow students are jumping into action. A broom materializes, counters are being wiped off, and dishes are being washed. And, let’s not forget, there is next week to begin planning.