Collaboration Blossoms at
Metropolitan Community College
By Leo Adam Biga
Photography by Alison Bickel
The culinary arts and horticulture departments are close interdisciplinary tracks and next-door neighbors at Metropolitan Community College’s (MCC) Fort Omaha campus. With farm-to-table and sustainable movements in full bloom, it’s no surprise that collaboration happens here, giving students and diners at MCC’s Sage Student Bistro fresh, organic food grown by the horticulture team. This partnership is all about working with and enjoying quality ingredients as close to the source and ground as possible.
MCC’s quarter-acre production garden is just a few hundred feet from the bistro, which also has a cutting herb garden in its patio dining area. Locally sourced food “doesn’t get any closer than this,” says Chef Instructor Oystein Solberg. “It’s hyper-local,” adds Patrick Duffy, horticulture instructor and garden manager.
“It’s an incredible difference being able to talk to guests about it and point to where a lot of the vegetables grow,” says Oystein. “During the summer when we’ve got the herb garden going, our guests can sit out there and smell the basil and mint and oregano we’re using to cook with.”
He adds, “There’s few restaurants that do what we do—that are learning environments—teaching both our guests and our students.” Oystein points out that this is only the fourth harvest season for the garden, and the bistro is making more and more use of it. “It’s marvelous. By growing, we’ve been able to use more local than we ever have. Keeping it growing and evolving is excellent.”
Oystein says that having the school’s horticulture program be a key producer for its culinary program is “a little bit outside of the box. There are not that many schools that have it, but there are a lot of restaurants starting to have it. Like maybe they have a little garden on the roof. When you go to California—really all along the West Coast— there are a lot of restaurants that have attached gardens, so it’s getting more common. Our goal is not really to try to be like everybody else. We want to try to push the boundaries and see how far we can go with it.”
Jim Trebbien, Institute for Culinary Arts dean, points out that MCC’s model has been studied across the country. “It is quite unusual, because most culinary programs do not operate a restaurant such as ours and have the expertise that we do. And most horticulture programs have not adopted new sustainability methods into their curriculum as quickly as we have.” He adds that the integrated, collaborative approach resulted from discussions with local leaders in food sustainability, including MCC’s own Brian O’Malley, Jen Valandra and Todd Morrissey, and No More Empty Pots’s Nancy Williams and Susan Whitfield.
Oystein oversees the bistro. Under his and his fellow instructors’ supervision, culinary students prepare gourmet meals for paying customers, and they are graded on their performance. Oystein works closely with Patrick to determine what can be effectively grown and delivered to accommodate the bistro’s schedule and end up on its quarterly menus. The garden is also a teaching tool for both horticulture and culinary students. The “Food Cultivation” course, for example, uses the garden as an outdoor laboratory.
“Patrick tells me what they want to do with their classes, and then I write a menu of what I want to do with my classes,” Oystein explains. “We met back in January and February and tried to figure out what they were going to plant and what was going to be done when, and then we tried to make the menus out of that. With the greenhouses they have over there, we can start growing fairly early because they keep the air and soil temperatures fairly high.”
If Oystein has changes or other “stuff I want to play with to kind of fit in spots here and there,” he will run it by Patrick to see if it’s something he can grow. They have to work within the timeline and have greens ready by June. “We have to see what we’re able to get with the weather and climate. It’s a lot of stuff that has to match up. It’s kind of a never-ending process.”
Patrick says, “I’m getting better at timing things out. We need to make sure our peaks coincide with the school quarter so we don’t have too much excess. It’s challenging. Down the road, we’d love to do a farmers market for that excess to feed into, but that’s a couple of years away. Right now it gets composted.”
For this summer’s menu, Oystein arranged for Patrick to grow a long list of ingredients to be used in various ways and dishes. They include:
- bok choy
- red sorrel
- romaine lettuce
- Swiss chard
“It’s an early-summer menu, so there are no tomatoes, and there are more likely zucchini blossoms than zucchinis,” says Patrick. “Then when the bistro reopens in September, there’ll be big sexy stuff like tomatoes. We do a pretty intense production. We’ll focus more on red tomatoes this year and less on colored tomatoes. We’ll play around a lot.”
Patrick continues sharing they’ve backed off on pumpkins because they take up so much space and there isn’t much use for them. “When you go from being a backyard gardener to a production grower, you need to start doing more lettuces and cabbages and all of these background things that go into salads.”
Patrick says young culinary students can particularly benefit from learning about the production side of things. “The truth is that they don’t know what’s available—they don’t know that there are white tomatoes, white watermelons, etc. One thing I do is walk them through everything and say, ‘These are your options.’ I tell them that you’re only as good as what’s coming off the truck if that’s what you’re going off of. Wholesale distributors are only delivering certain things. Once you know your options, then your imagination as a chef is the limiting factor. So I try to push them.”
The more students understand the food chain, Oystein says, the better. “It just makes them respect the food in a whole different way. It makes them see what labor and blood, sweat and tears go into growing those things. It makes them think twice before throwing it away or using it carelessly.” He also impresses upon students the varieties available. He uses tomatoes as an example: “Some are better for roasting, and some are better for stewing. You can use different tomatoes for different end products. The Striped Cavern, for example, has thick, hearty walls that are great for scooping out and filling and roasting. There are differences in flavor and texture. The Nebraska Wedding and Amish Paste are sweet and delicious.”
Oystein always advises students to go with what’s fresh and the best. “It’s like getting tomatoes in December. Yes, you can do it, but you really shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be doing BLTs and Caprese salads in December. It just ties into menu writing and the way you think. It ties into everything we should be about. If you’re writing a Christmas menu, you use more winter hearty greens because the product will be at its best instead of getting cardboard tomatoes from wherever. It’s just wrong.”
Oystein says he’s learning all the time. “It’s awesome.” And Patrick is open to Oystein’s opinions. Patrick recalls first meeting Oystein, a native of Norway, at the MCC garden. Oystein asking, “Where are the currant bushes going to go?” Patrick says, “I had not even thought about putting currant bushes in, but being from Norway, he immediately went to berries. So I bought 10 currant bushes, and they’re a permanent part of the garden. It’s a commitment you make.” Patrick also added raspberries, as well as apples and pears that grow on trellises. “Those are just now starting to come into their own,” he says.
The horticulture department supplies more than just what grows in the ground. Its aquaponics tank raises tilapia, and its barnyard provides fresh eggs, rabbit, squab and honey. As a result, the college is offering a small animal husbandry class and a small market farming degree program. “We’ve had a lot of interest already,” says Patrick. “Both are going to start this fall.”
The more the relationship between the horticulture and culinary departments grows, says Patrick, “I’m learning what to bring—greens, root vegetables. We grew potatoes one year but those take up a lot of space. I bring catalogs and we go through them together. I usually start with what I call the Christmas List and have them say everything they want. I don’t want them to edit themselves on their side and then I see what I can do on my side and then we try to meet in the middle. It’s a back and forth.”
Patrick adds, “When I deliver things, I try not to edit myself. I was at first. I was cutting off the radish tops before I brought the radishes, but he (Oystein) wanted the radish tops, too, so I just give them as raw and complete a product as I can because then they have more uses.” And when he sees something like bok choy on a menu plan, he inquires what varieties are desired. He says he occasionally pitches things to the chefs as well. One year he tried convincing them to use dandelions. “It didn’t really fly—too bitter. I might try it again sometime.”
Patrick’s goal is for the garden to receive USDA organic certification. He envisions more gardens around campus one day. The barnyard could also eventually raise pigs and goats.
Both men agree that their collaborative effort is a success. Patrick says the burgeoning relationship is “better than we ever could have imagined.” “It’s been a joint effort really,” says Oystein. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking out of the garden and they’ve always enjoyed growing stuff for us to use. It just happened pretty organically. It didn’t ever have to be forced.” And if some things don’t turn out, Oystein adds, “I’m flexible, I just work with whatever Patrick gives me.”
The student-run bistro is open when students are in session. For menus, hours and reservations, call 402.457.2328 or visit the website at Resource.MCCNeb.edu/Bistro.
Leo Adam Biga is an author, journalist and blogger who writes about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. Read more of his work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.