‘Be the change you want to see.’
So the aphorism goes. Well, Chef Vittorio Ettore of Bistro 5 in West Medford wanted to replicate the connection to real, healthy food pervasive in his native Tuscany. He forged an idea on how to change kids’ eating habits beginning at his own child’s school, and he ran with it.
Not particularly fast, mind you, since anytime you launch a project from scratch, fund it through community-wide donations and build it on the (figurative) backs of volunteers, endurance is key.
But what a journey. The fruits of Ettore’s labor — mostly his, and the dozens of 4th (now 5th) graders at the Ambrose School in Winchester — are on full, glorious view below, where you see a lush, raised-bed garden lazily soaking up an early autumn sun on the grounds of Winchester’s historic Sanborn House.
The school-garden idea sown by Ettore early last Spring is called “Seed to Plate.” It aims to provide participating grade-schoolers with a hands-on, interactive learning experience, building in them a sense of responsibility and ownership for the plants they cultivate over the course of the school year. Under the Chef’s guidance, the kids plant, tend and harvest tomatoes, corn, lettuces, herbs, edible flowers, melon and more — from seed to plate. From the Spring of their 4th grade til the Fall of their 5th.
Once the kids get exposed to this, they get their parents thinking…maybe they’ll plant a small backyard garden? This forms better eating habits.
Chef Ettore says he intends, he wants, “Seed to Plate” to be replicated outside his purview. At any school, in any town or community that’s interested. Take a local chef, find a school and garden plot, and start building out from there. The kids, their teachers and parents can keep the garden running perpetually once the infrastructure is in place and the garden sown.
In the instance of Ambrose, where Ettore is a school parent, the Bistro 5 chef secured initial monies for the garden through the Winchester Foundation for Educational Excellence (WFEE). The remainder was raised at his Medford restaurant at consecutive weekly wine dinners attended mainly by the parents of Ambrose school children.
To build the garden plot, Ettore contacted vendors, asked for discounts (they all agreed, including Home Depot, Mahoney’s and Jamaica Cottage, which provided the shed seen above), and personally coordinated the construction. The land itself is owned by the Town of Winchester and managed by its Historical Society, which has been supportive of the project from, in Ettore’s words, “Day One.”
The ultimate challenge, he said, was figuring out how to involve all 90-odd kids in a meaningful way. Ettore needed a plan. He spread out the task of harvesting the garden over two days, bringing in the majority of the 5th-graders, class by class, for a note-taking discussion (they took the notes) on what they had planted when, what had grown well, why certain plants were allowed to seed (e.g., the cilantro, for coriander seeds!), and so on.
Ettore said it was amazing, gratifying, to hear and see the kids react. “It smells so GOOD in here!” was a common refrain. Herbs got popped into mouths right then and there, on the spot. The fennel was a hit. “Licorice!”
The next day, five volunteers from each class did the actual harvesting. Parent volunteers took the yield home that night for washing, peeling, roasting and boiling, and the following day the kids sat down to a garden-variety snack of crudité with herb dressings Chef Ettore had made from the herbs. Organic refuse such as carrot tops were composted.
“I am hoping other chefs will get the inspiration,” Ettore told PRK. “But you need to have the right personality and vision. You need to think beyond your restaurant, which is hard to do [because] it’s 24/7 work and hard to get out of the every day…It takes generations to change eating habits. Chefs need to look at what’s around them, not just what’s inside the restaurant.”