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Students introduced to ‘farm-to-fork’ practices at South Side farm

Five high school students and recent graduates with an interest in the culinary arts were recently introduced to farm-to-fork practices at Windy City Harvest’s Legends Farm on Chicago’s South Side.

The cuisine enthusiasts — from Benito Juarez, Theodore Roosevelt, Lane Tech College Prep and Simeon Career Academy high schools — had been recruited by the Illinois Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart Program in the first-ever collaboration between ProStart and Bon Appétit at the University of Chicago.

Bon Appétit, which runs three all-you-can-eat dining commons and 11 retail locations on the U. of C. campus, strives “to source at least 20 percent of their ingredients from small, owner-operated farms, ranches, and artisan producers within 150 miles of their kitchens,” according to the company’s website.

The students started the two-day excursion with an introduction at the University of Chicago, then took a shuttle bus to Legends Farm, 4451 S. Federal St., an organic farm that serves as an incubator for five businesses and grows everything from garlic, peppers, kale, cucumbers and more.

Rachel Smith (center), 17, a senior at Theodore Roosevelt High School, harvests carrots at Windy City Harvest’s Legends Farm, as part of an introduction tour to farm-to-fork practices from Bon Appétit at the University of Chicago and the Illinois Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart Program on July 19, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“Young minds, once they’re introduced to it, I think they’ll have a greater respect for the background and foods that they’re eating,” said Kristopher Murray, resident district manager for Bon Appétit.

Jizel Vazquez, who is slated to start at the Washburne Culinary Institute at Kennedy-King College this fall, wants to be a chef and culinary teacher. She was the recipient of a scholarship from ProStart by writing an essay about a person — Kayla Hawkins, ProStart Program Manager — who inspired her to be in the industry.

“It’s not just becoming a chef, there’s so much more to the culinary industry,” said Vazquez, 18, a graduate of Roosevelt who lives in Albany Park. “That’s why I’m here, to open my mind more and see what the industry has to offer.”

While at the farm, the students helped the farmers kill Japanese beetles on basil plants and harvested fresh carrots and tomatoes.

Terrence Conley Jr., 15, a sophomore at Lane Tech College Prep High School, harvests tomatoes at Windy City Harvest’s Legends Farm, as part of an introduction tour to farm-to-fork practices from Bon Appétit at the University of Chicago and the Illinois Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart Program on July 19, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The next day they toured Testa Produce Farms, 4555 S. Racine Ave. Both days featured workshops and discussions on management, the culinary and hospitality industries and farm-to-fork practices.

“If you’re not frequently exposed to a source like a local farm and if you’re only picking stuff up in the grocery store, then there’s a disconnect,” said Murray. “There’s a disconnect with the amount of labor that goes into it, the amount of energy and resources that are used and the value of production and preparation when you get to the kitchen is lost. Chefs know the value of what goes into the product that they’re preparing.”

The experience solidified Vazquez’ decision to pursue a career in the culinary industry.

“It’s like I finally found my passion,” she said. “I love food.”