by Ian Rossiter, Northeast Georgia Farm to School FoodCorps Service Member
In my experience, small scale growing and large scale cooking have not always had the best intersection of interests. The growers, who often spend what some may consider an excessive amount of time tending their crops, would like their produce to receive the finest culinary accommodations. The cooks on the other hand, pressured by regular stampedes of ravenous humans demanding food now, work within deeply regimented schedules of food deliveries and preparations and simply don’t have time to be diverted by the organically-grown heirloom variety speed bump that is presented before them. Schools, study-away programs, research stations, and integrated sustainable living communities are some of the places where I personally have participated on both sides of this grower-cook struggle. Recently though, I have observed a strange amount of grower-cook cooperation… something is up.
For the past couple weeks, FoodCorps Northeast Georgia has been volunteering with the Rock Eagle 4-H Camp to help develop their budding garden program while working to maintain their sizable growing plot. Three times a week we harvest anywhere from 5 to 80 lbs of heirloom summer produce and promptly deliver it to the Rock Eagle Dining Hall where, without exception, we are graciously greeted by Chef Aaron Lambert and the rest of the nutrition staff. Whether it is an unwieldy mountain of summer squash or a meager handful of okra, a smile lights up Chef Aaron’s face as he examines the harvest baskets. And then, at the rapid fire pace accustomed to folks who work in kitchens, Chef begins to excitedly describe the fantastic and exotic recipes he has planned for this particular batch of garden veggies. It’s not just talk either. Just a couple hours later, as we seek refuge in the air-conditioned employee dining room, we find a buffet of some of the most amazing food I have ever put in my mouth. And most days, right there by the food line, Chef Aaron greets everyone and describes the culinary masterpieces he serves us with the upmost humility. This is the same chef who simultaneously manages the preparation of 1000+ camper meals 3 times per day during the summer season. Who is this guy? How does this work?
Being the pretentious grower that I am, I unceremoniously marched into the kitchen (2 hours before camper’s final feast, no less) to catch up with Chef Aaron, where I find him shelling the peas we brought him earlier that day:
“Yeah, I used to make this Latin-style ginger pea soup that I haven’t made for years…” Chef Aaron starts describing to me. I notice he is reserving the pea hulls, which he explains to me he will be using for a vegetable stock and flavor layering for some future meal. This seemingly small step alone should give you an idea of how devoted this guy is.
When I ask him how he got his start in cooking, he gives me the breakdown. Age 13 he started busing tables > little down the road he worked a KFC gig > break from cooking > moved to Arkansas and started working at “this organic, vegan, natural food restaurant, and that really got me back into cooking!” > Culinary school > couple of years at the “hippy restaurants” > Rock Eagle 4-H Camp where he has been for nearly 10 years.
Getting down to brass tacks, I inquire, “So how do you manage to make this amazing food when we just show up with these random baskets of produce?”
“It’s just my training. That’s what you do. You go to the market every day and see what’s best and that’s what you base your menu around. It’s just second nature to us now.” He coolly responds.
This confidence definitely shows in his cooking. Every lunch we find some new and delicious interpretation of the ingredients we bring in. It has literally become the point of the day I am most excited about. I can even claim that it has shifted my daily dietary plan to place more emphasis on lunch, a meal I often gave little thought to. When I ask how everyone else has been responding to these glorious gastronomic treats, it sounds like the responses range from sincere enthusiasm (particularly among the nutrition staff) to “meh.” But just this week, in an effort to bump the “meh” folks up to “Oh! That’s pretty neat,” we have been working to raise awareness of all this amazing garden produce going into the camp kitchen with “Grown in the Rock Eagle 4-H Garden” signs being put in front of all foods containing garden produce. It’s just a small step, but I’m hopeful this signage is a step toward awakening everyone’s inner local food enthusiast!
Just to clarify, essentially all garden produce goes either to staff or adult chaperone meal lines; not much really finds its way into camper meals yet. It’s an issue of supply and preparation. From the supply side, there are just a handful of us working irregular hours in this relatively small garden plot. The produce just isn’t there…. yet (Keep and ear out for the development of Rock Eagle’s future large scale garden site!). On the preparation side, Chef gives me a visual of the issue: gallons of green beans cooking in a massive kettle. If these had been fresh garden beans, I’m told it would have taken 6 employees 2 hours to prepare all of them!
Despite these mountainous logistical challenges, Chef Aaron stays positive and is always open and looking for ways to get fresh local produce to the campers. We bounce a few ideas back and forth from a local meal day, to a ramped up produce preservation program, and the benefit of connecting with something along the lines of a food hub. The capacity and resources may not be available yet, but I am confident that Chef Aaron and the rest of the nutrition staff will be at the forefront of positive youth food movements as they develop in Georgia. In the meantime, the Rock Eagle kitchen cooks on, and I am eternally grateful for the amazing food they prepare for us and the opportunity I have been given to work with such a skilled and passionate team.