The refrigerator life of squash blossoms. Chef Dan Barber's book The Third Plate. Fresh ingredients in school lunches. Pasture-raised chickens.
These topics of conversation all came up recently in a modest dining room tucked into a business park in southwest Charlotte. Chef Terra Ciotta, instructor at the Art Institute of Charlotte, had invited several local growers to share lunch with the students who cook and serve their products.
Farmers in jeans and button-down shirts dined alongside the white-jacketed culinary students who man the kitchen at The Artisan, the school's small restaurant. Open to the public for lunch four days a week, the unassuming eatery gives chefs-in-training their first taste of working a line and plating high-quality meals for paying customers. Under the tutelage of Ciotta, they also learn how to integrate locally grown ingredients into a real menu.
While the direction of the Artisan changes from one 11-week term to the next, Ciotta has had multiple opportunities to use the course to bring the message of local food to her students. In the past, she has organized outside speakers, field trips and farm tours to give the budding chefs more insight into the benefits of sourcing from nearby producers. "I think it's important for them to see the difference in quality, the difference in variety," she says. "How much longer it lasts than what we buy commercially, and how our tomatoes are actually red instead of pink."
And the students are learning. Tiffany Martin and Gianna Springs-MacDonald describe a recent tomato tasting comparing industrially-grown Roma tomatoes to those from the farmers market. "The ones from Sysco tasted like cardboard," they both agree. "And our tomatoes aren't green," adds Martin, invoking the common practice of harvesting unripened tomatoes and using ethylene gas to induce the blush of mature fruit.
Elsewhere along the white-linen draped table, Lee and Domisty Menius of Wild Turkey Farm and Daryl and Tonya Simpson of Walnut Ridge Farm discuss the finer points of raising pastured chicken, while Mindy Robinson of Tega Hills Farm describes how she manages the growing demand for squash blossoms. On their plates rest the Simpsons' braised chicken, the Menius' chili-rubbed pork loin, and Robinson's fresh green salad.
According to Ciotta, along with a tasty lunch, the farmers also enjoy the students' learning about the fresh food available in the Charlotte area. "They appreciate my teaching the students why local is better and how to use it," she says. During a previous visit to Newtown Farms in Waxhaw, she mentioned to owner Sammy Koenigsberg the benefit of possible business from the future restaurateurs. "He said he wasn't doing it for that," she says. "He wanted them to understand the importance of caring for the land and making good, nutritious food."
In October, a new crop of cooks will enter the Artisan's kitchen, and chef Ciotta will continue to source locally through the winter months. Aside from having put up frozen tomatoes and pickled okra, "We still have three farmers markets that are open year-round," she says. No matter the season, the Artisan's menu will carry on with its regional focus.
The Artisan's summer menu is available Monday through Thursday until Sept. 18th. Call 704-357-5900 for details and reservations.
Full disclosure: The writer is the partner of chef Terra Ciotta.