By M.M. DONALDSON
and EJ STOUT
A short walk from Garrett’s to the CORE Garden provided a bounty of fresh herbs and vegetables for a five-course dinner served by the student-run restaurant. But a network of dedicated volunteers and supporters is responsible for the success of that short route.
Less than a year and a half since Kim Groce had the idea of growing vegetables on WCC’s grounds, the campus and surrounding communities combined efforts to celebrate the fruits – or rather vegetables – of her labor. Key leaders and volunteers in the creation of the CORE Garden and those interested in good food crowded the restaurant to celebrate the garden’s first annual harvest on Friday, Oct. 10 with the Sustainable Dinner at Garrett’s.
Within the sustainable food movement, “locally sourced food” is a dominant buzz phrase traditionally defined as food collected from within a 100-mile radius. The restaurant and garden at Washtenaw Community College, however, sit just two-tenths of a mile from each other.
“The vision was even bigger than I imagined,” Groce said. The WCC humanities, social and behavioral sciences counselor wanted to give students access to fresh vegetables and give them a chance to grow the food themselves.
Groce secured a spot on campus for a garden, including a temperature-controlled hoop house and raised beds for herbs. Expert horticultural advice and marketing strategies paired with countless volunteer hours led to an edible display of heirloom and rare vegetables prime to be transformed into gourmet meals.
The evening opened with Zingerman’s Roadhouse managing partner and Chef Alex Young, speaking to an audience of mostly WCC culinary students and a handful of faculty and community members. Young’s work in education regarding sustainable farming practices has earned him national recognition, and he continues to serve on the WCC Culinary Arts and Hospitality Advisory Committee.
Young encouraged the students to push themselves to be part of the change to create food that is healthy for both personal nutrition and society as a whole. He explained that “not all farms are created equal,” and consumers must make tough decisions that will shape future industry practices.
A brisk field trip to the garden before dinner stimulated appetites, not only from the exercise but also from the vivid descriptions and visuals of each planted item.
“Collards … tomatoes … peppers … Oh, taste this!” could be heard as people call out various flora like an impromptu game of “I Spy.”
WCC biology student and CORE Garden volunteer Kady Maser, 25, was just leaving when the assorted group arrived at the hoop house. Despite a car full of freshly harvested tomatoes, Ann Arbor native Maser stayed and gave an enthusiastic tour of the garden’s features, pointing out unique vegetables and eagerly answering questions.
The mojito mint received a lot of attention during the garden tour.
“It’s better than chewing gum,” said Melissa Moffatt, 22, from Howell, after tasting the particularly sweet variety of mint. A WCC biology student, Moffatt decided to attend the dinner after knowing a classmate who was involved in the CORE Garden project.
Nearly 50 guests attended the dinner that followed and were welcomed by Kim Hurns, interim dean of Business and Computer Technologies, whose own students took the challenge to create several marketing and social media proposals for the project.
Upon entering Garrett’s, attendees received a “mocktail,” featuring the mojito mint with simple syrup and club soda.
The guests made their way to tables already decorated with tendrils of tomato plants, pumpkins and colorful hot peppers.
“This is all a synergy of really, really good work on campus,” Hurns said, introducing Groce at the head table as the special guest of the evening.
Chefs Alice Gannon-Boss, Derek Anders and Alex Young were recognized for their contributions in helping the Garrett’s culinary arts and hospitality management students showcase the CORE Garden bounty in full glory.
“This is to honor you, Kim, for everything,” Gannon-Boss, a WCC culinary arts instructor said about Groce’s efforts. The dinner was just one way for those involved to learn more about food sustainability and the importance of numerous groups collaborating to build a strong resource.
Anders, also a WCC culinary arts and hospitality instructor, described the menu and its consideration of ingredients that had a low-carbon footprint and were accommodating to gluten-free and vegetarian diets.
The first course of the meal offered buffet-style small platters that included ingredients such as garden-fresh tomatoes, Swiss chard, and roasted pepper chutney.
Then, the culinary display kicked off in full gear. Students quickly presented the first course in neat choreography with the upbeat music provided by WCC Music Performance faculty member John E. Lawrence and his jazz band.
Working on assignments in the Writing Center, Tony Klee, 38, a WCC liberal arts student from Ann Arbor had just found out about the dinner late that afternoon and decided to attend.
A self-proclaimed foodie working as a sommelier consultant, Klee was particularly intrigued by the contrasting flavors of the first plated course: a hearty pumpkin soup topped with sweetened crème fraiche and peppered with bitter coffee dust.
Next, guests were treated to a simple but robust salad, highlighting the natural flavors of delicate baby greens and plump tomatoes that served to whet appetites for the upcoming entree. The main course featured a duo split on one plate: a pan-seared quinoa cake with roasted yams drizzled in honey next to a spaetzel with oyster mushrooms, roasted celery root and aged gouda over a bed of sage and walnut pesto.
The grand finale provided a parsnip and rosemary cake with creamy vanilla “rice cream” and poached Honeycrisp apples surrounded by a salted whiskey caramel sauce.
The dinner guests gave the culinary students a standing ovation at the end of the meal.
“They did well with a little more ambitious menu,” Anders said, “But this student group is high energy.”
Tired but enthusiastic, Shameka Thomas, 36, a WCC culinary arts student from Belleville, said the experience taught her to deal with the pressure and demand of serving many people at the same time.
“It was a lot of work,” Thomas said, “but worth it.”
Fellow WCC baking and pastry student from Ann Arbor, Amanda Sturges, 22, felt a sense of accomplishment.
“When things get hectic, stay calm,” Sturges said, explaining how she got through the day that lasted 11 hours for some of the culinary students.
“It’s almost like seeing my kids grow up,” Groce said, surveying the dining room full of music, food and people. “I couldn’t be happier.”
The CORE dinner will surely be an ongoing event, Groce declared. Despite being the first growing season, with only one-third of the hoop house’s capacity used, the network of dedicated individuals and groups present left a strong impression that the project would be nurtured from many directions.
“I never thought it would be this grand,” Groce said. “When you talk about food, people get excited.”
For more information on the CORE Garden, visit: