Garden School

By Sam Armstrong
Photography by Aimee Olson

While more and more consumers, chefs and restaurateurs cotton to the importance of local foods, Le Cordon Bleu programs at Texas Culinary Academy (TCA) have been incorporating this concept into the classroom for years. As a result, the once-modest student garden outside TCA’s bistro has unfurled to now cover the entire length of the school’s campus—continuously overflowing with herbs, seasonal vegetables and flowers ready to be put to good use.

Whole Foods Market chef Paul Hieb was a driving developmental force behind the genesis of the garden during his time as a chef instructor. “There are so many positives that come from the garden,” Hieb says. “But I think it’s of utmost importance for culinary students, cooks and chefs to be educated, firsthand, on where their food supply is coming from, and what it takes to produce these items.”

Though Hieb has moved on, many of TCA’s current chef instructors continue to embrace the mission. It’s not uncommon to see culinary pros like former Aquarelle chef Robert Brady mentoring in the garden. Brady regularly takes his class out of the kitchen and into the garden to share not only the importance of fresh food choices but also the art of setting the scene with the right flowers.

The garden naturally folds into the classroom experience. During one of their courses, students are given a basket of basic foods—including a protein, vegetables and a starch—and are charged with creating something stellar on the fly. They’re encouraged to gently raid the garden to kick up the flavors.

According to chef Aimee Olson, TCA’s patisserie and baking chair, students are involved in the garden from the ground up—from planning the layout, to planting the seeds, to maintaining the plot—but that’s really just the beginning.

“In our very first class at TCA, I had a student who had been a chef for a very long time but didn't know what a fresh herb looked like,” says Olson. “The garden teaches students to be able to identify what they’re using in the kitchen, in its first state. It’s one thing to identify different herbs by taste, but finding them in a garden is entirely different.”

Beyond the important role the garden plays in the culinary education, the mission also embraces the community. TCA has just begun a program with Garza High School, one of a handful of public schools with an established student garden. Garza Students will bring bounty from their garden, pick more from TCA’s garden, then combine and cook a meal.

“We hope to provide a network that will help start even more school gardens,” Olson continues. “As a culinary school, our goal is to teach our students, but also to teach the community about food. We have that obligation.”