Bob Brassard squats in front of a raised mound and uses his thick, knife-scarred and oven-singed hands to swipe away a thicket of creeping green sweet potato vines. He points to blobs of white and orange threatening to poke above the surface.
“We’re in beet territory,” he proudly proclaims. “What you want to do is pull it straight up by the stem.”
It’s the first week back at school, and Brassard wears his chef’s coat over cargo shorts as he merrily tromps in a pair of kitchen clogs through the neat rows of rich brown Missouri Organic dirt, considered the gold standard by local urban farmers. He’s leading a group of his students through the new Broadmoor Urban Farm, a quarter-acre plot of land behind the Shawnee Mission School District’s Broadmoor Technical Center at 6701 W. 83rd St. in Overland Park.
Brassard is the first to admit he is more a chef-with-a-green-thumb than a true urban farmer, but that’s not going to stop the culinary instructor from trying his hand at cultivating a groundbreaking “seed-to-plate” curriculum.
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At the opposite end of the farm plot, Brassard’s teaching partner, Justin Hoffman, good-naturedly teases a group of students who are recoiling after discovering a spider’s web among the tomato trellises.
“What are you doing over there?” Brassard calls out, sensing his students are drifting off task.
“What’s up, Bob? I’m working on my tan, Bob,” Hoffman deadpans, setting in motion the sort of verbal sparring that has been going on for a dozen years, ever since Hoffman was a Broadmoor student from Shawnee Mission North High School.
Brassard is the idea guy, his mind racing a million miles an hour, while Hoffman is often the one who nails down the nitty-gritty details that can get in the way of vision.
The perspiring students had expected to spend long hours toiling over a hot stove. But starting this year, students enrolled in the district’s award-winning culinary program also are expected to break a sweat working on the farm: Every week students spend up to four hours of class time planting, watering, weeding, hoeing and harvesting organic produce.
The tubs and buckets fill up fast. By the beginning of November, students had harvested 9,000 pounds of produce: mounds of striped heirloom tomatoes, chocolate peppers, Thumbelina carrots, blue-gray Hubbard squash and piles of tiny cukes, ruffled fans of rainbow Swiss chard, tubes of okra and lima beans still sweet in the pod.
Katherine Kelly, executive director of Cultivate KC, a nonprofit organization specializing in urban agriculture, says a quarter-acre typically yields between 4,000 and 6,000 pounds of produce. She laughs, recalling how Brassard immediately upped the ante: “Then I’m growing 7,000 pounds.”
Over the summer, students and alumni received texts, emails and other social media updates asking for volunteers to help with the weeding and harvesting. Participation is not mandatory, but the most engaged students nearly always heed the call.
“I think there was a lot of apprehension whether the kids would tend the garden,” Brassard says of early talks with school administrators, “but if you give kids nontraditional opportunities, they step up to the plate. And we’re seeing the results.”
Lessons with the seasons
As school ramps up, the seed-to-plate lesson plan remains a bit loose and, by necessity, is designed to flow with the seasons. One day students are sowing heirloom seeds. Weeks or months later they are learning to identify a ripe tomato or an unfamiliar chili pepper as they harvest. The next day they’re in the kitchen canning salsa.
By the end of the growing season, students will have had instruction in sauces, braising, searing and sauteing, as well as crash courses in freezing, canning, pickling and preserving.
“It sets the learning process at a quicker pace,” Brassard says of elastic lesson plans designed to fool, or at least forestall, Mother Nature’s persistent cycle of feast or famine. “Now our education is structured by their interests and what’s in the garden. You can pickle or you can roast, but in the end it has to be consumed.”
When the Broadmoor Bistro — a 3,000-square-foot, 100-seat student-run restaurant open to the public on Wednesdays — is in full swing, the $30 four-course chef’s tasting menu (easily a $50 to $60 value in professional restaurants) might as well substitute for a syllabus.
Autumn gazpacho and a panzanella salad highlight the use of juicy heirloom tomatoes. A Nicoise salad is built around tender farm potatoes and crisp-tender field beans. Warm vegetable flatbreads are being pulled from the hearth oven. A fresh succotash is served alongside a cider-brined pork tenderloin that has been napped in a smoked tomato beurre blanc.
In an Instagram world, the farm-to-table ethos has led to a tweak in teaching philosophy: “Let the food speak for itself; you don’t necessarily need to make it beautiful,” Brassard says. “What I really want them to remember is the taste and the quality.”
With an initial investment of less than $10,000 in seeds, compost, water and fencing raised in large part by the local chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a society of professional women in the food, wine and hospitality industries, the benefits of the farm already are trickling down in unexpected ways.
Excess produce from the Broadmoor Urban Farm can land in a few places: the school district’s cafeteria for use on the salad bar; the Overland Park Farmers Market, where students sell condiments such as ketchup, mustard and all manner of pickled vegetables; or the downtown Bristol Seafood Grill, where executive chef Travis Napier showcases seasonal menu items ranging from glazed carrots to beet salad.
Putting the Broadmoor’s name on the menu “sparks interest and is a very good talking point” for customers about the importance of locally grown food and sustainable farming, says Napier, who plans to participate in a fundraiser this spring in exchange for the free vegetables.
Meanwhile, Brassard has begun tapping into area food entrepreneurs to broaden his lessons. He has partnered with Scoby Master, a local company that sells kombucha, so students can learn to brew the fermented probiotic tea, and with Homer’s Coffee House for those who might want to train as a barista.
He’s talking to Fahrmeier Farms out of Lexington, Mo., about creating a community-supported agriculture subscription program. He’s working on a partnership with the Tasteful Olive to get students learning how to make their own flavored vinegars.
While some of the projects might seem outside of the core culinary arts, commercial baking and restaurant management curriculum, Brassard insists a broader understanding of how food is grown and consumed can only help the next generation of chefs make better decisions about what ultimately lands on America’s dinner table.
“Future chefs have to have a conscience and understand sustainability,” Brassard says. “They are the caretakers of their customers.”
As orders start filtering in on a Broadmoor Bistro night, Ali Webster is already “in the weeds,” kitchen lingo for way behind.
The top of the squirt bottle containing tempura batter for the cauliflower funnel cakes keeps falling off as the batter glugs out in chunks into the fryer.
Webster, a varsity cheerleader at Shawnee Mission North, struggles to maintain composure as the line cooks begin to call out for the cauliflower fritters she is supposed to be delivering so servers can take the plates into the dining room.
“Bob! Hey, Bob!” she calls out. “These tops keep falling off.”
Brassard stops by her station. “That would be an indication the batter’s too thick. We need a little water.”
He sticks his index finger into the batter bowl to test. “Yeah, that’s too thick. The whole idea of a funnel cake is it is a drop batter, so what we want to do is add water and whisk. The other thing we can put in is egg whites because it will solidify the batter.”
He adds water, whisks and then pulls up, the batter making a fluid line that falls back into the mixing bowl.
“There we go,” he says. “See what is happening?”
Webster nods. She wipes her hands on her floured apron and forges ahead.
Brassard likes to say that all chefs are teachers, but his vision and drive have created a program that is widely recognized as one of the top high school culinary programs in the country.
Since Brassard, 57, took over in August 2001, his students have won $2.7 million in scholarship money to accredited culinary schools. They’ve had the opportunity to cook alongside James Beard award-winning chefs, thanks to the nation’s first high school partnership with the New York City-based foundation. The program is certified by the American Culinary Federation in both culinary arts and commercial baking, an honor a handful of schools have achieved.
Hoffman, 29, graduated in 2002 with a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America. He was considering buying a restaurant four years ago when he got an unexpected phone call from his mentor about a new teaching position.
“I knew what the program gave to me, so I gave it a shot,” Hoffman says.
He has since earned a master’s degree from Pittsburg State University in career and technical education with an emphasis in teaching.
“Obviously (Bob) is the same person. He has the same passion. His intensity is still there,” says Hoffman, a varsity baseball player before he gave up the sport his senior year to pursue a career in culinary arts. “What’s changed is that he doesn’t have to run a million miles an hour anymore because he has a partner.”
And they both agreed a farm was the next logical step for their students. Even if it meant coming in over the summer and working with students on nights and weekends throughout the school year.
Brassard is uncomfortable tallying up his hours — “we put in whatever hours it takes, just like any other passionate teacher” — just as he’s uncomfortable with the notion some have voiced that when he eventually retires the program will lose its rudder. But Brassard has faith that, if he has mentored well, Hoffman will be more than ready to guide the next generation.
Healthy for life
As manager for the Shawnee Mission School District’s food service department, Nancy Coughenour is based at Broadmoor Technical Center.
Over the summer she’s in and out of the building as she supervises the district’s free summer feeding program, which served nearly 28,000 students and their families in 2014.
One day, Coughenour ran into her colleague and struck up a conversation. “I said, ‘Bob, what are you doing here?’” she recalls. “He was really dirty from pulling weeds. It started just as simply as that.”
By fall, Coughenour was stopping by the Broadmoor Bistro kitchens to gather up the surplus tomatoes and peppers for salad bars at seven of the district’s cafeterias. She has been placing signs on the items to indicate the produce is locally grown. She also has sent emails to the principals so they are aware of the unique offerings, and she has met with parent advocates who are eager to improve the overall nutrition of school lunches.
Her efforts are only a first step: “We still need to get the education piece to the children. They need to know where their food is coming from.”
Collaborating with an on-site partner has made Coughenour eager to work with others in the community around the issues of wellness.
When Jerry Kim arrived in the United States from his native South Korea at age 7, he began to eat a typical American diet — and started to gain weight.
“It was kind of ‘Supersize-Me.’ And boom! I kept eating,” the Shawnee Mission South junior says, referring to the controversial Morgan Spurlock film about the perils of a persistent fast-food diet.
Kim describes the South Korean diet as meat-centric, and as a kid he was “determined never to eat vegetables.” Although slim now, it wasn’t until he started taking elective culinary classes — first Family and Consumer Science courses in junior high and starting as a sophomore at Broadmoor — that he began to eat with health in mind.
After a recent day harvesting, Brassard casually tries to pawn off a few giant Hubbard squashes to his most curious students. Kim eagerly accepts one the size of an overinflated football.
“Take it home, remove the seeds, oil up the outside and roast it. Serve it to your family,” Brassard coaxes.
Ultimately, the push for an urban farm came from a desire to teach students a lifetime of healthy eating.
“If we can teach students how to grow something for a $3 packet of seeds healthfully, and cheaper than the grocery store, that’s where it all comes together,” he says. “They will have the memory of pulling a sweet potato out of the ground. There is this different connection to food, (one) that they didn’t have before.”
Partners are important
A few years from now, the culinary program is scheduled to move into a new district administration building at a site just off Antioch Road on 71st Street. The plans include an updated kitchen space.
To create a more realistic learning environment at the restaurant, Robert Hofmann, the district’s director of career and technical education, says that instead of entering through the school, the public will enter through a door into an atrium. The seating will increase, and the cooking stations are being designed to accommodate better flow.
That kind of nod from the administration is an acknowledgment of the program’s signature status. “I don’t know of any other program that has a garden and truly does farm to table,” says Hofmann, who has held similar positions as head of technical education in Denver and Charlotte, N.C.
“Complacency is easy for a teacher,” he says. “With Bob and Justin, it’s not just the status quo.”
Sustainability is certainly not a new idea: California chef Alice Waters has pushed farm-to-table initiatives since the ’70s. But culinary educators say her ideas are catching on with new vigor, in part because obesity has taken such a toll on America’s youth.
Last year the American Culinary Federation began requiring high school programs seeking certification to include lessons related to sustainability. Examples range from teaching how to conserve water while cooking to a full-blown aquaponics program to provide trout for meals served in a school restaurant.
“You have to go beyond the norm,” says Brian Peffley, a committee member and a certified instructor at the Lebanon County Career and Technology Center in Lebanon, Pa., where students are learning to preserve meats in an outdoor smoker and make pizza in an oven constructed by the masonry students. “The ACF is a higher standard of a program, but not so high it is unattainable.”
“As many secondary programs look for ways to enrich their student learning and understanding of farm to table, Broadmoor is a program we send them to for examples,” says Candice Childers, the federation’s director of accreditation, although she adds, “there are not too many schools that have a garden the size of Bob’s.”
The best programs are those with an instructor who remains eager to learn: Already Brassard is looking forward to expanding the farm at the new site to include an orchard that could provide additional educational experiences not only to his students but also to the community.
“I think what Bob has been great at is foreseeing the food trends in this country and figuring out what is important,” Justin Hoffman says early one Saturday morning while sipping coffee at the farmers market.
Brassard and Hoffman also believe in hands-on learning. That’s why they jumped at an opportunity for baking students to sell their baguettes, croissants and chocolate-zucchini bread at the Overland Park Farmers Market. And every week they seem to come up with a new product idea for the students to try.
“They are so unique in what they are offering,” says market manager Kristina Stanley. “They’re going beyond (just) showing the kids about different foods. They’re teaching these kids life skills and we’re lucky to have them at the market.”
Carson Vielhauer’s blue-painted fingernails punch receipts into an iPad and she hands out change as she chats about why she’s willing to roll out of bed at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning to work for no pay.
“People ask, ‘Where’s your baker?’” the Shawnee Mission Northwest junior says with a laugh. “Their eyes just light up when we tell them we make the bread. They’re almost proud that there are high school students who know what they want to do in life.”
It’s that kind of dedication that has brought the Broadmoor program yet another award: the most recent for their work at the Overland Park Farmers Market as vendor of the year, a quiet recognition from other farmers at the market. It’s an honor that may need to be added to the promotional materials Matt Ziegenhorn provides gratis for each new Broadmoor venture.
The Overland Park-based graphic designer created a Broadmoor Urban Farm logo that includes a skyscraper in the shape of a pencil sprouting between a carrot and an ear of corn. His volunteer work extends to the T-shirts the students wear at events and the brochures used to recruit new students. The 31-year-old also sits on Broadmoor Bistro’s advisory board.
“Now they’re experiencing planting, picking, preparing and plating,” Ziegenhorn says of the program. “If they become chefs or not, at least they have the ability to grow their own food.”
Getting the right partners, such as Ziegenhorn and a restaurant like the Bristol to serve their produce, is an important part of Broadmoor’s marketing plan, which is something the school district has limited resources to support.
Meanwhile, Brassard is off dreaming up yet another avenue to explore. “We could teach kids to be cheesemakers,” he thinks aloud.
But wouldn’t that mean adding livestock to the farm?
“You don’t need goats,” he says. “You can bring in the milk.”
There are a lot of good culinary programs out there, Brassard says. But, he adds, few are trying to tackle as many nontraditional food-related paths, offering a curriculum that overlaps with science, agriculture or entrepreneurism. “We just go out and try things. That is really what separates what we do.”