Brian Hardaway made his way through the rows of tented produce tables at Green City Market with an eagerness to learn.
It was his first experience at a farmer’s market. Throughout the trip to Lincoln Park on a chilly September morning, he jotted down notes, sampled the day’s offerings like tofu cubes and frozen blueberries, and along with his classmates heard about the dozens of varieties of locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Hardaway, 38, was one of several students who visited Chicago’s as part of a special class of Chicago’s Community Kitchens, the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s culinary job training program. For more than 20 years, the program has provided an avenue for unemployed and underemployed Cook County residents to work in some of Chicago’s top professional kitchens.
The students, who ranged from first-timers to experienced farmer’s market shoppers, explored Green City and heard from regional farmers about their seasonal crops. Some of the market’s more unique offerings were brought back to the Food Depository’s kitchen for a cooking lesson.
The goal of the trip was to teach students about how restaurant workers use their local farmers’ markets to find ingredients, said chef instructor Abby Bicksler. She also wanted them to see the wide variety of produce they could use when working in the industry. These food options, she noted, are vastly different from what’s available in stores or from large-commodity vendors.
Several of the culinary program’s restaurant partners, where students intern as part of their job training, are active in the farmer’s market scene, Bicksler said, and a few others operate their own gardens.
In some areas of the city where her students live, Bicksler said finding a robust farmer’s market can prove difficult.
“If I can expose the students to it and have them understand a little bit better, I think it makes them more well-rounded when they leave us,” she said.
Something else she wanted to instill was food “providence” – the concept of where food comes from and how it is treated before it arrives in the kitchen.
“Where’s your food been?” she said to the group of about seven students as they gathered in front of Green City. “When you buy food at the grocery store, and we all do…you don’t necessarily know where it’s been. The food here today came from the farmer, and he brought it here, and that’s pretty much it.”
Hardaway, a Back of the Yards resident, recently became interested in cooking as a career path and wanted to gain the experience of visiting the local market. He wants to open his own restaurant one day and source food from local growers.
“Because you don’t know what the process is when (the food is) coming from other states,” Hardaway said.
Bicksler brought the students along to watch her conversations about currently available crops with representatives from regional farms and orchards, including Nichols Farm, located in the city of Marengo; Seedling Farms of South Haven, Michigan; and Froggy Meadow Farm of Beloit, Wisconsin. Chefs who visit farmers’ markets can forge important and lasting relationships with the purveyors, she said.
As Bicksler went from stand to stand, she showed the students different varieties of peppers, tomatoes, gourds and other ingredients.
For student Sheron Mesadieu, one of the most interesting parts of the trip to Green City was discovering unfamiliar items. Though Mesadieu, 57, shops at her local farmers’ markets in her neighborhood of Hyde Park, she’d never seen purple heirloom tomatoes, American and Peruvian ground cherries, several new types of winter squash and types of zucchini that grow round rather than long.
“I didn’t know they have 20 different types of apples” added Mesadieu, referencing all the varieties of apples that Nichols Farm had available. “I never knew that.”
Learning to prepare new ingredients
Bicksler purchased some of the food that piqued the students’ interest from the three local vendors and, the following day, she taught them how to cook with the ingredients.
In the kitchen she pulled out two foreign cucumbers: a brown, “football”-shaped one indigenous to the Himalayas and a Lebanese variety that was round at the bottom, but long and thin at the top. They also tried cucamelons, a tiny, vine-grown, cucumber-tasting fruit that is known in Mexico as sanditas, or “little watermelons.”
Some items were well-received among everyone in the group; the sweet, citrusy ground cherries with flavors that students likened to that of a tangerine or pineapple, and the three varieties of roasted winter squash: Red Kuri, Tiny Nut and Spaghetti, which Bicksler explained is also a common substitute for pasta. Others, like the Indian and Chinese bitter melons that they covered with a student-made stir fry sauce, did not hit the spot for most of them.
“I’m a foodie, so I’ll try anything,” said Lisa Colbert, 63, of Hyde Park, who added that many of these unique fruits and vegetables likely wouldn’t be found in stores on the South Side.
Hardaway said one of the things he appreciates the most about Chicago’s Community Kitchens is the chance to open his mind to trying new things. He hopes this new knowledge will help make him a better chef.
Following the class, Hardaway and his classmates had already started discussing a return trip to Green City Market.
“I want to be able to learn how to put things together, know how to balance a plate out, (and) add this little small thing, just like Chef Abby was mentioning,” he said.