Last night, Fig's executive chef Ray Garcia hosted the restaurant's first farm dinner of 2011, serving dishes filled with Fallbrook's Garcia Farm's (no relation) recent harvest of over 50 varieties of citrus. While the turnout of both L.A.'s food-minded community as well as fantastic dishes filled with grapefruit, mandarin, kumquat, and avocado were strong, what really captured our attention was something much more meaningful: a table filled with at-risk Olympic High School students and their science teacher enjoying a private dinner and course-by-course explanation from chef Garcia and farmer Juan Garcia.
Make no mistake: these teenagers are not your average, run-of-the-mill Los Angeles high school students. They're students classified as “at risk” and, chef Garcia says, “took a few years off from school or weren't successful in traditional high school settings.” Garcia, who hails from a Northeast L.A. high school himself, has been working hand-in-hand with the students to educate them about the benefit and accessibility of nutritious, healthy food. “If you don't have access to healthy, nutritious food, you come home and eat Doritos and drink a Red Bull. It's very real to me. My parents and grandparents have Type 2 diabetes. I wanted to help these kids.”
Part of that program meant teaching the students to plant and care for a vegetable garden at the high school almost a year ago, which Garcia admits was no easy feat. “At first, these kids didn't care what I said or did. I planted a dozen heirloom tomato varieties with the teachers. Then you get one who comes over, and doesn't care about the tomato, says she hates tomatoes… These are the kind of kids who have never eaten a real tomato. They are eating potato chips and asking you if it's OK to eat an heirloom tomato? It looks gross, it's not a perfect round red globe, surely there is something wrong with it and it will hurt them? They really think this.”
While Garcia spends his Fridays tending to the garden with the students, his reality is that tools, seeds and maintenance don't come cheap. The chef tells us the city of Santa Monica's entire budget for in-school gardens is around $700 (yes, you read right), so funding comes from his own pocket, Fig and the students themselves: “I encourage them… to sell their produce at the flea market that they already have on weekends to make money to buy seeds.”
Fast forward to last night's farm dinner. Garcia says attending Fig's farm dinner was a natural next-step for a “smaller, core group of students who have really embraced the garden idea.” The students were invited not only to taste a variety of Garcia's dishes like braised oxtail with orange and prunes, bacon and avocado tacos with habanero salsa, and a Key lime trifle with kumquats, strawberries, kiwi, mango, guava, cake and whipping cream, but also take a tour of the kitchen (he promises “the chefs were on their very best behavior”) and listen to a course-by-course explanation by himself and farmer Juan Garcia, who spoke about specific cooking techniques and passion for farming, respectively.
While the students were clearly interested and engaged — nary a cell phone or iPod was in sight — Garcia is just excited that his work is paying off: “They're interested now. That's huge.”