Chez Melange owner Michael Franks and co-owner/chef Robert Bell have been thrilled with the success of their Redondo Beach bistro, but their real joy stems from a quaint garden at the former Valmonte Elementary School site.
The duo started the Seed to Plate Garden program to build a self-sustaining work environment for special needs students. “I wanted children growing up to understand that food does not come just from the supermarket,” Bell says. “Where it begins is much more exciting. For young people to see vegetables growing, for them to taste something just off the vine, is a life-changing experience. That’s what I wanted them to have.”
The program started in 2001 when Bell teamed up with Lynne Busia, former director of pupil services for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, with a twofold goal: to provide occupational job skills to special needs students and fresh, pesticide-free produce to Chez Melange and the community.
Special needs students from such programs as Transition to Independence (ages 18 to 22) and ICAN (over 22) are taught various skills at Seed to Plate, such as communication, team building, responsibility and completing tasks.
Though it was formerly an elementary school, the building has housed administration offices and a preschool for the last 10 years, garden manager Nancy Lemargie says.
“We were given the property by the PVPUSD to create a vegetable garden,” she says. “This garden was created especially for and by the Transition to Independence initiative as a vocational program.”
Lemargie, a horticulturist, shows the students how to sow, harvest, weed, water vegetables and feed the chickens.
“For many students age 18 to 22, this is the first opportunity to be mainstreamed into the community, out of a classroom setting,” Lemargie says.
“Many of the students are chosen for the program because of behaviors that make it difficult for them to sit still or be silent,” she says. “Being outdoors and engaging in physical activity has made them stronger.”
Fundraising efforts are ongoing at the garden. The school district doesn’t have any money for adult transition students after the 12th grade, Lemargie says, “so every little bit helps.”
In the future, Lemargie would love to build an indoor classroom, so the kids have a place to go when it’s cold.
“It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of. I wish every school could have a program like this,” Franks says. “The students help grow the fruits, vegetables and herbs, we use the produce at the restaurant, and the proceeds go back into the growth of the sustainable garden.
“To watch them ... it’s an indescribable feeling,” he says. “They look so happy and interested in what they are doing.”
Chez Melange receives a shipment of produce once a week from the garden, which usually varies depending on what they're growing.
“During delivery day, our kitchen guys so enjoy interacting with the students when they come to the restaurant," Franks says. "That gives these students such a sense of worth.”
Chez Melange has a unique concept, incorporating three eclectic restaurants under one roof: the Bouzy Gastropub, inspired by a French brasserie, English pub and American bar and grill; the Oyster Bar, serving seafood and handcrafted cocktails; and the newest addition, Sea Change, a seafood-centric restaurant.
“At the garden, we are growing Tuscan kale, Swiss chard, peas, lemons, cilantro, French breakfast radish, Italian parsley, carrots, garnet mustard, rosemary and mint,” he says.
The menu changes daily and the chefs works around the produce they receive.
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“If the chickens are laying eggs and the garden is producing more garlic, Sea Change will make a classic Sicilian spaghetti made with Italian sausage, rapini, garlic, EVOO, chili flakes, breadcrumbs and a fresh fried egg with truffle oil,” Franks says.
Other favorite dishes on the menu use cauliflower, sweet corn, shishito peppers, pesto and Asian mushrooms from the garden.
The garden is open the second Saturday of the month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. To become a volunteer or make a tax-deductible donation, email Seedtoplate@yahoo.com.
Chez Melange, 1611 S. Catalina Ave. Redondo Beach.