Get on Board: Building Eye-Catching Cheese Spreads

By Whitney Pipkin, Photography by Jennifer Chase

  Artfully arranged cheese spreads like this one can elevate any gathering—and they’re surprisingly easy to create with just a few simple guidelines.

Artfully arranged cheese spreads like this one can elevate any gathering—and they’re surprisingly easy to create with just a few simple guidelines.

If throwing an elaborate dinner party isn’t in the cards this busy fall season, don’t give up on the occasion. Consider, instead, the humble cheeseboard which, in the hands of Alice Bergen Phillips, is anything but.

Phillips ran the cheese counter at Georgetown’s Via Umbria before breaking out on her own last year to start Cheesemonster DC, a cheese-based catering company. The name is a play on how customers often butcher the “cheesemonger” title (but, coincidentally, it also describes the effect a decent spread o’ cheese has on us these days).

“The biggest thing is that it makes you happy,” Phillips says as she arranges pennant-shaped slices of Manchego into a semi-circle at the center of a giant wooden board.

She suggests beginning every board with the cheese, finding a way to weave variety into each layer of its composition. Start by balancing contrasting flavors—salty and sweet, nutty and fruity, meaty and tangy—and continue with a variety of colors, sizes and textures.

“Once you get into the habit,” she says, building beautiful boards is “no more difficult than plunking cheese and salami on a plate.”

We asked Phillips, who will be opening her own cheese studio in Brightwood this fall, for some pointers on assembling boards worthy of their own occasion.

  Using a combination of cheeses—soft and hard, sweet and earthy—to liven up your spread.

Using a combination of cheeses—soft and hard, sweet and earthy—to liven up your spread.

Change up your cheese game

  • Cows aren’t the only animals that produce cheese-worthy milk. Consider goat- and sheep-milk cheeses, which can be as delicious and complex as your friends’ dietary restrictions.

  • Balance the fresh, milky flavors of soft cheeses like burrata, with the intense flavors of aged Gouda or a nutty Gruyère. Don’t forget stinky, washed-rind cheeses and bleus.

  • Combine cheese textures: spreadable, crumbly, semi-hard and the aged ones with crunchy crystals of flavor.

  Variation in color and size add depth and visual appeal to your cheese spread.

Variation in color and size add depth and visual appeal to your cheese spread.

The Accoutrements

  • Shade: Wander through the farmers market, produce section or dried fruit aisle with a rainbow in mind. Balance the bright white of cheese slices with deep-red pomegranate or amber-colored dried apricots.

  • Size: Consider variations in the same hue, pairing a cluster of Concords with the tiny orbs of Champagne grapes and larger plums. The same rule can be applied to crackers of varying shapes and grains.

  • Style: Combine the juiciness of fresh fruits with the tartness of dried ones. Recently pickled carrots or dilly beans can be as good as fresh vegetables for dipping into soft cheese or spreads. They also give gluten-free folks a vessel for schmearing.

  • Salt: Don’t forget to leave room for sliced charcuterie, if it’s in the budget. Along with the usual salamis and prosciuttos, Phillips suggests trying artisanal jerky as an easy finger food.

  • Sidekicks: Olives, Marcona almonds and fancy corn nuts can provide salty balance or crunch to a cheese tray. Whimsical jars of honey or jams add a sweet finishing touch.

  Including multiple types of cheese allows your guests to enjoy a mixture of flavors and textures.

Including multiple types of cheese allows your guests to enjoy a mixture of flavors and textures.

Rules of Thumb

  • Try to offer at least three cheeses, even if they’re small slices for a party of two, to give the tray a balance of flavors.

  • How much should you serve? A good rule is 1½ to 2 ounces of cheese per person, before filling in the board with other fixings.

  • Make it edible. “A big pet peeve of mine is when cheese boards are offered in giant hunks,” says Phillips. “The biggest thing is making it easy for your guests to eat.” That said, don’t cut the cheese too far in advance or it could dry out.

  • Serve cheese at room temperature for optimal flavor. Out of the fridge, softer cheeses can come to room temperature in as little as 15 minutes, but some hard cheeses could take an hour. Set reminders.

 

Kitchen Confident: A Recipe from "Top Chef Junior" Winner Owen Pereira

By Sabrina Medora, photography by Farrah Skeiky

 Owen Pereira, winner of  Top Chef Junior.

Owen Pereira, winner of Top Chef Junior.

Although not in his own kitchen, 14-year-old Owen Pereira moves with familiarity, building flavors in a cast-iron pot in an autumnal riff on potato soup. He mentions that the recipe is based on one by Los Angeles chef Ludo Lefebvre as though he borrowed it from a friend. And, the truth is, he’d rubbed elbows with some of the greats before entering high school.

“It’s filling, and it warms up the soul,” he reasons, using phrases and techniques beyond his years. We asked him to throw together a one-pot dish, and he explains why he picked potato soup as a canvas. “I add more things to it than you would find in a normal potato soup, to enhance flavors. I like giving it a bacon-y, salty, smoky bite.” The aromas in the air add promise to his words.

His instincts in the kitchen are those of a born natural—or a seasoned competitor. At age 13, Owen, a Baltimore resident, won “Top Chef Junior” and walked away with $50,000. Most of that money’s been put on ice for his future, but Owen doesn’t seem to be waiting to pursue his kitchen dreams.

“I learned a lot on the show about cooking with speed and keeping yourself organized,” he says as his hands deftly begin peeling potatoes. “In a restaurant, there’s no physical clock timing you but you’re always on the clock.”

Owen cares a lot about honing his skills, and is lined up to stage (a brief, unpaid internship) with some of the best chefs in the country over the next year. His list of mentors includes Chicago greats such as Noah Sandoval and Grant Achatz, along with Baltimore favorite Cindy Wolf.

“He can be a little precocious and very ambitious,” chuckles his mom, Susan, who took time off from her job to accompany Owen while he competed on “Top Chef Junior.” She seems proud and a little amused. Like so many his age, Owen is ready to grow up. Unlike most, he has a solid plan.

 Pereira preparing his one-pot soup.

Pereira preparing his one-pot soup.

“I want to open my own restaurant when I’m 18,” Owen states as he tosses pancetta, garlic and leeks into a pot. “I have very high standards for myself. People tell me they’re too high but if there’s even the tiniest mistake [with my food], I won’t be happy no matter how many good parts there are.”

Owen’s quest for perfection in the kitchen began at a young age.

“He showed interest in cooking when he was around 3 years old,” Susan recounts. “He loved stirring things and making scrambled eggs. But 11 was when he really took it upon himself.”

“I had gotten The French Laundry Cookbook,” Owen chimes in. “I didn’t understand a thing, so I returned it. I got Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and after that I went and rebought The French Laundry.” Soon after, Owen began applying for spots on “MasterChef Junior” and competed on “Chopped Junior” before making his way to “Top Chef Junior.”

For Owen, it’s not about the money, which he won’t see for a while.

“His winnings are in an online CD, and he won’t get access to them until he’s 21,” his mother explains.

It’s all about the experience and exposure to as many of the greats as possible. He refers to top chefs like they’re old friends, both reverent and ready to be on their level as quickly as possible.

So, what’s next for the young chef? Not a lot of cooking dinners at home, apparently.

“We’re at an impasse, because he hates to clean up after himself and I don’t want to,” Susan laughs.

More likely, he’ll be seeking stages with notable DC–area restaurants, grooming himself to some day drop the “junior” from his “Top Chef” title.

 The best soups begin with the freshest ingredients,

The best soups begin with the freshest ingredients,

Potato Leek Soup with Pancetta and Pine Nuts

Ingredients:

1 cup pancetta

¼ cup pine nuts

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 leek

5 potatoes, Yukon Gold or small Russets, peeled and roughly chopped

3 cups chicken stock

½ pint heavy cream

½ stick butter

Dandelion greens to garnish

 Voila! Potato leek soup.

Voila! Potato leek soup.

Cook the pancetta in a large pot or Dutch oven on medium heat until crispy. Remove pancetta from the pan, but leave behind pan juices.

Turn down the heat and add pine nuts to cook in the pancetta fat, tossing continuously, about 3 minutes. Be careful not to burn them. Remove pine nuts from pan with a slotted spoon.

Increase heat to medium and add garlic and leeks to the pan, stirring occasionally until softened and garlic is translucent.

Add potatoes and chicken stock.

Cover the pan and bring soup to a rolling boil for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Use an immersion blender to blend the potatoes and leeks into a silky soup texture. Add a half-pint of heavy cream and a half-stick of butter, combining until incorporated and heated through.

Serve immediately and garnish with pancetta, pine nuts and dandelion greens.

"There's Work to Do"

By Lani Furbank, Photography by Rey Lopez

 Hugo Mogollon is the executive director of Community Foodworks, a nonprofit rethinking the farmers market, putting it to work for more people.

Hugo Mogollon is the executive director of Community Foodworks, a nonprofit rethinking the farmers market, putting it to work for more people.

After hours of packing produce, Hugo Mogollon finally has a moment to rest and watch the farmers selling stone fruit, squash and beans to their customers—many of them immigrants from El Salvador, Ethiopia or Vietnam.

As executive director of Community Foodworks, the nonprofit that runs this Columbia Heights Farmers Market and 13 like it in the region, Mogollon reflects on how the market’s multicultural audience—including customers who could afford the premiums for local produce and those who could not—helped shape the organization from the start.

“The fact that the neighborhood was so mixed-income, that’s what set the whole culture and our mission,” he says. “This is what made us realize that everybody has to have the same access to the same produce.”

Mogollon joined Community Foodworks in 2015 after moving to the United States from Ecuador. When he came on board, the nonprofit was managing three farmers markets and had just received a grant to open a second Columbia Heights market on Wednesdays and develop a community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription program for low-income residents.

On a warm evening in July, the Wednesday market buzzes with energy. Children splash in the Civic Plaza fountain while a line of people waiting to receive their Produce Plus checks stretches down the block.

The food community credits Mogollon’s leadership for the market’s incredible growth, but he isn’t interested in taking it. “I have been lucky to have this amazing group of people that are passionate about what we do, and that’s why this works,” he says. “CFW is what it is because of the staff.”

Providing equal access to quality produce sounds like a simple concept, but focusing on that mission helped Community Foodworks find its niche in an already robust food landscape.

Even as more markets grow their programs to serve the typically underserved, Community Foodworks’ focus on residents who might not otherwise have access to local food stands out.

Lindsay Smith, a planning and food systems consultant who has worked with Mogollon for the last few years, says that’s especially true “in a city with such an impressive amount of talent dedicated to improving food security.”

“The heart, optimism and strategic thinking that Hugo has brought not to just Community Foodworks but also to serving farmers markets nationally is striking to me,” she says.

Mogollon, who serves on the national Farmers Market Coalition board, has a core belief that farmers market and local food culture should cater to customers of all income levels—which meant the organization had to rethink programs that traditionally didn’t.

Mogollon looked at the disconnect between the farmer and certain residents and decided, “there’s work to do.” So Community Foodworks developed not one, but several unique models of distribution to connect those residents with fresh, local produce.

 Mogollon’s organization designed its community-supported agriculture program with flexibility to serve all members of the Columbia Heights community.

Mogollon’s organization designed its community-supported agriculture program with flexibility to serve all members of the Columbia Heights community.

Sharing the market

Every Wednesday evening during the growing season, rows of burlap tote bags line up under pop-up tents at the market. Spring onion tops spill out of the bags, hiding a week’s worth of produce—summer squash, peppers, tomatoes in the summer, Butternut squash, potatoes and hearty greens in the fall. They’re awaiting pickup by dozens of participants in the Market Share program, a unique interpretation of community-supported agriculture.

“A normal CSA works in a way that you pay a chunk of money at the beginning of the year, and that way you support the farmer to do all the work for the year,” Mogollon explains. “But for low-income residents, they don’t have the luxury to have that amount of money and put in the chunk at the beginning of the year.”

His organization has designed the program with flexibility to serve all members of the Columbia Heights community. To that end, Market Share buys wholesale from three local farms, and then grants and donations allow low-income residents to pay weekly with federal nutrition benefits such as SNAP or WIC, and receive their share at a 75% discount.

“We see that it’s always this idea, ‘Because you are low-income, your food is also going to be a lower quality,’” Mogollon says. With Market Share, “you receive exactly the same bag, exactly the same product—which is a prime product—at a very low price.”

In addition to the hundreds of customers who pick up their produce at various locations each week through the program that began in 2015, Market Share also serves 200 seniors who are homebound by delivering a bag to their door.

“The order that we were asking the farmers to bring kept becoming larger and larger as we added more people,” Mogollon says. Now, the Market Share purchases account for more than half of what farmers make at Community Foodworks markets.

This sparked an idea about how to address lack of food access in Wards 7 and 8, which are underserved by grocery stores and farmers markets because “residents don’t have the disposable income,” Mogollon says. He wanted to find a way to reduce the risk for farmers who might not otherwise be able to sell there.

Mogollon explains that one method of incentivizing risky markets is to pay the farmer a certain sum, regardless of what they sell. “That model has the flaw that those dollars go to the farmer, but the food goes nowhere,” he says.

Instead, Community Foodworks launched a suite of solutions to serve residents in those wards: a pop-up food hub and satellite vegetable stands. “We think that all these low-income areas are an untapped market for farmers,” Mogollon says. “We’re not competing or taking a share of the market from other food hubs…Our clients are a different kind of client, the kind that’s not being served.”

The pop-up food hub operates in tandem with a farmers market, treating it as a “natural point of aggregation” and helping farmers sell more food to more people during each trip to the city.

Minimum order requirements often prevent small organizations like churches, early-care centers and clinics from procuring their food from a conventional food hub. “That’s the barrier we want to break,” Mogollon says. Community Foodworks compiles small orders, places one wholesale order with the farmer, and then delivers the other orders to each organization.

“The demand is huge. We started last year, and we were thinking, ‘Let’s find five clients,’” Mogollon says. “By the end of the year, we’re working with 47 organizations.”

The satellite vegetable stands also amplify sales by allowing the farmers to send some of their produce to a separate location, where a community member is employed to sell the food on behalf of the farmer. In 2016, CFW had just one farmers market in Ward 7 on a Saturday, and that year the farmers made around $11,000.

“Last year, we had three veggie stands, and they made $65,000—in the same trip, with same effort,” Mogollon says. “If you work to solve food insecurity but you don’t think about the farmer, you are not creating justice.”

The “OGs” of Logan Circle Restaurateurs are Farmers Too?

They are. And their new restaurant this fall will take it all to the next level

By AJ Dronkers, photography by Sarah Culver

 Farmers at EatWell Natural Farm harvest produce, then deliver to the EatWell restaurants. They also help with composting efforts with each restaurant.

Farmers at EatWell Natural Farm harvest produce, then deliver to the EatWell restaurants. They also help with composting efforts with each restaurant.

“The creativity of incorporating produce from the farm is like a quick-fire mystery basket challenge.” - Madison Han, Head Chef, EatWell Group’s Commissary Restaurant

Sourcing local and seasonal food continues to be a growing trend across restaurants globally. While we’d love to say it is being driven by pure altruism on the part of food businesses, the ones behind the wheel are actually consumers.

A 2017 study by the National Restaurant Association found “local sourcing” and “fresh produce” continuing to rise as business trends. But meeting that demand can be costlier and downright challenging in some seasons, not to mention the fact that lemons and avocados simply don’t grow in the mid-Atlantic. A 2016 exposé in the Tampa Bay Times1 went viral after it documented restaurants doing what some consumers had long suspected: faking the farm-to-table thing. It’s not surprising that trying to benefit from consumer interest in eating locally sourced food opens the door to fraud, or to those only partially walking the walk. (We’ve previously reported on a local start-up, Greenease, that allows users to find restaurants that have a genuine commitment to local and provide audited lists of farms from which restaurants source.)

But if you don’t want to have to wonder about the source, consider a restaurant that not only works with local farms—but owns one. In the DC area, one of the original gangsters, if you will, of local sourcing is the EatWell Restaurant Group, whose eateries include Logan Tavern, Commissary, The Bird, Grillfish and the Pig.

In 2003, the group decided to purchase and operate its own 13-acre farm in La Plata, MD, to source for the family of restaurants. This fall they will launch their newest restaurant, The Charles Public House & Farm Table, also in La Plata, which will bring their farm-based inspiration to the forefront.

In the DMV, sourcing locally plays out in many ways. At various FRESHFARM markets like Dupont Circle or Penn Quarter you can routinely catch Executive Chef Jeremiah Langhorne from the Dabney or Chef Michael Costa of Zaytinya walking around with their teams purchasing crate after crate of local produce.

Chef Amy Brandwein formed a partnership with DC Urban Greens in Southeast DC. She supports their efforts to provide affordable fresh produce in a food dessert by purchasing products for her menu and even volunteering to work the farm with her team. Chef Rob Weiland of the Garrison installed and pulls from multiple small urban chef gardens near his restaurant as a means to get local produce.

We took a visit to the EatWell Natural Farm and chatted with the team—the farmers, the chefs, the manager—about what it’s really like to source from and grow for a restaurant group-sized farm.

 Farm-to-table dining keeps EatWell’s restaurants’ menus flexible and innovative.

Farm-to-table dining keeps EatWell’s restaurants’ menus flexible and innovative.

About the Farm with EatWell Natural Farm Manager Keith McNeal

Edible DC: How do you run the farm?

Keith McNeal: We currently operate the farm with one full-time farm manager (that’s me), one full-time crew member and two to three part-time farm crew and delivery members as the season gets increasingly busy.

We hire local folks who have an interest in small-scale, sustainable agriculture. It does help to hire those who have an interest and understanding of farming, as well as those who have experience in production-based agriculture focused on the culinary side of things.

EDC: Does the produce only go to your restaurants?

KM: Currently all our produce goes to our restaurants. In the future, we may sell to our local community, but now it is very important to EatWell DC as a company to ensure we are getting as much of our produce from our farm as we can. 

We have just over an acre under cultivation. Our goal would be to deliver to our restaurants up to three times per week and to source up to 60 percent of the produce that can be regionally grown directly from EatWell Natural Farm.

EDC: Where do you get produce that doesn’t come from the farm? 

KM: We partner with local farmers in our immediate area. At the new The Charles Public House & Farm Table, we will have a perfect opportunity; our menu will reflect the great work our local farmers and food systems producers do.

EDC: What’s coming from the farm this fall? 

KM: On the farm, we are growing vegetables that can be used by all of our chefs, in all of our restaurants. In the fall, we use season-extension techniques to continue to grow a wide variety of baby lettuces, root vegetables and cold-hardy crops to keep things as close to year-round as we can. This year, we are growing some new squash varieties: Blue Hubbard and Delicata. We are introducing Brussels sprouts to our crop list. Farm-pasture-raised hens are here with excellent eggs that usually go to The Bird. We would like to expand our egg production to get more into the other restaurants. We also focus on perennial crops: sunchokes, rhubarb, asparagus and lesser-known baby greens varieties. 

 Utilizing local farm produce often results in seasonal dishes, such as this autumn-inspired stuffed gourd.

Utilizing local farm produce often results in seasonal dishes, such as this autumn-inspired stuffed gourd.

We asked the chefs of the EatWell restaurants how they work with their weekly deliveries from the farm.

EDC: How do you weave the EatWell Farm produce into the menu?

Isaiah Ruffin, head chef, The Bird: I base our menu on what is available, so when the farm manager lets us know what he has or what will be coming, the menu gets developed around it.

Madison Han, head chef, Commissary: The creativity of incorporating produce from the farm is like a quick-fire mystery basket challenge. I usually use fresh produce in daily specials or add to items that are already on my menu.

EDC: What are the challenges and benefits? 

William Crutchley, head chef, The Charles: One of my biggest challenges is going to be meeting my food cost margins. I will be serving delicious, quality food—however, I would also like that food to be rather affordable. The Charles is designed to be a place that people will frequent regularly, not a special-occasion-only spot. That said, one of the most fulfilling things is the ability to support the local community. Our dollars spent in purchasing our restaurant’s food will be spent in the community, we will be supporting real small businesses, not being siphoning off cash to some multinational food aggregate with headquarters in New York City.”

Shabier Bahramy, head chef, The Pig: When you get 20 pounds of farm radishes, you have to think on the fly and come up with creative ways to weave them into the menu and specials. Our farm is 100 percent organic with no pesticides, preservatives or additives. The shelf life isn’t as long as commodity produce, so it’s at its peak the moment it comes through our doors. It forces us to think outside the box and reflect a hyper-seasonal menu.

 Chef Will Crutchley works on developing seasonal menus, planning ahead for fall farm produce. Pictured here is a tandoori chicken salad with butternut squash, EatWell Natural Farm greens and apples.

Chef Will Crutchley works on developing seasonal menus, planning ahead for fall farm produce. Pictured here is a tandoori chicken salad with butternut squash, EatWell Natural Farm greens and apples.

Getting the message that across with General Manager Heidi Minora

EDC: How do you think the farm helps brand your restaurants, if at all? 

Heidi Minora: Sourcing locally can mean anything—from a farm way outside the city, hours away to one in a different state. The EatWell Natural Farm is literally one hour outside the city. This sets us apart from any other restaurant in DC. Yes, we are serving a burger, but the bread came from a local bakery, the lettuce and tomato came from our farm and the beef was grassfed from a local butcher. This is a product that our staff can be proud to serve. And if your staff is proud of the company they work for, they will pass that along to their guests.

As business owners, we feel very strongly that we have a responsibility to not just take from this earth but also give back to it. We are an eco-friendly restaurant group that composts in house. We use only biodegradable products in our restaurants, do not use plastic bags and have both energy-efficient and water-conservation efforts in our restaurants.

EDC: How do your guests react to knowing you have a farm and grow your own produce? 

HM: Parents especially appreciate any restaurant that’s going to make natural foods tasty and approachable for their children. We offer volunteer days at our farm, which are excellent ways for parents and children to work on a farm and make lunch together. Folks are always eager to know more and we love that we can give them that opportunity. 

Rethinking School Lunch

By Whitney Pipkin, Photography by Jennifer Chase

We challenged three chefs-with-kids to make over school lunch—and tell us why it isn’t as easy as it sounds

 From left: Chefs Tim Ma, David Guas, and Ruben García were asked to rethink the traditional school lunch menu.

From left: Chefs Tim Ma, David Guas, and Ruben García were asked to rethink the traditional school lunch menu.

Spooning rosemary-infused honey onto apple slices was getting every ounce of Lucia García’s attention, until her father reminded her of the time.

“Lulu, you need to go faster,” Ruben García said, lightheartedly, reminding his 9-year-old sous chef that their meal would need to be plated in a few minutes.

The apples were just one component of a build-your-own-tacos dish featuring stewed beef, black beans, radishes and a kale-and-sweet-potato salad.

 Chef Ruben García’s build-your-own-tacos dish was enjoyed by both kids and grown-ups alike.

Chef Ruben García’s build-your-own-tacos dish was enjoyed by both kids and grown-ups alike.

The dish will not be on the menu at Minibar, where García directs the Michelin two-starred kitchen’s research and development. But something like it could end up on a school lunch tray in the DC area, where food service programs are improving at a slow-but-steady clip.

Dozens of nonprofits and a growing number of chefs are focused on improving the food that is offered in schools, which, for many children, could be the most nutritious meal they’ll get each day. But the problems plaguing school lunch—the struggle to turn healthful ingredients into dishes kids will eat, often on less than $2 per meal—still feel so entrenched, so difficult, that we wanted to find a new way to tackle them.

Inspired by the work of Dan Giusti, who left Copenhagen’s New Nordic powerhouse restaurant Noma to overhaul school lunch programs in Connecticut with his company Brigaid, we decided to host a local chefs cook-off. We asked a trio of DC chefs—each of whom has kids in public schools—to rethink school lunch through a friendly competition.

 No school lunch would be complete without an iconic colorful tray.

No school lunch would be complete without an iconic colorful tray.

Just before the start of the school year, we invited García along with chefs David Guas and Tim Ma to come cook their meals in the recently renovated cafeteria and demonstration kitchens at Francis Stevens School Without Walls in West End. Here, FRESHFARM Markets’ FoodPrints program is helping students create meals with produce they grow in a sprawling garden out front, weaving the experience throughout the school’s curriculum.

Giusti, who’s hosted larger versions of such a competition, tried to warn me that—with chefs cooking for the first time under the strict cost and nutrition constraints of a school lunch—the food might not be great.

“These can be very successful chefs that cook really well in their own kitchens,” Giusti said, “but you’re really handicapping them when you take away a lot of the things they’re used to doing.”

But, he said, “This proves why it’s so hard.”

The Challenge

We asked the chefs to prepare just 20 portions, compared with the hundreds a school kitchen might churn out for a day’s lunch, so we gave them some wiggle room on costs, assuming they wouldn’t have the same economies of scale. The goal was close to $2 and no more than $5 per meal (the less they spent, the more points they got).

Lea Howe, the farm-to-school director at the nonprofit DC Greens, said the reimbursement for school meals, after taking out costs such as labor, whittles down to less than $1 for ingredients. (For Giusti’s chef throwdown, he told participants that 25 cents of their $1.35 goes to milk, “so then you’re down to $1.10.”)

The DC chefs said finding protein options that would be both delicious and inexpensive was perhaps the biggest challenge.

 Chef García with his daughter, Lucia.

Chef García with his daughter, Lucia.

“The truth is, quality costs money,” García said, stirring a pot where a small chuck roast from Roseda Farm in Monkton, MD, had become stew for his tacos. Along with his 9-year-old daughter, García also recruited Mateo, his 12-year-old son, to divide corn tortillas among the plates. “But there’s no reason quality shouldn’t be available to everyone.”

We asked the chefs to meet the federal nutrition guidelines for an elementary school lunch (though we didn’t measure things like sodium), including a serving of fruit, vegetable, whole grain and at least one ounce of meat or meat alternative. You read that right—one ounce is all that’s required for the youngest grades, though Michele Ballard, wellness director for SodexoMAGIC, the food service provider for more than 100 DC public schools, said their cafeterias often serve more.

The school district is now in the early stages of adopting the Good Food Purchasing Program, which analyzes the sources of school meals based on five criteria, and works to improve them, and would be the 10th school system in the country to do so.

Part of that same federal grant will help FoodPrints expand its program to 10 schools in the District. The nonprofit also is working with chefs from New York City–based Wellness in the Schools to help local staff integrate scratch cooking into their menus.

The nonprofit DC Central Kitchen already serves largely from-scratch meals—like barbecue chicken or tofu with beans, collard greens and cornbread—at the 15 DC schools where its staff manages the school lunch programs. On average, more than half of those meals also are sourced locally, and the District requires all of its schools to source at least 20% of their food locally.

 Chef Guas receives help from his son, Kemp, who competed on Top Chef Junior in 2016.

Chef Guas receives help from his son, Kemp, who competed on Top Chef Junior in 2016.

David Guas, the father of 16- and 14-year-old sons, has been working for years on school food through programs like Real Food for Kids, which brings food education into schools. When Guas leads salad bar demos at Fairfax County schools, he talks about looking for a variety of colors in the produce aisle that can be added to greens.

“Once they’re invested in shopping, they get more excited about what they’re eating,” said Guas, who incorporated a variety of colors into his lunch dish.

He piled a red-bean hummus onto slices of honey-whole-grain bread and topped them with quick-pickled radishes, cucumbers, carrots and alfalfa sprouts in an homage to trendy toast-as-lunch. Guas topped it off with a salad of tender greens, canned tuna and chive vinaigrette with herbs from the school’s garden.

Ballard said the meal seemed realistic, since schools often use beans, hummus and canned tuna as protein options, but might be adapted as a wrap that kids could eat more easily (adults still liked the idea of toast).

She also said García’s beef-stew tacos would be a special treat in schools that often serve beef just once a month and reduce prices on other meals to make up the difference.

 Chef Ma and plating with the help of his daughter Charlotte.

Chef Ma and plating with the help of his daughter Charlotte.

Chef Tim Ma was already intimate with the challenge of funneling good food into kids, including his own, ages 7, 5 and 3. When he cooks at home like he might in his restaurant, Kyirisan, or at the Eaton hotel and coworking space where he’s executive chef, Ma gets turned down flat.

“When they were younger, I could feed them sweetbreads and foie gras,” Ma said. “But, when they get to be school-aged, they turn into simple eaters.”

That doesn’t mean he won’t push the envelope. For the cook-off, Ma riffed on duck à l’orange by tucking bits of duck confit into a Savoy cabbage salad with sesame-ginger vinaigrette, pickled carrots and shallots. Spaghetti squash quickly roasted with thyme and oil was forked into a noodle-like mound with thinly sliced red onion and salt.

 The panel of judges assemble to taste the chefs’ redesigned lunches.

The panel of judges assemble to taste the chefs’ redesigned lunches.

Along with a panel of judges, we asked the chefs’ kids to taste the dishes, and Ma’s was their favorite (granted, three of the six kids were his, but one was too young to taste). The judges—who graded the dishes on taste and ease of execution—said duck confit, good as it was, would be tricky to work into a school menu, even if it were made in-house and served in small portions to cut costs.

When all the points were tallied, García’s build-your-own tacos came out on top, looking the part of a school lunch with side dishes to fill every nook of the school’s compostable trays.

García is putting his school lunch lessons to good use. He’s helping DC Bilingual Public Charter School, which has long had its school lunches catered, put the finishing touches on a kitchen that will support from-scratch cooking starting this fall.

So, yeah, he might have had a little extra practice—even if his sous chef’s plating pace can use some work.  

Getting Greener

Parents, take heart. It’s only a matter of time before all the kids in Fairfax County Public Schools will be eating more salad (or at least something off the salad bar).

The district is a couple years into a five-year program that is bringing salad bars to each of its 141 elementary schools by the spring of 2021. When they roll into schools, the pint-sized bars appear before the usual lunch line, and students have the option to fill a portion or all of their tray with the greens, fruits, vegetables and proteins they provide.

The bars allow schools to meet federal nutrition guidelines for fruits and vegetables in a way that makes choosing and consuming them more fun for students. Many of the schools previously offered fruits and vegetables, such as canned green beans, in pre-portioned cups and after they had filled their trays with hot food. That approach left many students adding the vegetables just to comply.

 The chefs came up with a variety of dishes for our challenge.

The chefs came up with a variety of dishes for our challenge.

“Being able to provide these options and allowing students to decide for themselves is huge,” said Morgan Maloney, food services program specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools’ food and nutrition services.

Kevin Morris, assistant principal at Groveton Elementary School, which got its salad bar this past school year, agrees.

“The way it showcases fruits and vegetables is more like a real-world experience for them,” he said. “Now they can choose how much broccoli they want on their tray and where it goes on their tray. That’s a big deal to a kid.”

Mundo Verde

The heat-and-serve model has long contributed to the poor reputation of school lunches. But there’s a reason it persists: from-scratch cooking on a school budget with a staff and students that are used to the old way is hard.

Just ask Kelsey Weisgerber, food initiative and wellness manager at DC’s Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School. When she arrived at the elementary known as the city’s first “green-focused” charter school two years ago, her job was to transform the lunch program and completely revamp its kitchen to support from-scratch cooking.

That would mean more chopping, more canning, more breading and baking—and a new kitchen and staff to make it happen for a school that previously had relied on a vendor to run school lunch.

For the new hires, Weisgerber turned to the restaurant industry and found Dorothy Steck, or “Chef Dot,” who hailed from stints at Mexican eateries and helped open the U Street tavern Hawthorne DC as chef. After fundraising and construction, the new kitchen opened just after Christmas break.

Now, Chef Dot gets to interact with her customers more, as students filtering through the line let her know what they thought of lunch—either with their words or their waste.

 Lucia García helps prepare a kale-and-sweet-potato salad.

Lucia García helps prepare a kale-and-sweet-potato salad.

“We look at the waste to see what they didn’t eat,” said Steck, who has had her share of misfires in the scratch kitchen’s first season. A Lebanese salad from the day before had left a lot of cucumbers on plates, “but, over a period of time, they will eventually eat it.”

Food waste isn’t entirely wasted, though, at the school that works to integrate what’s eaten throughout the learning experience. Garden educators work with students at the source in the school’s front-yard growing areas, where compost lessons are also in the curriculum.

In a room off the kitchen, a wall-sized calendar depicts an eight-week rotation of meals planned with the help of the school’s nutritionist, who makes sure they meet daily and weekly federal nutrition standards—and aren’t impossible to execute (like the flaky fish sticks that proved difficult to bread and bake quickly).

That doesn’t mean they have to be boring. Pushing aside an impossibly high mound of onions she was prepping for upcoming meals, Chef Dot ticked off some of the kids’ favorites: from grilled cheese to seafood étouffée, empanadas and tamales to tofu stir fry with rice noodles and vegetables.

“We’re still figuring things out,” Weisgerber said, “but the kids seem happy. Parents, too.”

A River Runs Through It: Harpers Ferry with Tarver King

By Susan Able, photography by Jennifer Chase 

 Tarver King, chef at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm

Tarver King, chef at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm

Driving into Harpers Ferry on a foggy night feels like coming up on an American Brigadoon: The perfectly preserved 19th-century village has an other-worldly atmosphere, far away from big city bustle. It’s almost jarring to see modern-day hikers with high-tech gear walking by us; the park rangers dressed in historical costumes actually look like they belong here.

In geography, the word palimpsest means a place or landscape in which something new is superimposed over traces of something preceding it. There is no better word to describe Harpers Ferry. You can feel the past centuries here, and the town’s strategic location at the breathtaking confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers have ensured its place in history. Best known as the location of John Brown’s raid and uprising, it was one of the first U.S. armories and arsenals and a hard-fought Civil War prize. The charms of Harpers Ferry and proximity to Washington, DC, via car, train or canal and its physical beauty have contributed to its popularity as a summer vacation spot and getaway for outdoor activists and history buffs alike.

Harpers Ferry is also now the home of Tarver King, chef of local and national renown whose culinary leadership at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm helped win that establishment (and the chef himself) every accolade, including James Beard finalist for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic; RAMMY’s 2017 Chef of the Year; and featured in Wine Spectator, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine magazines. He’s also a really nice guy, a passionate fly-fisherman and a great fan of his family’s hometown, Harpers Ferry.  

“I love this part of the world,” he explains to me as we bump along in his bright yellow Toyota FJ cruiser, which his wife, Sheree, calls the big banana. “But it’s the people that draw you to this place. They all have such pride and love for this town and want it to prosper—and I love that energy.”

 Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters and Visitor Center.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters and Visitor Center.

Tarver tours me along lower and upper downtown. A large part of lower downtown is under the purview of the U.S. National Park Service’s Harpers Ferry National Park, accommodating a deep dive with the rangers into the storied history of this burg. In fact, there is so much history here that some of it seems to come from another dimension. Harpers Ferry is known for its ghosts, and Tarver points out a famous haunted house. “You absolutely have to go on the Harpers Ferry Ghost Tour, it is one of the best things to do—lots of history, but you’ll want to make sure the lights are on when you get home,” Tarver says laughing.

 Harpers Ferry Outfitters.

Harpers Ferry Outfitters.

Harpers Ferry boasts great fishing streams, but it may be best known for being the mid-point of the Appalachian Trail; a popular spot to hop on or hop off. If you are eager for your own Wild moment and if hiking the great trail piques your interest, you are in luck. The headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is located here. Also, one of Tarver’s favorite shops for gear of all sorts, Harpers Ferry Outfitters, a well-stocked and friendly general store for all things outdoorsy.

 Sour ball candy from True Treats Historic Candy.

Sour ball candy from True Treats Historic Candy.

Talk of hiking left us needing coffee and a bite to eat. Luckily, coffee shops and sandwiches abound along Potomac and Washington streets. Our first stop was Battleground Coffee for a big pour of caffeine and sandwiches. If you are more in the mood for frozen custard, try the Coffee Mill. Then we hit one of the most unique candy stores I’ve ever visited, True Treats Historic Candy. Tarver pointed out to us that the store’s candies are grouped by their place in candy history: One section was Colonial candies; another, Civil War era; then Victorian favorites and so on. Owner Susan Benjamin is a well-known candy expert and historian. Her most recent book, Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure, made the Smithsonian’s list of Best Books About Food for 2016. Like an edible museum, the candy is curated with its origin story and available for purchase. 

 Local items on display at Vintage Lady.

Local items on display at Vintage Lady.

We left with several sweet treats and popped into one of Tarver’s favorite jewelry stores for the women in his life, Mary Adams Accessories. Pretty baubles abounded, including several pieces of jewelry made with the West Virginia state gem, chalcedony, a semi-precious form of fossilized coral with an aqua blue color. Then a few doors down is Vintage Lady, which has locally made food stuffs and fun gift items (even if they are for yourself).

 Town’s Inn and Mountain House.

Town’s Inn and Mountain House.

Settling in for a good local meal at the quaint Town’s Inn and Mountain House is a charming idea. Two renovated 19th-century buildings provide food and some lodging. The Town’s Inn has a full-service restaurant, Bistro 140, that serves daily from 11 am to 7 pm. Next door, the Mountain House has hostel-type lodging as well as two rooms and a café and sundry shop, with perfect grab-and-go food options for hikers and tourists alike.

 Breakfast at the Angler’s Inn.

Breakfast at the Angler’s Inn.

Delightful overnight options are found at the Angler’s Inn Bed & Breakfast, where owners Bryan and Debbi Kelly have comfortable rooms and outstanding breakfasts. True to the Inn’s name, many guests book months in advance to fish the waters of the Shenandoah and Potomac with Bryan; both the rivers and the guide are well-known by serious anglers. Bryan has 25 years of guide experience and the rivers have both been named as in the top 10 of smallmouth bass spots by Fly Fisherman Magazine. If you are looking for a light tackle or fly fishing experience, you’ve now got a plan.

Harpers Ferry is an easy 70-mile drive from Washington, DC, and an even easier train ride with a short walk to the town. For Tarver, who plans to put down even deeper roots with another restaurant project nearby soon, the appeal is clear. The town also looks forward to another draw: An investment team has a redevelopment plan underway for the Hill Top House Hotel, currently a stunningly derelict resort with the most incredible view of the river confluence and valley. It is slated to become a 122-room resort and spa by 2021. Even more exciting for potential visitors from Washington, DC, the resort will include eats by José Andrés and ThinkFoodGroup.  

 Terri Wilson makes delicious pepperoni rolls at her bakery, A Step in Time.

Terri Wilson makes delicious pepperoni rolls at her bakery, A Step in Time.

In addition to a state gemstone, West Virginia has its share of food legacies. Even though I’ve yet to find a “slaw dog,” Tarver and I did come upon a delicious example of a pepperoni roll at A Step in Time, in a renovated Victorian house just down the street in Bolivar. The proprietress and baker, Terri Wilson, a true coal miner’s daughter, told us the story of her mother’s West Virginia Pepperoni Roll: Her Mama Jo, she says, made rolls that fed seven children and served as lunch for her coal miner husband. The pepperoni roll, a soft yeast bread stuffed with pepperoni, could withstand a day in the mine, maybe stuffed inside a pocket or a bag, and was filling enough to fuel a tough day’s work.

Now Terri sells rolls made from her family’s recipe out of a bakeshop and tea room. Tarver gave them two thumbs up and reflected on his own pepperoni roll journey. “When I moved here, I really became interested in this roll and decided to see where I could take it,” he told me. “We tried different doughs—sweet, savory, soft, more dense—and we finely found one we liked. But what about the center? The best thing about pepperoni that I could think of is on a pepperoni pizza where the roasted edges curl up and are crispy. What if we could make the whole inside crispy pepperoni? So, we did, and it was great.”

 Tarver casts in the early morning on the Shenandoah River.

Tarver casts in the early morning on the Shenandoah River.

And that’s the thing about Tarver King and why—if you haven’t—you need to eat what he cooks. In addition to being a chef, he’s an artist, and he brings that creativity to the plate. The pepperoni roll is just one example of how deeply he will go down a rabbit hole to make something the best version of itself. We are staying tuned to see what Tarver’s next project will be. In the meantime, visit him at Patomack Farms, Thursday through Saturday for dinner. And lunch Saturday and Sunday. Or catch him, with a fistful of pepperoni roll, in Harpers Ferry.

For more information, go to patowmackfarm.com