As managers of Echo Canyon School’s gardens, Lou Rodarte and his wife Ann have turned their labor of love into a hands-on curriculum that takes garden produce into the classroom and invites students to taste locally-grown food prepared by some of the best chefs in the Southwest.
Echo Canyon’s Chef in the Garden Program has been so popular that the school decided to branch out and invite local chefs to share their knowledge by hosting interactive cooking demonstrations for students, parents and the community.
For the third year, the school has hosted a Chef in the Garden Family Night featuring chefs from the Blue Watermelon Project, an initiative of Slow Food Phoenix, to promote healthy eating and gardening in schools.
Slow Food’s mission is to “create a diverse and inclusive food community that supports good, clean and fair food for all by educating, advocating and connecting,” especially within the area schools. The Blue Watermelon Project was started by Chef Charleen Badman, who was the winner of the 2019 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southwest.
Family Night is an opportunity for parents to experience what Echo Canyon students do in the program. The event features interactive food-prep stations with demonstrations and samples. Participating chefs talk to guests about their dishes and even extend invitations to help them prepare – and eat – the food.
All of the food, including local produce, is donated from suppliers and cooks, the Rodarte family, and a grant from Sprouts that was secured this year.
“We fed 500 people at this event. All the stations mirror an actual Chef in the Garden class that we have done with the students during the year, and feature produce from the school gardens,” Ann said.
“Chef in the Garden is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year,” she said. “We are working now in 10 schools and have 25 chefs participating in the program.”
Those who participated this year include Badman, Jason Raducha of Noble Bread and Cotton and Copper, Juan Zamora of Chula Seafood, Chris Mendoza of North Italia and Helen Yung of Sweet Republic.
Past participants include Arcadia resident and The Parlor owner, Aric Mei and Sacha Levine of Century Grand.
This year, students from Glendale, Maricopa and Ironwood High School joined the event as well.
“Jason Raducha’s Noble Bread with Chris Mendoza’s freshly made, hand-pulled mozzarella with tomatoes and garden-picked basil is always a crowd favorite. Raducha generously supplies us with his fresh bread whenever we go out with the students. We always say if you add the bread, they will eat anything,” Ann said.
The people who donate their time and talent to share their passion for healthy eating are all invested in the Blue Watermelon Project.
“If I’m reaching the children that are in kindergarten through eighth grade, then that effort translates into a high school student that wants to have a better lunch program,” said Badman. “It’ll continue to an adult who eats better. It’ll continue to an adult that expects better from what is coming out of those cafeterias.”
For more: slowfoodphoenix.org.