For 13 years, Kevin Fonzo has been at the helm of one of the first chef-owned and chef-driven restaurants in the city – K Restaurant in College Park. Always a staunch supporter of local farms and food sources, Fonzo is now focused on educating the youth of the city on sustainable farming methods, nutrition and food preparation through his Edible Schoolyard Project at the Orlando Junior Academy. (OJA’s program is affiliated with the national Edible Schoolyard Project, founded by revered California chef Alice Waters.) In 2010-11, Fonzo spent the entire school year serving healthy lunches at OJA’s cafeteria, and he helped establish the Edible Schoolyard garden at the school. I chatted with Fonzo about the program and his role as a mentor-advocate to today’s youth.
How do you view your role as a chef?
I believe a chef’s role is that of a teacher. Whether you’re teaching line cooks, prep cooks, sous-chefs, we have a lot of knowledge, which we need to share. I’m most passionate about teaching our youth. My platform has been the Edible Schoolyard at Orlando Junior Academy. We bring the garden, and kitchen, into the school classroom. It’s important for our youth to understand nutrition, take the mystery out of cooking, know how to eat right and learn where the food on their plates comes from. It’s critical they understand that there are other options out there besides fast food.
How do you go about bringing the garden and kitchen into the school classroom?
The Edible Schoolyard program is structured so that the whole class, from start to finish, revolves around the garden and kitchen. We harvest what we grow in the school garden with the help of our gardener, Brad Jones, a parent-volunteer who maintains OJA’s garden. Then chef Sarah Cahill and I incorporate what we harvest, along with food donations from Whole Foods Winter Park and local farmers, into the day’s lesson. The kids are taught how to read a recipe, measure properly, prep the food and expedite the recipe.
Do they get their hands dirty in the garden?
Absolutely. Part of the program is that they learn how to grow their own produce. They start from seeds, nurture the plants, harvest them, after which they’re taught how to prepare them. We use the sciences, math and history while we’re teaching in the garden and try to incorporate the whole school curriculum by getting other teachers involved.
What sorts of foods have you made with the students?
We’ve done everything from making homemade pasta, tomato sauce, pesto and homemade cheese. We’ve made homemade peanut butter, jams, jellies, breads, even homemade pickles. The kids are also taught how to set a table properly, converse at the dinner table, and how to serve each other. They’re also responsible for cleaning up after themselves!
Do you lecture in the classroom?
Yes. Lecturing and guest speakers are a vital part of the class day. We’ve had many local farmers and artisans visit the class – farmers like Dale Volkert from Lake Meadow Naturals and distributors like Emily Rankin from Local Roots. We’ve had specialists from Florida Hospital talking about high blood pressure, allergies and diabetes, and, of course, yours truly talking about life as a chef. We also take the kids on trips. The last trip was to East End Market. John Rife (EEM), Shannon Talty (Olde Hearth Bread Company) and Devin Edwards (Skyebird Juice Bar) have all been to the Edible Schoolyard.
How long have you been a mentor-advocate to students?
I‘ve been associated with OJA for six years now. I took over the cafeteria before [Chefs Move to Schools] was Michelle Obama’s platform. I knew it was a very important thing to do. Three years ago, chef Sarah Cahill, Brad Jones and I started the Edible Schoolyard Project at OJA after a trip to the first Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, Calif., where we met chef and ESY founder Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. We are coming up on our fourth year!
Are there any upcoming Edible Schoolyard ventures we should know about?
Some very exciting things are happening right now with partnerships with some famous people. We’re in the process of building a new kitchen classroom with a real working kitchen and a much bigger community garden.