It’s not rare to see a class session being given outdoors on Drexel’s University City campus during the summer term. But where most of these sights involve students clustered around the professor for a lecture, CULA 426 gets students out and about in the summer sun and puts them to work.
CULA 426 is the “Kitchen Garden” course held during the summer term through the Center for Food & Hospitality Management. Open to students of any major, Kitchen Garden — which also has sections taught in the spring and fall — provides students with hands on-experience growing and maintaining a garden as a source of food and a platform for environmental stewardship.
On any given Tuesday morning, you can find this term’s Kitchen Garden students out on Drexel’s rented garden plot within the Summer Winter Community Garden at 33rd and Race streets. This morning’s session brought along a welcome break from the heat with temperatures still below 80 degrees at the start of class, though they soon climbed above.
“It’s nice down here,” remarked Chef Charles Ziccardi, or "Chef Z," an assistant clinical professor of culinary arts and food science for the Center and the instructor for the course, as he entered the garden, even though he knew they would soon work up a sweat.
The students break into groups and get to work on the areas of the garden that need tending: weeds that need pulling, soil that needs tilling, lettuce that needs collecting and root vegetables that need washing and taste testing. Oh, and there was the last of the pile of soil that needed moving, one wheelbarrow full at a time.
“The way to learn about gardening is to never stop gardening,” Ziccardi states matter-of-factly while relaying that the students must also complete 10 hours of gardening on their own outside of class time, which ensures that the more than 50 plants growing in the three garden plots are tended regularly throughout the week. “When they leave this class, I want them to be all about this.”
Ziccardi himself became all about gardening around when he started teaching at Drexel in 2000. He held the position of Program Director from 2003 to 2010, and would help the previous Kitchen Garden instructor maintain the garden over breaks. Plus, Ziccardi started gardening in four raised beds at home around the same time.
He carried interest in organic growing methods before this during his culinary career, but that was far before “farm-to-table” became the buzzword we know today.
“I really take great interest in that and I really want to teach people and chefs about farming and health, and how eating in a certain way and changing diet and such affects everything,” Ziccardi said.
Back when he was still working in kitchens, Ziccardi also grew more interest in the instructional and analytical aspects of cooking than he did in the high-stress, high-drama atmosphere of working in some of the country’s best restaurants and hotels.
“My time was much better spent teaching others how to get along in the industry than just getting along in the industry myself. I was getting along fine but I felt like that wasn't where my analytical skills could go off the best,” he said. “I loved cooking and I loved doing all that, but I wasn't using my passion and what I felt that I was best at in the industry, which was teaching.”
Although he enjoys teaching, you’d be hard-pressed to find Ziccardi lecturing during his Kitchen Garden class. The class does require readings, quizzes and tests, but the garden itself provides the real teaching moments, like when a full crop of something is ravaged by insects or disease, or when growing tomato plants break under their own weight or that of a storm.
“If we made sure nothing was getting eaten, we’d have no lesson. This is an educational garden, so we let the plants get eaten. But we can also learn something,” Ziccardi said. “My rule is 70 percent. We’re all organic, sustainable. We don’t spray anything, unless, I might use some pepper spray down or pull some bugs off the plants, but if we can get 70 percent of our crop in general, at the end of any given season, it’s ok. 30 percent for the animals, the bugs, the disease, 70 for us.”
The Kitchen Garden students certainly get a sampling of that 70 percent. Not only are they encouraged to take surplus home, but they also spend some class time learning how to cook with what they’ve grown. In fact, the term ends with a harvest brunch where everyone chips in on the menu. And although there are usually several culinary students in each Kitchen Garden section, Ziccardi encourages students from other backgrounds to take the reins in the kitchen.
Produce and herbs from the garden also find their way into the culinary courses taught at and menu items served by the Academic Bistro — the Center’s public, student-run restaurant, during the fall, winter and spring quarters.
“That's also important for us too, in the summer, is that we start putting up food that we can then use throughout the year,” Ziccardi said. “I always try to get some garden thing throughout the year that we can put on the menu, so the customers can see that we're using garden products.”
Isabella Yanik, an incoming fifth-year biology student, said she was intimidated by the idea of taking the class at first, assuming she’d be surrounded by students who knew a lot about the subject area. But she was excited to find that the majority of students in this section had little to no gardening or culinary experience.
“I’m happy the class is accessible to students like me,” she said. “I’m happy I was able to take some cool classes during my time at Drexel.”
Gal Rappaport, an incoming junior studying biology, was more excited by the prospect of doing something different from her usual coursework and being outdoors when she decided to take the class.
“I think that I would tell other students to take this class because it gives you a chance to be outside,” she said. “Also, there aren't many gardening classes such as this one available for you once you graduate. It's a great opportunity.”
Shana Singleton, an incoming fifth-year student in culinary arts and food science, isn’t simply planning to use the skills she’s learning in Kitchen Garden after graduation — she’s already applying them to her catering business which she is currently transitioning to be all vegan.
“The more I work with Chef Z and the class, the more I get at home with my own plants,” she said. “This class makes you appreciate the food you eat. It’s also an eye-opener when you taste the food from the garden versus the supermarket.”
And since all of the culinary majors know each other, Singleton said she’s also enjoyed the class because it’s an opportunity to meet people outside of her department. Ziccardi sees this diversity of the class as a major advantage.
“I think that everybody has their own particular reason to take this class, and since it’s open to the University, I get this incredibly diverse crowd of students that have these backgrounds,” he said. “… They get to share some of their experiences with the class that are directly related to what we're talking about. I can't get that just out of our [culinary] students. And then, you get our students getting even more embellishment from the class. They're getting such a great course enrichment from the other students because they have such diverse backgrounds on gardening and everything else.”
Despite these differences, there is one thing that most Kitchen Garden students usually have in common — something that Ziccardi enjoys nurturing almost as much as his seedlings.
“I find most of them are already interested in sustainability or growing organic. Their heads are not in the conventional food world, or if they are, they're interested in being more nonconventional, local, sustainable and organic,” he said. “I think my passion, I always hope rubs off on them. I think that happens most of the time, not all the time, because you can't expect everybody to give a hoot.
“But if I can get half of them, 10 students, to really take that garden on like it’s theirs, that’s enough.”
Interested students can find out more about the Kitchen Garden classes here.