SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — It’s finals week at Southern Maine Community College, and students in the culinary arts kitchen are busy fricasseeing fresh rabbit harvested from Unity.
In the dining room, members of the public dig into a multicourse lunch, draining bowls of honey crisp apple and vidalia sweet onion soup. The impressive menu indicates that cider from Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner and apples from Cornish combine forces for the powerful dish.
Grabbing leaves of fresh kale, students in the advanced cooking specialties class plate rainbow carrots and chioggia beet salad. Cooking with vegetables sourced from popular farms such as Stonecipher in Bowdoinham — a favorite of James Beard-winning chef Sam Hayward at Portland’s Fore Street — they are on the culinary frontlines.
“We are meeting the needs of the marketplace and training the future leaders,” Geoffrey Boardman, who chairs the school’s culinary arts department, said. “So we are getting on the bandwagon.”
On the cusp of 2016, that bandwagon no longer sings a solo “buy local” note.
The school’s new community table series, which launched in October, demonstrates SMCC’s commitment to delve deeper into the new food economy.
Farm to table is all well and good, but “the trend is kind of tired,” culinary arts professor Maurice Leavitt said.
Leavitt came up with the idea to teach students to learn to cook, source and prepare “real food.” Following guidelines created by the national student-run Real Food Challenge, chefs in training were charged with creating a “healthy, just and sustainable” meal.
Beyond calculating food miles, students researched food producers to see whether they upheld safe and fair conditions, received living wages, treated animals humanely and preserved natural resources, including energy, wildlife, water and air.
He asked students to think beyond what’s fresh and recipe ready to find companies that are independently owned and fair-trade certified, for example.
“Who do you want to do business with?” he asked.
To find the answer, students picked up the phone and asked questions. In the process of creating the menu, they learned something most diners don’t know.
“Just because it is local doesn’t mean it is good,” student Sean Pray said, twirling handmade fettuccini on a kitchen utensil.
At his side, Alexandra Chilton, a 25-year-old finishing up her final year, ladled butternut squash sauce.
“It’s fun, but it’s a challenge to work with all local this time of year,” Chilton said, admitting the assignment was a little restrictive. “We are using a lot of root vegetables now. In August it would be a different story.”
Cooking seasonally in New England and on a fixed budget was tough. In years past, students here would learn the basics: to braise, saute and steam.
“As long as they get exposed to information, they are in a better position to make decisions,” Leavitt said. “We are educating them on how they want to spend money.”
A chef in a kitchen needs that skill. “Knowledge is power,” Leavitt said. And even though it’s a pricy lesson, the exercise “opens their eyes.”
Out in the dining room the crowd licked their plates clean.
“It’s amazing,” Kristin Bingham said, sitting next to her husband, Dean Bingham of Dean’s Sweets in Portland.
Across the way Rudy Gabrielson, chief procurement officer of the University of Maine System, nodded approvingly.
“That they are engaged in sustainability, not just local, is fabulous,” he said. “It’s a wonderful example of Maine.”