Cream Of The Crop: Mark Bedzik and The Chef’s Garden

Mark Bedzik isn’t your garden variety chef, but he may know more about gardening than most chefs on the eastern seaboard. A sushi chef by trade, Mark has been making waves during his tenure as the greenhouse manager of the Chef’s Garden at the Culinary Institute of Virginia, arguably the top culinary school in the state. Whether he’s teaching students about growing practices or menu-planning with his crop in mind, Chef Mark has a steadfast respect for fresh produce. We sat down with him to talk about sustainability, farm-to-table cooking, and the relationship between student-chefs and fresh produce.

Q

The farm-to-table movement is picking up speed nationwide. Do you think that restaurants will start preferring locally sourced items?

A

Absolutely. It’s already starting to be evident locally. Some of the more old school chefs have been practicing that for a good amount of time; they’ve been doing in house charcuterie and they have outdoor gardens where they source herbs and small amounts of produce. Now that it’s starting to become more important from a consumer aspect, some of the up and coming chefs have been trying to adapt that process and source locally. Doing this helps set you apart.

Q

What are some of the benefits of using farm-to-table practices?

A

More and more chefs have been developing relationships with local farmers, finding places where you can get eggs, beef, or virtually any kind of seasonal vegetable. Fostering these relationships appeases the customer and allows the chef to know where there food comes from. Seeing this started one of the proponents of the greenhouse (known as the Chef’s Garden). Showing students how produce is grown, harvested, washed/processed and incorporated into daily production.

Q

Can you tell us a little bit more about the Chef’s Garden?

A

It originally started as a hydroponic facility. We had about 60 NFT trays where we grew greens and herbs, and the other half of the facility was dedicated to a dutch bucket system for tomatoes, squash, and peppers. It was neat to grow produce and utilize it, but a lot of people weren't using hydroponics. We responded to the feedback of students who wanted to learn how to grow on a conventional basis, and eventually removed about half of the hydroponic system. Now we grow a lot of root vegetables using raised beds.

Q

How do you approach creating fresh, healthy items for students who may not have the time to indulge in a full meal?

A

With our cafes, we focus on ingredients that have good nutrition. We also focus on portion sizes. You don’t need to eat a lot to get a good nutritional intake. We try and choose foods that will give you energy and help you focus, like blended juice drinks, soups, and salads. We do have a couple classes that focus on nutrition that help educate them on what’s healthy as well.

Q

With your role as the greenhouse manager at the Culinary Institute of Virginia, sustainability is clearly important to your menus. What advice would you give to chefs looking to create a more sustainable menu?

A

First of all, I’d recommend looking at some of the purveyors you work with and the practices they employ. Learn what works for them and try to apply it to your kitchen. We have an organization on the east coast that collects oyster shells. Say you’re a seafood establishment that burns through a lot of oysters. This free program drops off buckets for you to put your shells into, and they pick them up on a weekly basis. Once they’re sanitized, they use the shells to build up local oyster beds. You could even start a small composting program. Take any scrap you won’t be using in stock, and you can use it to fertilize your own garden.

Q

How important is fostering a love for fresh, local produce in budding chefs?

A

Very important. I always tell students that your final product is only as good as what you start with. So if you start with a subpar product, your end result will always be subpar. You can do so much with fresh vegetables in a simplistic way. When they get out into the industry, it helps them to set expectations on what they should get and when. I think it helps with menu development and really shows your customers that you care about what you do. Plus it benefits the community as a whole, as you’re supporting local farms. It’s a win win for everybody.

Q

Do you think growing/learning about growing your own produce feeds into your culinary skill?

A

Each aspect is very challenging. There’s a lot that can go wrong during the growing process, so getting it right is somewhat challenging. But when you do get that perfect piece of produce, it gives you a fonder appreciation of the product. You’re not so quick to chop it off, waste it, burn the edges. I think it makes you more passionate about your dish. Growing also gives you the ability to play around with things. I recently grew Kohlrabi and it was a big hit with the staff. Having access to fresh products reinvigorates your passion and helps get the creative juices flowing.

Q

How do students respond to the farm-to-table movement?

A

It’s really cool to introduce growing practices to kids. I mentored multiple groups of high schoolers in the area and allowed them to use the greenhouse as a science lab. Not all are interested in culinary applications, but by looking at all sides and doing experiments, they got a better understanding of where their food comes from. With our students at CIV we start everything from seed, showing them that they can get produce in a few months. To some of them, that’s mind boggling, because some students don’t have any sense of where produce comes from because they just see it in the grocery store. We also like to do taste testing between our own and other produce to compare flavor profiles, which they really enjoy.

Q

Do you have a specific piece of produce that you turn to when menu planning?

A

I’ve started to become really fond of mushrooms. There’s a lot you can do with them, and each mushroom is somewhat different. Depending on the variety, you can do a lot with it. It’s also something you can get year-round. You can incorporate them into sauces, use them in broths or put them into pasta dough. There’s just so much you can play with.

Q

Virginia’s love of seafood is well-known. Do you have any favorite seafood/produce pairings?

A

I’m a sushi chef by trade. When you look at traditional sushi, you’ll usually do very little to that fish, but I’ve noticed a few sushi chefs incorporating citrus with raw fish. My thing is finding things in season and using them in the dish. Personally, I’ve found ways to play towards palates that aren’t used to raw fish. Mango has been really popular, you’ll see it a lot.

Q

Where do you seek inspiration for new menu items?

A

A lot of it has been from Instagram. I follow a lot of top guys worldwide, guys like René Redzepi at Noma, Thomas Keller from The French Laundry, and a few guys from Japan. They’re all making so many innovations that I admire. We also look at what’s in season when planning new items.