Food for Thought: A Look at Culinary Education at Kalu Yala

a few months ago
By Lindsay Fenn– Summer 2017 Media Arts Student.

It was the end of the day, and eighty eager students gathered, crowding into line across town square. The three boys in the culinary program had been working since morning to plate their creations. The preparation had involved several days of testing and retesting recipes. They had worked through driving rain and power shortages as well as taking into account the dietary requirements of roughly 70 people. They had woken early that morning to harvest ingredients from the farm and finally, they were ready to share their creations with the community.

The students in Kalu Yala’s Summer 2017 Culinary Program are trying new methods of cooking. Kalu Yala is a sustainable town being built on a former cattle pasture in Eastern Panama. Part social business, part academic institute, Kalu Yala offers a range of fields to choose from, such as business, design thinking, agriculture, and engineering. Kalu Yala’s Culinary Arts Program focuses on preparing food for a changing world. The emphasis is on sustainable methods of sourcing food, reducing waste, and maximizing flavor and nutrients.

Karri Selby the Culinary Arts Director at Kalu Yala, finds the practice of ‘farm to table’ cooking to be a new way of looking at old systems. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re making the same kinds of things we make all over the world but we’re just substituting and bringing in new and different ingredients.” Karri teaches her students the importance of bringing a community together through food. “It’s not just about making food but how to serve it and how to make people feel special and loved.” This creates a social space that works to bring people together.

Culinary Arts director Karri Selby gives student Jack Robinson feedback after taste testing ingredients.

Food for a Changing World

The global food system is in dire need of attention as it faces complex environmental, economic, and social problems. A major issue food producers face worldwide is a shortage of fertile topsoil. According to a 2013 study from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, about 10 million hectares of cropland are lost worldwide due to soil erosion. The soil is being lost at a rate 10-40 times faster than the rate of soil formation. This means the industries have to look to other countries which also suffer from a shortage of fertile topsoil.

Students at Kalu Yala learn to find ways of addressing these issues on a small, individual scale. Esteban Melendez, a culinary student from San Juan, Puerto Rico, is now thinking about the potential for growing his own food back home. “Buying organically or sustainably grown plant-based foods is very expensive. So looking for that information that will help you to grow your own food and potentially grow food for other people, we can create a very closed loop system of growing and feeding.” Growing your own herbs and veggies and even composting are the actionable steps students use to change their habits back home.

Lindsay Fenn Kalu Yala Food for Thought Culinary 2

Culinary student Esteban Melendez searches for new ways to combine his fresh-picked ingredients.

At Kalu Yala, students try to incorporate vegetables from the farm in every dish they make. Jack Robinson, a former smokehouse worker from Portland, Oregon, is now a culinary student at Kalu Yala. He has learned that growing his own ingredients gives him, “more mastery over planting and gardening and when to pick (ingredients), knowing what to do with every part of it.” Learning these proper methods is a crucial step in creating a closed loop culinary system.

Community is also playing an increasingly large role in scaling sustainable food systems. Urban community gardens are becoming a necessary and popular method of reducing carbon emissions in some of the densest cities around the world. The June 2011 American Journal of Community Psychology estimates that over the course of ten years, one organic community garden only 0.4 acres in size can offset nineteen tons of carbon dioxide. That is the equivalent of three average city-dwellers’ annual carbon footprint. Community solutions are increasing the potential for environmental and social sustainability.

Mackenzie Harvey, a student and chef from Ontario, Canada, looks towards the future of community in sustainable, small-scale food production systems. “Farmers markets, I think, are going to be more popular and better off than grocery stores because it’s going to be more (centered)on local ingredients.” Locally sourced food minimises transport costs and emissions while supporting small farmers and creating community networks.

Know What You Eat, Especially if it’s Meat

One of the core questions at Kalu Yala is how to use concepts of sustainability to responsibly source ingredients from outside the farm, many of which are non-plant based ingredients such as dairy and meat. In 2015 a Procedia Food Science investigation of the environmental impact of the meat industry it was found that animals are inefficient at converting conventional feed to actual energy. According to the report, factory systems of keeping and killing livestock produce massive amounts of waste-water, making industrialized meat production one of the leading environmental polluters in the food industry.

Photographer John Dupre presents a chicken at Kalu Yala.

At Kalu Yala, the meals remain mainly vegetarian, with the main source of meat being the chickens that are raised for consumption on the farm. Other meat is sourced from neighboring farms. As a part of the culinary program, students learn how to harvest a chicken and break down the whole bird to its individual components. The goal of this is to reduce waste byproducts and create a greater appreciation of where the meat that we consume comes from.

Culinary student Jack Robinson displays his hand-painted menu for the culinary tasting.

For Jack, this technique of raising and harvesting chickens was a big deviation from his previous experience working at a large scale smokehouse where profit, not sustainable systems, was the priority. “It was nice to actually kill something (and) then use as much of it as you can… then eat it and then be like yeah I know exactly where this… came from. It’s definitely better if you’re gonna eat meat. I think that’s the way to do it.” The chicken slaughter is often an eye opening, and emotional experience; but one that students learn from and appreciate.

For others in the program, alternative protein sources are the solution to traditional meat-based diets. Esteban, a vegan in everyday life, is working on a project to source a more sustainable protein into Kalu Yala. “I’m dabbling in insect production and trying to create a cricket-flour based protein bar which will seamlessly introduce the insect world into people’s ordinary lives. Crickets are especially dense in protein and they are very easily farmed because they reproduce very quickly and very efficiently with little to no need for external resources. So they can basically grow by themselves.” Insects are not commonly thought of as a  source of protein for those who hail from western cultures. However, a 2010 study by the FAO on Environmental Opportunities for Insect Rearing for Food and Feed found that consumer acceptance was one of the biggest barriers to adopting insects as a viable protein source in many Western countries. Solutions like Esteban’s have the potential introduce the Western world to a low-cost, sustainable protein source.

Getting Creative with Resource Constraints

Cooking in the jungle may be a great source of inspiration, but resource constraints are a major concern. A small array of solar panels provide power to the Valley, but during rainy season the electricity is limited. Refrigeration is primarily done using coolers and ice is a limited commodity. Water, too, can cut out if a problem occurs in the pipes that draw clean water from a local tributary.

Culinary student Mackenzie Harvey uses the stone grill at Kalu Yala.

Culinary students face these challenges on a daily basis. “Sometimes I’m cooking in the kitchen and the water runs out and I need water to boil something. I need the food processor to mix some nuts or I need to make a kale pesto dressing for some pasta or salad. But there’s no electricity because there wasn’t any sun. Battling with what the jungle throws at us is one of the most important distinctions between cooking here, and cooking somewhere else,” said Esteban.

For Mackenzie, however, the biggest difference between cooking in the jungle and at home isn’t the lack of modern conveniences, but the wealth of nutrient-rich ingredients available.

“You can make substitutes out of a wide variety of plants here like cranberry hibiscus… it contains vitamin c, antioxidants, and a bunch of essential things we need in our lives that a lot of mainstream people in the United States and Canada support with vitamin supplements and various pills that aren’t necessarily natural.”

Culinary student Mackenzie Harvey prepares sour oranges he harvested hours earlier.

Here in the tropics, it’s easy to grow a range of plants with incredible nutrient density, but the chef’s treatment of the vegetable, regardless of the location, is what ultimately determines health benefits for the consumer. A 2013 Nutrition and Food Science study found cooking methods determine retention rates in vegetables of nutrients like Vitamin C. Conventional methods of cooking vegetables on high heat, the study concluded, can leach nearly all the nutrients out of a plant.

Esteban is determined to learn how best to prepare vegetables to maximize nutrition. “Preparing the food is so important because when you overcook something it loses its nutritional value.” The students learn and practice these techniques every day in the kitchen.

Plant-based Diets

Although maximizing nutritional value is important, including plants of any kind in our diets is a great first step to improving the health of the planet and our own health. A 2009 study done by the British Journal of Nutrition found that fruit and vegetable consumption can severely decrease a person’s risk of cerebrovascular diseases. In 2012, a Diabetes Spectrum study furthered that plant-based eating can significantly reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 Diabetes. Plant-based diets are now being mainstreamed as a form of preventative medicine.

Farm to table panama greens

Ultimately, the culinary program at Kalu Yala isn’t about adhering to a strict vegan diet, but more about finding a balance for the modern world.

Jack had never considered plant-based diets before this experience.  Now, he sees the value in finding a balance and breaking old paradigms of eating. “It’s just preference to a certain point really. You could totally do this. I definitely have my cravings but that’s just shit that’s ingrained in me.” Everybody can learn to find this balance with experience.

Students Become Teachers

Director Karri Selby and the Culinary Arts team of Summer 2017

Ultimately, the students in culinary education at KY are not only taught to do, but to educate. Ideas relating to sustainable food systems are sorely needed throughout the world. A 2009 study for Agriculture and Human Values found that chefs act as thought leaders and can help facilitate community education around consuming local foods. The more knowledgeable a community is, the study found, the more likely they are to view local produce in a positive light.

Mackenzie sees himself and his fellow interns as responsible for teaching what they learn here in Panama to their home communities. “It really falls on chefs and other small-scale agriculture systems to spread the popularity of farm to table ideals to consumers.” Makenzie put this belief into practice during the sample tasting.

While serving up what he called a ‘Bloody Cranberry Crunch,’ he was able to share his process with the rest of the community. The dish contained fried green bananas he’d learned to harvest days before. It also used cranberry hibiscus, red peppers, kutuk leaves, and sour oranges; all grown on the property. He even incorporated rum from the distillery at Kalu Yala.

Their hard work paid off as everyone gathered, laughed, and discussed farm-to-table over their plate of treats. If this is what the future of sustainable living tastes like, we’re in luck.