"We'll accomplish so much more if we work together," FnB chef Charleen Badman says.
She's sitting in one of the cozy dining rooms at her Scottsdale restaurant talking about her vision for schools and food education. The James Beard Award-nominated chef is passionate about lots of things -- yoga, gardening, and, of course, cooking -- and near (if not at) the top of the list is teaching young people where food comes from.
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"You have to start young," she says. "It would have been helpful if someone had started [teaching] me earlier."
Badman has become famous for her singular capability to turn vegetables into culinary masterpieces, but she admits she wasn't always a veggie lover.
In 2010, Badman made drastic changes to her diet and lifestyle, including giving up meat (though she still tastes everything that comes out of the kitchen at FnB). As a result, she began to focus more on cooking with vegetables both at home and at the restaurant, which in turn led to an interest in gardening. The hobby started with pots on her apartment patio and since has grown to include two four-by-four-foot garden beds, two large composters, and dozens of potted plants.
In those two small garden boxes, Badman planted dozens of varieties of herbs, produce including strawberries, I'itoi's onions, and heirloom tomatoes, and such unique plants as wheat berries. In the pots scattered around the yard and patio, you'll find everything from colorful edible flowers to a rare Yuzu tree, barely big enough to bear fruit.
She uses some of her homegrown harvest at the restaurant, but for the most part, she still sources her produce from local farmers.
"I'm not putting anyone out of business," Badman says.
Which is good because she often partners with food producers like her friend and organic farmer Bob McClendon to bring hands-on food education programs to local schools as a part of Chefs in the Garden. The project really took off back in 2011 when Badman cooked lunch for 550 students at Arcadia Neighborhood Learning Center, a public elementary and middle school.
After learning that macaroni and cheese often was the only vegetarian option at the school cafeteria, Badman wanted to show the students truly nutritious and vegetable-focused food.
Badman's since gotten involved with two other schools, helping each to teach kids about the connections among science, food, and nutrition. At Arcadia Neighborhood Learning Center, she's worked with each class on infusing olive oil, baking muffins, making pasta, and planting school gardens.
"I just want to make sure there's a connection to food," Badman says of the projects, which she tries to tie into whatever else the students studying.
Her ultimate goal is to create a curriculum that schools could use as a model for incorporating food and nutrition education into the classroom on a regular basis. Badman says she'd like to see every chef in town adopt a school and work with students on projects similar to those she's been doing.
For now, she's been experimenting to figure out what works with each age group.
"I did learn [that] seeds and 6-year-olds aren't the best idea," Badman says with a half-smile. "We'll do plants next time."
But overall the project is a success, at least when it comes to the students the chef has connected with so far. One parent told her he was shocked after coming home from the grocery store, to see his child grab a bag of raw snap peas, rather than candy, for a snack.
"That made me happy," Badman says. "Because I grabbed the candy when I was a kid. If I can get 1 out of 40 to grab the snap peas, I'm happy."
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