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ASU classroom and chef serve up sustainability

Jeffrey Klopatek stands with Chef Jerome Fressinier. Each holds a plate bearing
September 23, 2010

This year’s crop of plant biology students will use more than their brains to learn, if Arizona State University professor Jeffrey Klopatek has a hand in it.

Klopatek, a culinary savant and climate change professor in the School of Life Sciences in ASU’s College of Liberal Art and Sciences, is attempting to cultivate undergraduates’ gut instincts. To do this, Klopatek has planted a fork in the proverbial scholarly road. He has veered from the norm to create his own menu for a dynamic, hands-on plant biology curriculum built around sustainability and food choices.

On September 8, Klopatek took his classroom into the kitchen of Chef Jerome Fressinier, head chef of the restaurant Engrained located in the Memorial Union on ASU’s Tempe campus.

“This isn’t your grandfather’s class about photosynthesis,” Klopatek said. “Students absolutely do need to learn about plants, but also their linkages to agriculture, biodiversity and sustainability.”

Having ASU’s School of Sustainability, School of Life Sciences, Global Institute of Sustainability and a restaurant on campus where these three areas of study come together and can be experienced is invaluable, Klopatek said. “At Engrained, students can analyze what’s on their plate, and make the real life connection between basic plant science principles and concepts of sustainability.”

"I have never been to Engrained before but the way the executive chef described how much care goes into the selection and process of the basic ingredients is an inspiring example of how kitchens can be run,” said Aberlardo Casillas, a sophomore and plant biology major. “This [experience] showed how sustainable practices work in action.”

Engrained’s head chef worked previously in Michelin-starred restaurants in France, including Michel Trama’s Restaurant L’Aubergade, and, in the United States, with Relais & Châteaux’s L'Auberge Carmel, before launching his own restaurant in Carmel, Calif. Fressinier was specifically recruited and hired by Aramark to develop Engrained.

“My goal has been to provide high quality, but simple, food for students, staff and faculty built on a foundation of sustainability,” Fressinier said.

Chef Fressinier and Klopatek created a menu for the plant science class that used local and seasonal foods. “We made a tomato bisque, a Caprese salad that used Queen Creek Olive Oil and house-made mozzarella, and a tomato tart,” Klopatek said. “We chose heirloom tomatoes to work with because they hark back to an earlier period of our history where we planted a more diverse variety of foods. Tomatoes are now often developed for shipping, not for taste.”

The food tasting was peppered with discussions of the value of local organic farms, Native American foods and globalization of food issues.

“Sustainability is more than basic economics. It is also about the basic environmental and social needs of the many societies inhabiting planet Earth,” Klopatek said.

Josh Oertle, a freshman and economics major noted, "I was amazed by the different tastes of the three different heirloom tomato dishes. Hopefully, I will take away from today a more conscious approach towards what food I eat and how I eat it"

What inspired Klopatek to scrap the old approaches to teaching of plant sciences?

Klopatek saw an opportunity to combine his extensive research experience with his interests in agriculture, ecosystem services and cooking. In his free time, Klopatek has worked “semi-professionally” in restaurants and bakeries around the world. He is also a member of Chefs Collaborative, a professional organization devoted to sustainability and education. This summer, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) Wine Immersion Program in St. Helena, California. He was the only research scientist in the class.

Klopatek says that he wants to “use my past ecological research and knowledge of the environment with my culinary experiences in Italy, Napa, and elsewhere to develop a research program that integrates concepts of sustainability and ecosystem services.”

“I also want the students to realize that their eating decisions not only impact themselves but have repercussions beyond their personal space,” Klopatek adds. “In essence, I want them to vote with their fork on the future of our planet.”