Mas chef teams up with Schoolyard Garden program

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Christopher Alexander of Clark Elementary School tries a bite of Swiss chard while classmate Ladanian Wells looks on. The greens came from his school’s garden and were prepared by Mas chef Tomas Rahal. Photo: Annalee Grant Christopher Alexander of Clark Elementary School tries a bite of Swiss chard while classmate Ladanian Wells looks on. The greens came from his school’s garden and were prepared by Mas chef Tomas Rahal. Photo: Annalee Grant

It isn’t often that fresh gourmet dishes served up by Tomas Rahal, chef and owner of Mas, are received with choruses of “ewws” and “yucks.”

Rahal took it all in stride on July 16 when Grade 2 and 3 students from Clark Elementary School’s Summer School Science Enrichment Program visited his Belmont restaurant for a hands-on lesson in organic gardening and healthy eating.

The students weren’t wild about the duck confit or fresh-caught rockfish being prepped for the night’s dinner service.

“You’ll like it when you’re older,” Rahal promised with a chuckle, before serving up ratatouille with Manchego cheese and fresh sautéed Swiss chard.

Rahal, who said he believes healthy eating and gardening are core life lessons as important as math and English, is an eager supporter of Charlottesville City Schoolyard Garden, which cultivates plots at each city elementary school, as well as Buford Middle School. His day with the Clark kids was an opportunity for them to see vegetables they picked in the morning from their own gardens—created last fall with a supporting grant from the Jefferson Public Citizens grant—make it to a plate in the afternoon.

“The whole idea behind this schoolyard garden is to start shaping future healthy eaters,” he said.

Before trekking to Mas, the students visited Todd Niemeier of the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville who discussed the hard work that goes into gardening and the struggles many gardeners are facing in the region thanks to the massive amount of rain that has fallen this season.

Rahal, who has his own gardens at Mas, said it’s important for students to understand how weather and seasons affect produce every year.

“We want people to appreciate all the labor and the love that goes into the food,” Rahal said. “This is the kind of holistic education we want our kids to have.”

Rahal said introducing students to power greens like chard and kale isn’t done to force healthy eating on them, but he hopes the kids will take what they learned and encourage their families to try a vegetable they’ve never tasted or perhaps start up a small backyard garden of their own.

“I think parents would love to hear that from their kids,” he said.

“We love it that there are kids interested in it,” Rahal said. “Putting them in a garden where they’re nurturing things—it’s good for everybody.”

His staff have joined the cause, too, pledging to financially support the Clark school garden and keep it producing.

Clark teacher Mary Craig said the support of a prominent local chef has been a boon for the Schoolyard Garden program.

“What he does for our students goes far beyond the financial support,” she said. “He gives his time, shares resources and knowledge with our students. We are very fortunate to have him as a friend.”

Rahal issued a challenge for his fellow restaurateurs in the city that is sure to keep the momentum rolling.

“It would be my dream if every restaurant in the area took one schoolyard garden and sponsored it for a year.”—Annalee Grant

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