Chef Joe Miller’s volunteer cooking tutorials taught Westminster Elementary what a school garden could be

By Nora Dvosin

Dvosin is project director of the WE Garden at Westminster Avenue Elementary School.

Chef Joe Miller taught students how to cook simple but elevated dishes from their school garden harvest

We began the garden at Westminster Elementary in 2005 in a relatively small area, maybe 60 by 80 feet with eight garden boxes. Since then it’s grown significantly and includes various gardens throughout the campus, with about half an acre of land under the care of students. There are shade trees, a small orchard, a meadow that makes a great play area, a quiet Reading Garden in the courtyard, a small kindergarten plot and the gem of them all: our edible WE Garden. It was there that chef Joe Miller dedicated his time for more than two years to leave a lasting impact on our school.

I had met Joe through a friend and over lunch at Joe’s Restaurant, and we asked him if he would consider visiting our garden to cook with our fifth graders. We had barely finished asking before Joe said “Yes” — no hesitations, no hanging back about how much he could do, only “yes.”

Once a month, Joe would arrive at 11:15 a.m. with large plastic boxes of equipment or pre-prepared ingredients from his restaurant, and students would use whatever we’d harvested from the garden that month to cook with Joe. Joe and the students would collaborate on a dish, and then all of us would sit down together and eat what we had cooked under his tutelage.

Joe had a very free and easy feel about him when he was with the kids. He never cooked “down” to them. Instead, he elevated their notions of what they could expect to create from the vegetables and fruits they grew. Joe believed every lunch needed some kind of wonderful dessert, so he included that in what we made together.

One time Joe helped us make pesto from our basil and garlic, which we ate on toasted bread he brought from his restaurant. Another time we made a tortilla Espanola with potatoes grown from the garden. We made a fresh pea salad with sliced radishes, shredded savoy cabbage and red cabbage, topped with a dressing made from coddled egg yolks, oil, buttermilk, garlic, salt and pepper. We made a great Russian salad and a fantastic coleslaw. We cooked and cooked and cooked.

We had strawberry shortcake with our strawberries — the cake brought in by Joe, and whipped cream that the students whipped by hand. I remember his fiancée Christine coming in sometimes to work with Joe. For the strawberry shortcake, she hand-grated nutmeg on each little dab of whipped cream.

Joe surprised us one day by sending his executive chef to give parents and students a tutorial on making chard pancakes with a sour cream dressing. The pancakes flew off their plates almost as quickly as he got them out of the pan.

I don’t think there’s ever been a chef in a school garden like Joe. He didn’t come in to teach kids how to make what they already knew about, like quesadillas or lettuce salads, he came to give them his all: his love of food, his love of creating, and his great love of eating something tasty.

Joe also gave the students a very honest insight into what it took to be a restaurant owner and chef. He brought in his chef kit and explained all the knives and gadgets as he unwrapped them. He talked about how many different kinds of chefs he had in his restaurant — the baker, the meat chef, the veggie chef, the fish chef. He even discussed the finances of running a restaurant. Many of the students had parents who worked in restaurants as waiters, busboys or sous-chefs, and they were thrilled to know that their parents were all part of a great endeavor.

Joe brought a light to our garden. I don’t think I can express all the joy he created during his visits, but I can say we learned so much from him that we’ve been able to carry forward exciting and meaningful cooking in the garden without him.

The-Grade-School-Gourmet-HD from Friends of Westminster on Vimeo.