Edible Education: JWU North Miami’s Garden of Eden

Pickling eggplants in JWU North Miami’s Edible Garden.

Farm Sanctuary’s Gene Baur picking eggplants with JWU North Miami’s Amanda Edun and Chef Chris Wagner.

Hidden behind the College of Culinary Arts at JWU’s North Miami Campus is a lush oasis filled with more than 100 species of fruits, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers.

But this Edible Garden isn’t just a space for taking a study break or carving out some calm between classes. (Although it’s that, too.) It’s a mini-farm and a teaching garden where culinary students not only learn about exotic species like jackfruit, achiote (from which annatto is derived), açai palm, sweet edible bamboo, apple banana and Jabuticaba, a grapelike fruit native to Brazil — they gain an understanding of organic gardening and the growing cycle, all while boosting their culinary creativity.

Beyond the exotica, the garden is also home to farmer’s market staples like eggplant, heirloom tomatoes and peppers, Swiss chard and zucchini.

Chef Chris Wagner, MEd, WGMC, calls himself “one of the instigators” of the Garden. As director of Culinary Operations in North Miami, he oversees the on-site storerooms that supply the culinary classes with a steady supply of meat, produce, cheese and dairy products.

The first incarnation of the garden was established in 1992 by then-President McGregor. Much more minimal than today’s version, it was also poorly signed and featured only edible herbs and plants. (No fruits or vegetables.)

When Hurricane Wilma killed off the Garden in 2006, Dean of Culinary Education Bruce Ozga and Wagner saw an opportunity to start fresh. They put together an ambitious plan and an even more ambitious budget: “We asked for a lot of money but we got it. We hired a landscape architect,” explains Wagner.

Their vision was wholeheartedly supported by North Miami Campus President Larry Rice, who both saw the garden’s value as an educational tool. “This initiative for an edible landscape stresses the importance of local farming, the value of the farm-to-plate process and the impact that freshness has on taste and quality when cooking,” notes Ozga.

Being able to grow year-round is magical. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”-Chef Wagner

Chef Wagner and students working in the Garden.
President Rice, who became a vegan more than 4 years ago, sees plant-based eating as one solution to the US’ staggering rates of obesity, Type II diabetes and heart disease, among other diet-related health issues.

“A greater level of awareness is spreading worldwide as it relates to the health benefit of reducing the amount of animal protein that we consume, and supplementing with alternative meats. As more people recognize this as a solution, they will begin to enjoy the alternative products available,” Rice notes.

Wagner calls the garden “my baby.” “For me, coming from Central Europe, being able to grow year-round is magical. It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he notes. “It’s amazing what you can grow without chemicals, just homemade compost and letting nature do its thing.” He adds, “We compost everything — I have a great relationship with the facilities guys. Miami’s Worm Whisperer has consulted us and helped us get our compost done correctly.”

Students start their edible education in class titled Storeroom Identification: “This is where we really get them out there — we show them what ginger looks like, how vegetables really grow,” explains Wagner.

On Fridays, when culinary classes are generally not in session, Wagner leads Garden Days where students help him harvest peppers, kale, tomatoes and anything else at peak ripeness. “If students want something, I show them how to do it.”

As the garden — and student involvement — grew, the local press began to take notice. In 2015, the Miami New Times’ Hannah Sentenac wrote an article titled “JWU Leading the Way with Plant-based Cuisine,” in which she positioned JWU as “looking to get ahead of the game” by incorporating plant-based or meat-minimal diets into its curriculum. She wrote about the weekly demos where students could learn how to use alternative proteins like seitan, tofu and nut-milk cheeses.

Wagner, who has transitioned to a mostly vegan diet over the past 4 years, spoke to Sentenac about practicing a “protein flip” when he plans out meals for school functions. Menus start fully plant-based and gradually a minimal amount of meat, fish or dairy is added for the guests who are carnivores. “Before, it was the other way around, you based everything around meat. Now I’ve flip-flopped that.”

For a recent Honorary Doctoral Recipient (HDR) dinner for Paul Damico '86, the group president of FOCUS Brands North America, Wagner and his team “made homemade tofu from scratch, which is quite labor intensive but delicious. We grilled the tofu with an orange glaze — it tasted so good and nutty.”

Increasingly, students, faculty and staff are joining Wagner in reducing the amount of meat, eggs or dairy they consume.

The garden is home to more than 100 different species of edible fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Rare plants from the garden include achiote (the seeds get turned into annato), cacao, heirloom peppers and tomatoes. / Below: Before and after.

Before and after: Vegetables from the garden get turned into gorgeous vegan dishes.

Last April, the North Miami Campus hosted its first-ever vegan pop-up restaurant, fully conceived and run by students in the Food Service Operations Management [FSM4061] class. In addition to harvesting the bulk of the vegetables and fruits from the garden, Hungry Bull team set 3 school records: the most seatings, the fastest turnaround, + the most turnaround in the history of the class. Of the 100 guests, 93 were satisfied non-vegans.

More recently, the Garden was the setting for the “Primitive Dinner,” an outdoor feast highlighting the versatility and deliciousness of vegan cuisine.

Guests of honor included:

  • Gene Baur, co-founder and president of Farm Sanctuary
  • Jacey Birch and Trent Aric, ABC-WPLG News
  • Julie Frans + Alison Burgos, SEED Food & Wine Festival
  • Laine Doss, Miami New Times food writer
  • Lawrence Krug + Sandy Pukel, Holistic Holiday at Sea

It was Baur’s second visit to the Garden, but first sit-down dinner showcasing its bounty. “Gene picked an eggplant from our garden, and was eating it 10 minutes later!” notes Wagner. (Talk about reducing the dinner’s carbon footprint.)

Doss documented the meal on Instagram using the hashtag #tastetherainbow. (Dishes included truffled popcorn, braised carrots with blue potato chips, and grilled king oyster mushrooms.) Afterwards, Jacey Birch tweeted, “Such a great group of forward thinkers and I loved meeting 1 of my animal heroes: GENE!”

The Edible Garden connects people to their food in a healthy way that empowers citizens to eat + live better.”-Gene Baur

“The external community has a great deal of interest in the garden,” says Wagner, who offers regular tours and also opens up the garden during the annual Food Day. “I also get invited to events, like Slow Food Miami’s Freshest Night Out.” (Wagner received a Snail of Approval Award for his dedication to food that is healthy and good for the environment.)

What’s next? Plans are underway to further align the culinary curriculum with the garden. Notes Rice, “We are currently exploring degree programs related to nutrition and food sustainability, which will enhance our ability to educate our students.”

In addition, the garden may expand to better support academics. “Our priority is not only to sustain what we currently have, but to expand on it by allocating more space for future programming initiatives,” says Rice. “My hope is that we will find a partner that can assist us in bringing a greenhouse to campus, which will provide even more opportunities for teaching and learning.”

Wagner is also actively looking for 5 acres that could serve as an off-site “teaching farm.” “We have an ambitious plan to produce between 70-80% of the fruits and vegetables that we use in classes,” he notes.

The garden’s evolution is win-win for JWU, for students — and for the community, particularly as programming expands. Notes Farm Sanctuary’s Baur, “North Miami’s Edible Garden connects people to their food in a healthy way that empowers citizens to eat and live better.”

Green Cuisine: North Miami’s Vegan Pop-Up
Conscious Cuisine
Doctoring the Menu: Food as Medicine

Taste the rainbow: Scenes from the Primitive Dinner this past April. Both photos on the right taken by the Miami New Times’ Laine Doss.

Scenes from the Garden. Photos on the right by Laine Doss of the Miami New Times.

Topics: Sustainability Nutrition & Wellness North Miami