Edible Education

Serving seasonal eats, Fresh Gatherings Cafe + Farm is a unique culinary teaching lab on the Saint Louis University campus — and serves as a model for colleges far and wide.

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Story By Heather Riske
Visuals By R.J. Hartbeck

When Karly Wilson was studying nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University, she found that much of her learning happened outside the classroom. 

After attending a quantity management course in the morning, she’d head to her shift in the kitchen at Fresh Gatherings Cafe + Farm, the university’s on-site café, and put the skills she’d learned just hours earlier to work.

“I’m a very hands-on learner, and I found it really valuable to be learning skills and information in classes and then turning around and being able to actually practice those skills and see, ‘Oh, those numbers that I’m looking at in class, they actually directly relate to what I’m doing in the kitchen,” she says. “Everything that I was learning was immediately and directly reinforced, which helped me master those skills a little bit quicker, and on a deeper level.”

Chef Karly Wilson at work in the kitchen.

Wilson, who worked at Fresh Gatherings throughout both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at SLU, now serves as a chef for the multi-faceted concept, which features an urban farm and orchard and two student-run cafés serving scratch-made, seasonal fare to both students and the public.

“Fresh Gatherings is not just an outward-facing restaurant; it really is this education lab for our students,” says Rabia Rahman, an associate professor and the interim department chair for the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They are getting the culinary side, they’re getting the nutrition, the business, the leadership, all of that.”

The Fresh Gatherings farm came first, opening on SLU’s campus in 2002 as a vehicle to teach students in the nutrition program how to grow food. The urban farm and orchard, which moved to its current location at the corner of Compton Avenue and Rutger Street on SLU’s South Medical Campus in 2011, yields leafy greens, radishes, strawberries, peppers, tomatoes, apples, peaches, cherries, hazelnuts, and more. The café opened in 2004, around the same time the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics launched its culinary emphasis.

Pictured from top to bottom, left to right: The Fresh Gatherings greenhouse; a view of the farm in winter; chefs Daniel Brewer and Karly Wilson check on greens and rosemary growing in the greenhouse on the farm, which is located within walking distance of the cafe on the Saint Louis University campus.

SLU’s nutrition program is unique in that students can choose a culinary concentration, which allows them to gain hands-on experience in the kitchen while also learning the foundational skills needed to become a registered dietitian. To Rahman’s knowledge, Johnson & Wales University is the only other university offering a program that combines culinary arts and nutrition in such a way.

“You have the hard science of nutrition with the creative culinary arts,” says Dan Brewer, chef at Fresh Gatherings and an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Combining them together is a really great way to get our students to think outside the box a little bit and become really confident practitioners that are utilizing a lot of different pathways to wellness and health. Doing all of that through food, I think, is really cool.”

The culinary emphasis was a major draw to Rahman, who came to SLU as a nutrition student in 2005 and has been at the university ever since. She quickly fell in love with the department’s food-first philosophy, which she says sets itself apart from many other nutrition programs at the time that focused more on dieting.

“A lot of times, how we were taught to be a dietitian was just to tell people, ‘Your cholesterol is high, so you have to lower the amount of saturated fat in your diet,’” Rahman says. “We were just saying ‘take this out of your diet,’ instead of showing them how you can take saturated fat or salt, for instance, out of your diet but have food that really tastes good. That combination of culinary and nutrition, in my opinion, can’t be beat. We’re able to help clients in such a different way because we have such intimate knowledge of how to cook healthy food and how to make things look great.”

The cafe makes almost everything from scratch (including the freshly baked croissants shown here) and labels its grab-and-go meals with colorful stickers to indicate the type of dish or allergen-friendly meals.

With that in mind, students in the culinary program at SLU first master fundamental cooking techniques and then learn how to modify dishes for clients with different disease states. Several courses, including baking, pastry, and edible and wild foods, are held in Fresh Gatherings’ kitchen, and many students also work shifts in the café. They also take culinary courses in the department’s food lab, which models a home kitchen environment so that students can learn how to teach clients to cook with equipment they’d have at home.

Today, Fresh Gatherings operates two locations on SLU’s South Medical Campus. The main café, located in the Allied Health Building, offers hot breakfast, a full-service coffee and espresso bar, grab-and-go offerings, and a full bakery as well as daily changing blue plate specials. A second café, which opened just under two years ago in the nearby Education Union, serves a more pared-down menu of sandwiches, smoothies, and drinks. 

At both locations, the menu focuses on fresh, scratch-made food crafted from locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. The team is passionate about supporting the local foodshed, and about 39% of the café’s cost of goods is spent with local vendors such as Blueprint Coffee, Buttonwood Farms, Earthdance Farms, Ozark Forest Mushrooms, and Rolling Lawns Farms.

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Chef Karly Wilson (pictured right) started working at Fresh Gatherings as a student, and now mentors a team of student employees, many of whom learn to cook under Wilson's instruction.

In a given week, daily specials at the Allied Health café might include shrimp fettuccine, French onion soup, surf and turf burrito bowls, fajitas, or fried chicken sandwiches. While keeping up with the taste preferences of college-age students can be a challenge, comfort foods always prove popular, and Wilson says students love the café’s rigatoni alla vodka, mac ‘n’ cheese, and smash burgers made with local beef from Bolyard’s Meat & Provisions and Price Family Farms. 

The menu is intentionally diverse to reflect SLU’s student population, incorporating globally inspired dishes such as pad see ew, bibimbap bowls, lentil daal, and grab-and-go sushi bowls. The café’s student-workers are encouraged to suggest their own recipes, too, which Wilson says gets them more invested in the experience. One such worker, for instance, recently brought in recipes for an Indian platter that featured curry, vegetable puluv, cilantro-mint chutney, raita, and garlic naan. Although the café primarily serves students, it’s open to the public and more closely resembles a fast-casual restaurant than a campus dining hall.

“We want people to know it is possible to do this: serve healthy, high-quality food to students and that the students enjoy it and will eat it and want that for themselves,” Wilson says. “Yes, they’re using their campus meal plan to purchase it, but we want it to feel like they’re getting something that was prepared in their home or prepared in a higher level of restaurant compared to a dining hall.”

Brewer and Wilson are the only full-time university employees at Fresh Gatherings; the rest of its 60-some employees are student-workers. Although many of these students are in the culinary program, most don’t have prior food-service experience and some aren’t even in the nutrition program the café has employed students studying business, environmental studies, and occupational therapy.

The team at Fresh Gatherings Cafe + Farm on the Saint Louis University campus.

“The whole nature of what we do is education all the time,” Brewer says. “We’re always teaching people about food service, whether they’re students in the culinary concentration or even folks that might end up being a physical therapist or a nurse in the future. We believe that anyone who has food service experience, regardless of what they end up doing in their life, is going to be a little bit more mindful of what it means to serve people, and we think that’s really important. It exposes them to looking at things in a different way, trying new foods, and learning how to prepare certain foods that they may be unfamiliar with. It really forces them to think outside of their comfort zone a little bit.”

Students who work at Fresh Gatherings learn many transferable skills including critical thinking, problem-solving, following directions, taking initiative, and a sense of urgency. They’re encouraged to grow in their roles at the café, and the café’s leadership structure offers students the opportunity to gain management experience by moving up from a student-worker to a shift leader, student manager, and even potentially a student sous chef.

Most graduates of the nutrition program pursue careers as nutritionists and dietitians, though others have gone on to work in the restaurant industry at spots around St. Louis such as Sado on the Hill and Songbird in the Grove. Others go into private practice, manufacturing jobs, or food service management, or become entrepreneurs, such as Jackie Price, a graduate of the master’s program and adjunct instructor who recently opened Fennel Cooking Studio in Midtown. 

Whatever path they take, students leave the program with a more thorough understanding of food and the ability to share that knowledge with others in an approachable way.

“Many of them go into the nutrition field and work as nutritionists or dietitians, but they do it in a way where they have a more intimate knowledge of what food is and how to prepare it and are more culturally aware of different foods, so they can connect with a wider range of people,” Brewer says. “We believe that they are some of the best nutritionists out there because they really understand food, not just the science of what the nutrients are and how it interacts in our bodies.”

Chef Karly Wilson runs the cafe's social media accounts, and has even created a makeshift photo studio to snap pictures of dishes in its back office.

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