From land to sea, Chef Tomm is cooking up new projects at NLHS

Chef Thomas Johnson, right, culinary arts instructor at New London High School, and Chuck Mulligan, a marine and environmental instructor at the Science and Technology Magnet School of Southeastern Connecticut, inspect the NLHS garden on Aug. 31. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Chef Thomas Johnson, right, culinary arts instructor at New London High School, and Chuck Mulligan, a marine and environmental instructor at the Science and Technology Magnet School of Southeastern Connecticut, inspect the NLHS garden on Aug. 31. (Tim Martin/The Day)

A plethora of new projects in the culinary program at New London High School (NLHS) were fueled by too few vegetables in the students’ diets and lack of knowledge of food sources.

“For 15 years I taught culinary arts at the college level. For the last two years I’ve been at the high school level and I’m surprised by how little they know about food and where it comes from,” says Thomas Johnson, NLHS’s culinary instructor, known to his students as “Chef Tomm.”

“One of my initial projects was to get the kids to even try eating any produce. I was amazed by how many never even tried basic vegetables, like carrots,” says Johnson, “I asked them to ‘just try it and see if you like it and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.’ Now they can’t get enough — carrots, spinach, broccoli, beets…”

Johnson explains that there’s a big disconnect with what ends up on the plate and where it comes from and he hopes to help his students gain a bigger perspective.

“One student found a slug on a piece of lettuce and freaked out. He didn’t realize the lettuce had grown out of the ground. He thought it came right from Shoprite. Some kids think that chicken comes in a package and don’t put an animal behind it,” he says.

And so, Johnson initiated programs that would make the farm to table connection in his students’ heads — and stomachs — including a raised bed garden behind the school, a hydroponics system to grow herbs and vegetables all year long, and an aquaponics tank to raise fish. Students will use what they’ve grown in the dishes they cook during the school year.

“Maintaining enthusiasm will not be an issue, as the students are really driving the projects,” Johnson emphasizes.

Picked fresh from the garden

In partnership with FRESH New London — an organization that “creates food system change through local agriculture and youth empowerment” — a field behind Johnson’s classroom was cleared and nine raised beds were installed for culinary students to grow their own produce. The students are responsible for maintaining the beds and doing some of the harvesting of the vegetables.

In addition to cultivating their own garden, “what’s kind of cool this year, is that we’re reaching out to local farms,” Johnson says. This includes going to a community garden in New London to pick tomatoes and then learning how to make fresh tomato pizza with fresh basil and cheeses. A little later in the season Johnson plans to take students apple picking.

“We’ll do the Forest Gump thing (with apples instead of shrimp). We’ll make candied apples, apple pies, apple fritters, apple donuts — I’ll show them how to make a wide variety of things with the apples,” Johnson says.

As another bonus, Johnson notes, the culinary program will be working with the New London Farmers Market held on Fridays where they’ll be doing cooking demos and possibly selling food.

Fresh foods all year

Last year, Johnson set up a hydroponics garden in a small room off the main kitchen at NLHS, using grow lights instead of sunlight and pea stones in place of dirt and an indoor watering system.

“We’re just starting the seeds for the hydroponics,” he says. “We’ll grow lettuce, herbs, chili peppers that we can use all winter. So, for instance, when we need fresh herbs, all we have to do is go pick them right from the lab.”

In another collaboration, Johnson partnered with Chuck Mulligan, who teaches environmental science and oceanography at the Science and Technology Magnet High School in New London and together they started an aquaponics project.

“The idea behind it is the environmental students (at the magnet school) get experience raising the fish in a healthy environment, learn their growth rates, how to spawn them, keep a sustainable amount for culinary use, create feeding schedules, and do tank maintenance,” Johnson explains.

“The culinary program will then take the adult fish and I’ll teach the students how to gut, scale, fillet and prepare them in a wide variety of ways.”

Johnson points out that they started with tilapia because it can grown in cold or warm water and it’s a high density fish, meaning many fish can live in small spacess — in this case, two 120-gallon tanks.

The aquaponics program also is taking on trout this year. The fish were obtained from the State of Connecticut hatchery in Burlington.

“Trout need to be kept at 50 degrees year-round, so we have to put a chiller in the tank,” Johnson says. “And they need more room than tilapia, so we got two more 120-gallon tanks.”

Looking forward, Johnson is going through the approvals to put up a chicken coop next to the garden behind the school in order to teach his students how to slaughter and process their own meat for cooking — minus the plastic packaging.

One of the veggie-centric recipes Chef Tomm will use in class is a classic Caesar Salad, using lettuce grown by his students.

CAESAR SALAD

Serves 6

For the dressing:

5 cloves garlic (thinly sliced)

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

8 to 10 anchovies (2-ounce tin)

3 egg yolks

1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

4 tablespoons water

2 cups oil

1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

Place garlic, lemon juice, anchovies, egg yolks, Dijon mustard and water in blender and process until smooth. Keep blender running and slowly add in oil, then Parmesan cheese, until emulsified. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (This can be made a day in advance and refrigerated.)

For the croutons:

4 tablespoons butter

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 cups bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Salt and pepper

Melt butter in a medium sauté pan, then add in garlic. Add cubed bread and stir until the butter and bread are well mixed. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place on a sheet pan and put into a 350-degree preheated oven and bake until golden brown: about 4-6 minutes. Let cool. (These can be made a few days in advance.)

For the salad:

2 heads Romaine lettuce, washed, cut into bite-size pieces

½ cup shaved Parmesan cheese for garnish

Place lettuce in large bowl. Add dressing until greens are coated to your liking. Add in croutons, then divide onto 6 chilled plates. Garnish with remaining Parmesan cheese and serve.

Romaine lettuce in progress in the NLHS culinary program’s garden. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Romaine lettuce in progress in the NLHS culinary program’s garden. (Tim Martin/The Day)

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