It's not in the water, it's in the soil.
"There are superior powers at work here," Chef Matthew Raiford says of the UCSC Farm & Garden apprenticeship, a full-time program offering enrollees the chance to learn the ins and outs of organic food.
Raiford, along with a team of apprentices, are preparing to unveil the literal fruits and vegetables of their labor at 3 p.m. Sunday in a Farm-To-Fork Benefit Dinner to be held on the grounds of the UCSC Farm. Proceeds from the event will be used to provide scholarships to next year's Apprentices.
Chef Raiford, an Atlanta native who makes his career in the nation's capital, says his family jokes that they've always gone organic.
Last year, the 44-year-old father and former Desert Storm veteran split an inheritance of 25 farmable acres with his sister. The land, which at its zenith amounted to some 476 acres, has been in the family since 1876.
"My great-great-great grandfather Jupiter Gilliard, a farmer and sharecropper in Georgia, bought the land," he recounts. He goes on to mention that the fertile acreage "never had any chemicals put into it, so that's why [they] say that [they've] always been a part of the food revolution." Gilliard was a former slave turned freedman who came upon the coastal property soon after the Civil War. It was passed down six generations, ending with Raiford.
Cooking has always come natural to Raiford. For a guy who says he goes to bed at night dreaming about creating new dishes with things like "wild hog, sturgeon, lemon verbena and honey," the culinary arts were about innate ability. Adding to his hesitancy was his father's opposition. A professional baker himself, the elder Raiford hoped his son would put his intelligence to a different use.
Raiford overcame these obstacles and went on to graduate from New York's Culinary Institute of America. He would later work at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas before landing his current position as executive chef at Haute Catering in Washington D.C., where he's responsible for feeding such governmental institutions as the House of Representatives, the Pentagon Center, the National Archives and the Canadian Embassy.
After he received his inheritance, Raiford decided to combine his love of fresh ingredients with his newfound agricultural goldmine.
Hoping to take the knowledge he's gleaned from his apprenticeship at UCSC, the enterprising chef plans on harvesting his Georgia farm.
The apprenticeship program allows for virtually anyone to gain first-hand experience in the world of small-scale farming and gardening. A day in the life of an apprentice is spent pulling roots, learning irrigation methods, attending lectures and participating in labor-intensive field work. In addition, teams of two apprentices prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday.
Sunday's dinner will see attendants, elderberry spritzers in hand, treated to a tour of the grounds and given a brief overview and welcoming. The main event is a five-course meal made almost entirely of ingredients on-site, complete with wine pairings and live music.
Like most chefs, Raiford places a premium on fresh ingredients. And he also believes in 'food justice,' or the idea that great, high quality food should be available to all. But he said that he's keenly aware of the fact that, especially in impoverished communities, terms like 'organic' or 'locavore' still have a ways to go before they lose their exoticism.
"If you look at the lineage of great chefs, it was about sitting on your grandmother's lap, and being around cooking," he says. "Well, I was around great ingredients my whole life. And now as a farmer, there's a responsibility to make sure that things are accessible."
Tickets for Sunday's Farm-To-Fork Benefit Dinner are still available. Additional donations to the Scholarship Fund are welcome and encouraged even from those unable to attend the dinner. Checks can be made out to the UCSC Foundation with "Apprenticeship Scholarships" in the memo line. Checks can be mailed to: Amy Bolton, CASFS, UCSC, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95064. Please contact Ann Lindsey with questions or for more information on how to make your gift count where it matters most.