“I’ve literally spent all night planning and prepping,” says Merlin Muhlhauser, organizing a colorful array of vegetables in her makeshift kitchen outside the Miami University Hamilton Conservatory. She is one of six Butler Tech Culinary Arts students invited by Miami Regionals to participate in Garden Fest, a first-ever event to promote edible landscaping.
Each Butler Tech student was paired with a local dignitary for a Chopped-style competition, including Hamilton Mayor Tom Moeller, Councilmember Kathleen Klink, Hamilton City Schools Superintendent Tony Orr, and Miami Regionals administrators Cathy Bishop-Clark, Pete Haverkos, and Sue Sepela. They had 45 minutes to prepare a dish using produce from the Conservatory’s garden or purchased from a local farm stand.
“They had this grand idea to use local produce, some things from their garden, some things from other places, and invite people in to just have fun,” said Klink.
Brian Grubb, manager of the Conservatory, said the dignitaries were happy to participate, but some willingly admitted they didn’t know their way around the kitchen. “So we felt the Butler Tech students would be an important part of the event.”
“I would be the novice chef,” said Cathy Bishop-Clark, Dean of Miami University Regionals. “I’m depending greatly on your Butler Tech students, but we’re looking forward to it.”
The initiative behind the cook-off was Miami Hamilton’s involvement in the All-American Selections Landscape Design Challenge and a concept called “foodscaping.” Essentially, it is incorporating food-producing plants among decorative plants in an ornamental garden.
“I think we’ve gotten very far away from being able to produce our own food and understanding where it comes from,” said Chef Tyler Simpson, Butler Tech Culinary Arts instructor. “One small planter or one raised bed can raise tons of fresh produce for your family.”
“Hamilton is promoting urban gardens, so having the locally-produced vegetables just make sense,” said Mayor Moeller. “We have a great farmer’s market, a lot of good things going on, so it’s great that we’re getting local produce into these great recipes.”
For Muhlhauser, who leads a vegetarian lifestyle, a plant-based competition was a perfect fit. And she says vegetarian cuisine is anything but boring. “There’s literally hundreds of thousands of fruits and vegetables you can throw together. There’s things you can substitute for meats. There’s endless possibilities when it comes down to it.”
Muhlhauser and teammate Councilmember Klink won the first-round competition with black bean and avocado crostini. The overall winner was Alexis Stacy and Miami Regionals administrator Sue Sepela with their parmesan polenta, spicy marinara, and shrimp scampi.
In addition to the cook-off, Garden Fest included educational sessions on gardening, games and tours of the Conservatory, a glass building with five environmental zones that support a variety of plant life.
“Food and nutrition is important in our lives. Education is important in our lives. And so we thought bringing these two things together would be an asset to our community,” Grubb said.
“The coolest thing is the connections,” said Bishop-Clark. “We’re connecting with Butler Tech, the community, and Miami Regionals.”
Butler Tech’s Culinary Arts is a two-year year program designed for high school juniors and seniors. Students apply for the program during their sophomore year.