Behind the plate: Farm-to-table culinary creations at an eco town

Photo of ingredients to be used in Kalu Yala's cooking class

Ingredients from the farm and local stores to be used in a cooking class at Kalu Yala. (Kelley Czajka/Medill)

By Kelley Czajka

It’s dusk on a Tuesday night at Kalu Yala, an eco-town in the Panamanian jungle. At the sound of a double-blown conch, interns, staff, and visitors, sipping cocktails out of mugs and mason jars, abruptly abandon their conversations and form a cafeteria line for the evening meal: “plasagna.”

The dish, plantain lasagna, is a delicacy in the jungle town and educational institute. It consists of layers of thinly sliced plantains, tomato sauce, vegetables and cheese, or a cheese-less option for the numerous vegans here.

But this isn’t your average cafeteria line.

Kalu Yala, striving to be the world’s most sustainable modern town, embraces that title in the kitchen through its farm-to-table menu and culinary program.

Local

Since Kalu Yala is not yet a fully farm-to-table operation, the focus is on eating locally. Esteban Gast, the director of the Kalu Yala Institute, said more than 80 percent of their food once came from less than five miles away, encompassing the Kalu Yala farm and the local community in San Miguel. However, executive chef Brigitte Desvaux said this number has likely gone down to a more realistic 30 percent as the town’s population has grown. But looking forward, plans to grow the farm include developing substitutes for commonly used products and protein sources.

“The name of the game where we are now is import substitution,” Gast said. “We are a business, and in terms of both the business program and us as a business that functions. So we buy peanut butter, can we buy peanut butter here? Can we make sunscreen here? Can we make coconut water here? Those are the questions that we are obsessed with, because that is how we become sustainable, that’s how we start businesses, and that is how we become successful.”


One of the most popular meals at Kalu Yala is pineapple peanut butter curry. But given the town’s farm-to-table mission, the kitchen staff is looking into inventive recipes like “bean butter,” made from local white beans, to replace imported peanut butter, executive chef Brigitte Desvaux said. (Kelley Czajka/Medill)

Peanut butter is a controversial topic, Desvaux said. Interns can often be spotted eating peanut butter from the jar, and it makes a great snack because it’s protein-rich and it doesn’t go bad. But it comes from across the world and doesn’t quite match their standards of sustainability, she said.

“What is the purpose that we’re bringing (things like peanut butter) in: for convenience, protein, for a quick snack, for ease on the kitchen crew? So looking at those things and thinking, ‘OK, before we eliminate it, let’s find a substitute to replace it with.’”

The kitchen’s head chef, Pulum, has been developing “bean butter,” a peanut butter substitute made from white beans, that Desvaux said has the same flavor and protein but is produced on-site in a much more sustainable manner. On the other hand, it doesn’t contain preservatives so it must be made much more frequently. They’re looking into natural ways to preserve it, such as by adding citrus juice or freezing it, she said.

Alternative

Kalu Yala is a place where alternative diets thrive. Sarah Diamond, an intern in the culinary program, said most of the foods they learn to make are vegan and gluten free. Some of the meals served in the kitchen contain eggs, cheese, and occasionally meat, but there are always vegan and gluten free options served alongside them.

“We’ve done so much with alternatives,” Diamond said. “I think that showing people that like, vegan for example, is just as good and often times a lot better, that’s such a great way to make a difference. Eating is, when you’re talking strictly about environmental impact, that’s a humongous thing for someone to change their diet."


Four culinary interns led a cooking class where other interns could pay five dollars to participate in one of four separate cooking projects for two hours. The results (clockwise from top): zucchini noodles with pesto, homemade pasta with marinara sauce, coconut caramelized pineapple cornbread, and cranberry hibiscus scones with almond cheese and sour orange marmalade. (Kelley Czajka/Medill)

The meat and eggs mostly come from the chickens that roam around the town like pets. (One intern found that a certain chicken likes to leave eggs in her bed.) Last semester, interns had the opportunity to participate in a chicken slaughtering to better understand where their meat was coming from.

"I knew that I wanted to do it because I think that even if you don’t eat meat, living in a society that is so meat-heavy," Diamond said, "I just think it’s an important thing to know what it’s like to actually kill something, if you live in a world that kills animals."

This upcoming semester, all chicken meat and hopefully eggs will come from the Kalu Yala farm, Desvaux said. The culinary staff purchases pork and beef from two farmers in San Miguel, but interns and staff also are investigating alternative animal protein sources to introduce on the farm, such as iguanas, rabbits, and tilapia. The fish hopefully will be ready to harvest by August or September, Desvaux said, and likely will serve as a weekly protein to replace pork or beef.

“There’s so much deforestation happening throughout Panama because of cattle, so we’re really looking into alternative protein to set that example,” she said. “The three (main) proteins are not the only ones that are available. There are other animals that we can raise humanely and sustainably and introduce into our diets. It doesn’t mean that I necessarily want to eliminate (pork or beef) fully, more so that I want to make sure we’re consuming it in an environmentally friendly way.”


Agriculture intern Skye Baillie digs a tilapia pond to serve as a new, alternative source of animal protein for the town. The pond will be dammed during the wet season so the fish don’t invade the river. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

Integrity

Another big aspect of sustainable eating is reducing waste from food. Leftovers from meals often are reincorporated later and lingering food scraps are composted. Culinary director Karri Selby said she also emphasizes using 100 percent of each ingredient to minimize waste and maintaining its integrity to pay respect to the farmer by not cooking away all of its nutrients.

While the vision of a fully farm-to-table operation is founded on sustainability, interns and staff recognize that there may need to be some exceptions.

“There are other things like coffee, and we drink a lot of coffee, that we get from Boquete, which is in Panama, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to grow coffee here,” a biology intern explained. “Boquete is in a higher climate, it’s colder there. They can grow coffee better there, and by supporting them we are supporting a community in Panama. If we tried to grow coffee here, it would be a lot of resources, a lot of our time, and not really supporting the areas around us as well. It’s a balance of doing things ourselves but also supporting the communities around us.”

Even if not every ingredient comes from their farm, Kalu Yala’s kitchen will keep serving delicious and sustainable fuel for innovators – 300 of them this summer semester.

“I feel really lucky that I get to be the one that is in their life for such a short period of time but hopefully they walk away from this experience having a bigger appreciation and love for food and what it takes,” Selby said. “Yesterday that lasagna, I mean, that is a labor of love, and you have to make like eight of them because we’re feeding so many people, so when you see people that are really excited and happy, you know, just for the food, for some people that’s the highlight of their day.”

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Culinary Intern Liv Rushin’s Almond Feta Cheese

Ingredients:

  • 1 ½ cups almond meal
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 tbs olive oil
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • ½ tsp salt

Directions:

  1. Chop garlic into thin slices.
  2. Juice two lemons (or any citrus fruit; at Kalu Yala they used sour oranges).
  3. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and mix on regular power until smooth.
  4. Taste, add any more ingredients as you wish.
  5. Optional: remove cheese from food processor and wrap in cheesecloth and place in a bowl.

Refrigerate, or enjoy right away. Makes a delicious, creamy spread on toast and also is great on pasta!

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