Ravinia School’s lettuce a hit on Northbrook restaurant’s menu
Ravinia School Green Growers Club members Ben Fitzsimons, his twin brother Jason and Maddie Kaas help teacher Dennis Brosseau bag the butter lettuce the group grows. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 8, 2013 8:42AM
HIGHLAND PARK — Plenty of chefs talk up the freshness of their ingredients.
But few could trump the greenhouse-to-table speed that chefs Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris pull off with the Ravinia Elementary School Salad at their Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook.
Each Friday afternoon from November to April, pupils in the Green Growers Club at Ravinia School help teacher Dennis Brousseau carefully harvest about two dozen heads of butter lettuce they’ve grown hydroponically in the Highland Park school’s greenhouse.
They bag it up, and most of the heads are delivered immediately to Prairie Grass Cafe, 601 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook. There, the lettuce becomes the star ingredient of a before-dinner salad that includes apple slices, bleu cheese dressing and warm croutons. Stegner says it’s such a popular menu item that it’s often sold out Friday night, or early Saturday at the latest.
The chefs have been purchasing the butter lettuce from the Green Growers Club for about four years.
When a group from the Green Growers Club recently delivered a crop to the restaurant, they were treated to pizza and — what else? — some salads made with the lettuce they’d just harvested.
“They all ate it with the bleu cheese dressing,” said Stegner. “I thought that was pretty brave of them.”
How was the salad?
“I’d give it an 11 on a scale of 10,” said Lizzie Insoft, a fifth-grader who has been in the club since third grade.
Insoft’s critique was echoed by third graders Brandi Bombicino, Layla Maki, Caroline McDougall and Jamie Levitan.
Stegner said providing diners with the tastiest dish is always “first and foremost.” But she also likes the altruistic side of helping youngsters understand how food arrives on the table while also helping them gain some exposure to business.
“The kids get to see where food comes from — from beginning to end and each step of the way,” said Stegner, who previously worked with Bumbaris at the Ritz Carlton. “It changes the way they think and ultimately educates them in making smarter food choices.”
Stegner said this type of partnership fits in well with Prairie Grass’ long-standing support of Chicago’s Green City Market and local sustainable farms.
The Green Growers program started under Paul Grant, a now retired Ravinia School teacher who grew basil hydroponically in his classroom. Brousseau followed Grant’s lead and set up a table in his own classroom. In 1999, Grant approached the school’s Parent Teacher Organization about building a greenhouse and, thanks to a successful fundraising effort, the greenhouse came to fruition the following year. Since Grant’s retirement, the focus has shifted from basil to lettuce, which is now “our main cash crop,” said Brousseau.
In April, the club shifts its focus from soil-less hydroponics to soil-grown plants. Students in kindergarten through second grade grow sunflower plants for Mother’s Day gifts, and third grade pupils grow hundreds of zinnias and cockscomb celosia plants for sale at the Third Grade Plant Sale held each June. Students also grow tomatoes and potted basil.