Coltivare finds success marrying farm-to-bistro and education

Coltivare, now open for two months in Ithaca, is thriving on the fact that it doesn’t serve your typical bistro meal; this innovative culinary center serves as a real-world learning experience for hospitality students from Tompkins Cortland Community College.

In Ithaca, Coltivare (col-tee-VAH-ray), meaning “cultivate” in Italian, utilizes fresh ingredients from the TC3 farm and other local producers to power the full-service restaurant, events and catering, cooking demonstrations, wine tasting, and cooking classes that all happen inside the 17,000 square-foot culinary center.

After opening in December, Director Denis Boucher said things are off to a great start.

“We’re still adjusting, we’re still learning to walk,” he said. “But we’re hearing people, and we’re listening to them, and we’re making great headways.”

Students from the TC3 Farm To Bistro program can study wine marketing, culinary arts, hotel and restaurant management or sustainable farming and food systems, and then get hands-on experience at Coltivare as part of their curriculum. From choosing seeds to waiting tables, TC3 students are an integral part of this unique approach combining education and the farm-to-table movement, which focuses on using fresh, local foods.

Boucher said this movement has progressed from being a fad to a trend, and is now an expectation of restaurants in the area.

“The sustainability movement is really the impetus for all of this farm to table,” he said. “People want to know that when they eat a tomato, it tastes like a tomato because it came from a local farm and they grew it in their soil and it tastes great.”

Coltivare chefs participate in Farm to Chef meetings through Ithaca Farm to Fork, where Boucher said they facilitate cooperation between local producers and the restaurants that buy their products. Chefs are required to be flexible with menu planning and product seasonality, while farms must be able to reliably deliver a consistent product.

Avi Miner, local foods community educator for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, said that the farm-to-table model has been successful in Ithaca because consumers are excited about it.

“Farm to table means chefs are supporting their community and showcasing their own talents as well as those of local farms,” he said. “The benefits of restaurants purchasing local are the same as anybody else purchasing local: the food is typically healthier, fresher, and tastier than the alternative, it supports our economy, keeps land in agriculture, reduces negative environmental impact, helps small farmers, and builds community.”

Though there is a great deal of support for farm to table in Ithaca, it’s becoming a nation-wide movement. The United States Department of Agriculture’s program, Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) reports that the number of farmers markets has grown by 67 percent since 2008, and that local food has topped the National Restaurant Association’s Top 10 Consumers Trends list since 2009.

Miner said Coltivare is unique because of the educational element.

“It stands out because graduates will have been introduced to farm to table as a norm, not as an extra,” he said.

Coltivare’s “foodie” menu offers anything from flatbreads and burgers to risotto and scallops—featuring products from Lively Run Dairy, Kilcoyne Farms, The Piggery and other Finger Lakes farms—alongside locally-sourced, house-crafted cocktails and beer and wine.

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