A row of postcard-size illustrations are strung like a garland across the wide windows of Smith Canteen. “I am very good for you!” declares a smiling peapod, flanked by two ripe strawberries, several carrots and what looks like a trio of colorful peppers.
The cards are a visual garden wish list created by the students of P.S. 58; they are also a new source of stress for Smith Canteen’s owner, chef Rob Newton.
“I noticed kids looking for their cards and not finding them because we could only hang so many,” says Kerry Diamond, Rob’s girlfriend of five years and the co-owner of the couple’s three restaurants, Smith Canteen, Seersucker and Nightingale 9.
Newton winces at this news. “Oh! That’s brutal. Terrible,” he says, knitting his dark eyebrows and rubbing one hand across his salt-and-pepper beard. “I did not know that part. It makes me sad.”
Newton is clearly the kind of guy who doesn’t want anyone to feel left out. He and Diamond have opened three restaurants in three years along a two-block span of Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, all with an eye toward building community. He describes himself as “militantly local,” a culinary philosophy that pervades every aspect of his business, from his sourcing and wine list to his relationship with the students of P.S. 58, where he, Diamond and their Seersucker team support a school garden program and cooking classes for second and fifth graders.
“I will go to the mat with the argument that you can change a child’s perspective on what they eat by teaching them that food comes from the ground, not from Fresh Direct,” Newton says. A growing body of research backs him up: The so-called “farm-to-school” practice of incorporating both food education and local ingredients into the school environment is a proven method for increasing students’ appetite for produce and fighting childhood obesity.
Last year when Newton heard the school had a garden program it was hoping to expand, he and Diamond organized a fried chicken fund-raiser at Seersucker. They held a second fund-raiser earlier this year, ultimately raising several grand, enough to buy materials for more raised beds, soil, plants and seeds.
According to Diana Marsh, P.S. 58’s science specialty teacher, all 950 of the school’s students were involved in the garden last year, and at least 300 students attended cooking classes at the restaurant.
The classes are led by Seersucker’s business manager, Kristen Schoonover, who is a chef, a mom and a veteran of Wellness in the Schools, the nonprofit founded by chef Bill Telepan that promotes healthy eating, environmental awareness and fitness in public schools. In short, there are few people more qualified to teach seven-year-olds about arugula.
“How do we approach a plant when we are going to eat it?” she asks a group of wriggling but rapt second-graders crowded around Seersucker’s wooden tables in groups of four and five, the most unlikely full house the restaurant has ever seen.
Schoonover pulls a daisy from a jar on the bar and holds it up for demonstration.
“He loves me, he loves me not,” she says, slowly plucking the petals. “This is how we are going to handle the lettuce and herbs today, gently and with respect.” Suddenly she rips the rest of the flower into little bits in a flurry of Cookie Monster–like enthusiasm, throwing the remains on the floor. She holds up one of the bruised and torn pieces.
“This is not the salad Chef wants us to make today,” she says.
Her audience erupts in giggles, then sets to work dismantling the herbs and salad greens on their tables with (mostly) gentle hands. Dressing is added, samples are passed and almost everyone tries a bite; many ask for seconds.
“Kids bring a lot of emotion to whatever they do,” Schoonover says. “They are always ready to really experience things with the senses. I’ve found that they really retain it, too.”
Marsh has seen a similar reaction from kids in the garden, where the digging, planting and pulling stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the day’s sit-still activities.
On an overcast day in spring, Marsh leads her after-school garden class outside for a lesson in composting. Armed with small trowels, the kids are tasked with mixing compost into the existing soil in the raised beds, but rooting out grubs and worms quickly takes over as the chief activity.
Two girls with worms coiled in their palms stop to compare notes.
“Oh, wow, do you have one or two?” asks a brunette with a long ponytail. “Do you want to trade?”
The trade is a no-go, but never mind—next the group traipses inside to start seeds under the grow-lights in the science lab.
Newton credits similar garden experiences for his own first interest in food.
“Growing up in Arkansas, everybody in my family had a garden,” he says. “I took it for granted, and I kind of hated it, to be honest with you, because my dad would drag me out there and make me pick weeds from the carrots. But looking back on it, I am really lucky to have had that experience because I know what a carrot tastes like when it comes out of the ground and I know strawberries are only good certain times of the year and they aren’t supposed to be white inside.”
He hopes Seersucker’s support of P.S. 58 can have a similarly lasting influence on the kids in the neighborhood, and that while they won’t all grow up to be chefs, they will at least have a deeper appreciation for their food and their community, a community that Newton says feels more like small-town America than New York City. Because of the garden program, kids often wave when they pass the restaurant, and parents stop Newton and Diamond to ask what grade their kids are in.
“When we tell them we don’t have kids, they are like, ‘What the hell are you doing, then?’” Rob laughs.
But the pair love the neighborhood, and say they don’t need a stroller to care about the community. Seersucker sits at the epicenter of the Carroll Gardens universe, across from the school, the park and the Sunday Greenmarket where Newton sources much of his menu.
“It’s just a good way to spend your time and live your life,” Newton says. “You’ve got the farmers market there, and your kids can go and run in the park until they make themselves hungry. You can buy duck and eggs and dairy and vegetables and seafood and wine if you want, and you can get all that stuff and have a nice cup of coffee or lunch, then you can go home. How are you gonna top that? It’s just fun. It is the definition of a community.”
Photographs: Chelsey Simpson, Robert Mitra