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Clad in a monogrammed chef’s coat and armed with an over-sized pair of red scissors, celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse joined a group of Orlando Junior Academy eighth graders to cut the ribbon to mark the grand opening of the long-awaited Emeril Lagasse Foundation Kitchen House and Culinary Garden in College Park on Tuesday.
The ribbon cutting marked the completion of a project nearly a decade in the making that sprouted from the dreams of local chef Kevin Fonzo and Orlando Junior Academy parent Brad Jones to encourage edible education in the Orlando area. Donations from the Emeril Lagasse Foundation and Florida Hospital helped that idea bloom into reality: a 3,500-square-foot state-of-the-art kitchen and garden facility adjacent to the Orlando Junior Academy (OJA) campus on East King Street.
“With some hard work, dedication and the love of God, things can happen,” Fonzo said at the grand opening, April 12.
“…It’s a big name, it’s a big house, it’s a big purpose with a big mission.”
The Kitchen House features an expansive open kitchen that looks out over the blooming vegetable garden, which OJA students have been tending since 2013 as part of their edible education curriculum. Brad Jones planted the idea for the garden nearly a decade ago when his daughter Jordan, now 22 years old, was a student at OJA. The goal of the garden, Jones said, was for students to be able to take the lessons they learn in their classrooms and apply them in hands-on ways. Today, the garden is in full bloom sprouting fist-size pineapples, stalks of curly kale and aromatic rosemary.
“Taking an abstract idea that they’re learning in their classroom and connecting it to a real world application that they can accomplish, that makes learning meaningful,” Jones said. “I want kids to find meaning in their curriculum and be empowered by their own ability to feed themselves from the earth.”
The ribbon cutting marked a dream-come-true moment for Jones as city leaders, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Orlando Commissioner Robert Stuart, and Florida Hospital CEO Daryl Tol came together to celebrate the facility’s grand opening.
“It’s really surreal,” Jones said. “…This is truly something I could not have dreamed of. It’s the culmination of many peoples’ dreams.”
Chef Lagasse joined in as part of the dream-team three years ago after Chef Fonzo introduced him to the mission of creating the Kitchen House and Culinary Garden at OJA while Lagasse was on a shoot in Orlando.
Back then Lagasse said he saw an incredible garden with “hardly any tools, but a lot of heart and really good seeds.”
Soon after, his foundation would donate $250,000 to the cause to help bring the project to life. The $1.2 million facility broke ground in 2014.
On Tuesday Lagasse helped cut the ribbon with a team of OJA eighth graders before getting to work in the kitchen watching the students prepare snacks for community members on site getting a first look at the new facility.
Eighth grader Adonna Andino helped stir together sugar-coated almonds with rosemary and sea salt in a frying pan in the commercial kitchen. It’s one of multiple recipes she’s learned from spending time in the culinary garden during her time at OJA.
“I’m so proud of all this,” Andino said. “I’ve been here since this all started and I mean it’s just awesome to see what it’s become.”
Her work in the garden inspired to try her hand at growing a basil plant at home, using the fruits of her labor to flavor pasta sauce as part of family dinners.
Andino’s experience is a prime example of what the non-profit Edible Education Experience hopes to accomplish in partnering with the new Kitchen House and Culinary Garden.
“One of the most important things that we want our students to learn through this kitchen, house, through this garden, through everything that we do, is that for good things to grow and for good things to happen they must be nurtured,” said John Monday, Edible Education Experience board chair.
“…And this is the culmination of a very long nurturing process with a lot of people, many of who are here today, who have stepped up to do wonderful things to make this happen.”