Everything is better when you feel like you’re a part of it. That’s Chef Kristen St. Clair’s philosophy. She’s a chef who welcomes the community into her kitchen, where they become a part of growing, harvesting, cooking and understanding fresh, healthy food. St. Clair runs Gabriel’s Place, a sustainable community space in Avondale where she’s had a chance to make her philosophy come to fruition — in soil, in produce, in people.
At old St. Michael’s Church in Avondale, the center of Gabriel’s Place, two neighbor ladies make their way up the driveway, one strolling beside her friend who is using a wheelchair. Veterans from last summer’s garden project, they’ve come to ask St. Clair when their community garden squares will be ready for planting.
“I’m not really a green thumb person,” one of them explains. “But it was great when we did it last year, to see what we did.” Her friend adds, “It’s therapeutic.” They go on to talk about how they had taken five-gallon buckets of water out every morning at 6 a.m. — and it isn’t a complaint. It’s a boast about how they’d triumphed and made their garden grow. This year, St. Clair has offered to help find a reservoir to keep water close by.
“The initial drive here is to start a garden, to show people how easy it is to find your own food,” St. Clair says. “A garden is a great equalizer.” And it’s true — anybody with a garden can have the same leafy spring lettuce and ripe red tomatoes in their salad as a Whole Foods shopper, for pennies. It’s the mission of Gabriel’s Place to show you how.
Walking through the grounds, past old rose bushes and compost bins, St. Clair explains that the church had lost a once-large and upscale congregation. When the Episcopal diocese closed it in 2008, the building fell into disrepair. Grand Tiffany stained-glass windows were removed and put into a museum. But the intention was to reopen “with new energy,” St. Clair says, “as a center for food.”
Gardening is barely underway for this summer, but there are already perennial herbs outside the kitchen doors and beds of strawberries, asparagus and garlic. In the community garden, the layout is changing from square beds to full rows in order to maximize the crops for the on-site farmers market.
A rustic greenhouse known as the hoop house was built by the previous director, an AmeriCorps staffer, along with volunteers from the Avondale Youth Council. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but under the plastic sheeting roof there are seedlings sprouting, and there’s a multi-level aquaponics garden.
“Kids love this part,” St. Clair says. “The fish fascinate them.” Under the lettuce beds there’s a deep trough lined with plastic, filled with water and yes, swimming fish. Pipes circulate water filtered from the fish up to the beds to nourish the plants, and back down bearing plant nutrients for the bluegills below. At some point, even the fish can be harvested.
There’s also a chicken coop under construction. It’s being built from old doors, signboards and found lumber. Fruit tree saplings are lined up ready to start an orchard of peaches, apples and pears as soon as the ground is readied for planting. St. Clair would like to start beekeeping — something her father has always done at his farm in Kentucky. Her mother is a garden writer. She comes by her passion naturally.
Four squares of garden close to the kitchen door belong to the soup kitchen Mom’s Meals, which serves lunch on Thursdays and Fridays. When the kitchen surveyed their guests, they said they wanted to help grow some of the food they eat. Now, they’re learning basic gardening and kitchen skills — how to use what they’ve grown.
St. Clair graduated from the Culinary Arts program at Cincinnati State. Her classmates were focused on fine dining. She knew that her path would be different. For instance, “The Experiment.” It’s a cooking demo that the chef does every Thursday at the Gabriel’s Place farmers market, where she takes that week’s “bountiful ingredient” and prepares it three different ways. Rhubarb, radishes and strawberries were on the calendar for the next few weeks.
Cincinnati State and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital support the Gabriel’s Place Junior Culinary Institute, which takes place in June and July. Thirteen- and 14-year-olds will have the chance to harvest from the garden, learn to prepare a dish and eat what they create.
“They’ll learn that fresh food doesn’t cost much, that it’s easy to make and that it tastes good,” St. Clair says. “I want them to know that even when the pantry seems empty, there’s always something you can do.”
Students are surveyed before the program to determine how much they understand nutrition, the role of fresh fruits and vegetables in preventing heart disease and diabetes and how many times a week they eat at fast food restaurants. Moving the needle on those metrics will help make Avondale a healthier community.
A clipboard in the kitchen, surveying ideas for future classes and events, has suggestions like “grocery store tour” and “diabetes cooking class.”
The farmers market, which re-launches for this season on June 6, is another asset to the community’s health. St. Clair says that it is purposefully the least expensive fresh farm market in town, where every Thursday from 4-6 p.m., shoppers can get “a week’s worth of fresh fruits and vegetables for about eight bucks.” The crops grown on-site are supplemented by some from Green Bean delivery, just to be sure there’s plenty of variety and enough to go around.
The kitchen has a new 10-burner gas stove, four ovens, refrigeration and even tools like a full-sized professional mixer. It’s available for “host-your-own” cooking classes, and after a pending zone change will serve as an “incubator” kitchen for start-up entrepreneurs.
Rent from the kitchen and proceeds from the market, along with volunteers investing sweat equity, make the work at Gabriel’s Place sustainable, so the residents of Avondale can continue to teach each other and nourish their community. Their mission — to provide, educate and grow — is healthy, holistic and vital.
To learn more about GABRIEL’S PLACE and get involved, visit gabrielsplace.diosohio.org.