Farm-to-table approach spices up TSTC’s Culinary Arts program

Back in January, Samantha Colunga did not expect her Culinary Arts classes at Texas State Technical College to include gardening.

“When I heard about the work-study for the garden, I thought it would be really cool to get my hands dirty,” she said. “It’s cool to see your food grow and take it to the kitchen because you can tell the difference — it’s really fresh. It adds a lot of flavor to everything.”

Chef Emma Creps, a TSTC Culinary Arts lead instructor, recognized what an empty greenhouse on campus represented for her program: an opportunity for growth.

It was also a chance to save money on pricey packages of fresh herbs from grocery stores — and the vegetables her students needed on a constant basis.

“None of us are gardeners. None of us,” Creps said. But she added that after experiencing success with everything from basil and microgreens to the carrot, onion and celery base of French cooking’s mirepoix, “it became a farm-to-table sustainability lesson for these guys — and for us (the instructors), as well, to be honest.”

With all the money her program is saving — 98% of the vegetables her classes need come from the garden — Creps is able to invest in replacing equipment like mixers and other expensive kitchen tools.

The vegetables grown also create new culinary challenges for students in the program.

“It’s really awesome to come out here and have the students and to be able to say, look, this is what we’re going to use today,” Creps said, recalling eggplant lasagna, tomato jam and other student creations. “The thing I like about it is it shows them the different side of what they can use with the vegetables, instead of just slicing the tomato and putting it in a salad or sandwich.”

Inside the greenhouse, work-study students like Colunga snipped fresh basil and hunted down peppers in the lush greenery. Outside, potatoes, onions, butternut squash, celery, garlic, zucchini, cantaloupe and watermelon dominate the beds.

Recently Creps planted banana, papaya, fig, peach, mango, avocado and citrus trees.

“We started off with this tiny thing, and we just took over this area,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out where we can plant our pumpkins. Every time we come out here, pulling carrots or whatever, we’re like little kids — we get excited.”

In the future, Creps hopes to continue harvesting the fruits of her program’s labors in the greenhouse and surrounding gardens. She would like to build community awareness by connecting with other gardeners in the Harlingen area and perhaps creating a club. Local farmers markets could also be a good place to sample students’ jams and homemade pickles.

“We want to really showcase this,” Creps said. “We’re always amazed by it. It really provides a different educational aspect for the students.”

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