I began my conversation with Jason Sidle, Director of Operations at Coltivare, located on Cayuga Street in downtown Ithaca, by asking him to explain the restaurant’s partnership with Tompkins Cortland Community College. “There is no partnership. We are TC3,” he responded. So began my reconnaissance of Coltivare and TC3’s revolutionary Farm to Bistro program. The program, which opened in December 2014, contains four hospitality programs, three of which are operated directly out of Coltivare and one that calls a new 32-acre plot of farmland, owned by TC3, home.
If you haven’t been there yet, Coltivare is one of Ithaca’s most tasteful, tasty and innovative restaurants. With a farm-to-table focus and an emphasis on seasonality, the restaurant’s constantly changing menu features local vegetables, fruits and meats. The kitchen, in addition to paying strict attention to ingredients, values presentation nearly as much. It was telling that when I received my bill at the end of the meal, included was an evaluation with the first question asking, “Was your plate colorful?” Yes, Coltivare is not your typical college student joint.
While diners enjoy the street-side dining room, the cooking facility extends far back into the building. Besides the regular commercial kitchen that fuels the restaurant, Coltivare unveiled a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen with the opening of the hospitality program. The kitchen allows culinary students to observe and practice at individual stations with an instructor up front.
In addition to the teaching kitchen, the Coltivare complex also houses a wine tasting room for students of the program. The area is outfitted with auditorium-style seating and tables with small circular lights built in to illuminate wine glasses for inspection. The wine program has extended itself internationally with virtual wine classes through a partner school in France. Through these collaborations, students taste wines mailed ahead from abroad while listening to experts from the region of interest.
Students in the two-year culinary program, who hail from all over New York state, learn the restaurant business through their chosen area of focus. Currently offered concentrations include culinary arts, wine marketing, hotel and restaurant management and sustainable farming and food systems. Although there may be just a handful of culinary programs in two-year colleges across the United States, there are none, according to Sidle, that have a culinary center, restaurant and farm to work with.
As an offshoot of the various TC3 curricula, the culinary program is truly comprehensive. Students take hands-on classes on-site Monday through Friday for the entirety of the semester. They also benefit from Coltivare’s for-profit business by using real restaurant data in accounting classes.
TC3’s culinary program is highly selective of applicants as well. Currently, 65 students populate the Coltivare culinary program, a small group compared the more than 200 applicants of the program, which began its second year this fall.
The education continues beyond daytime classes. Most of the students enrolled in the culinary program also work in the restaurant, shifting roles for maximum experience. When I visited, Sidle pointed out all the students working on staff that night. They included prep cooks and chefs working the line during service, as well as front-of-the-house serving staff, hosts and bartenders.
While many schools boast culinary programs, rarely do you find one as comprehensive and fully integrated as Coltivare’s, which aims to connect all elements of the restaurant business and supply chain.
My recent meal there was an exciting departure from the redundant dining halls on Cornell’s campus. To start, my friends and I shared that day’s appetizer special: pierogis stuffed with mushrooms, braised beef and pearl onions atop a polenta cake and local carrot purée. The creation was garnished with blackened caramelized onions. Such a dramatic description sounded a bit intimidating to those of us who were used to more casual dining, but the warmth and comfort of the dish was immediately pleasing and undoubtedly delicious. “I’m a fan,” my friend concluded of the pierogi.
From there, we moved on to the restaurant’s now-famous Apple Fest mac and cheese. I remember trying this masterpiece in September and being blown away by the cooked apple and braised pork flavors. In the restaurant, however, the kitchen overcompensated with presentation (excessive browning and garnish) and lost the intense cheesiness I remember from Apple Fest. To be clear, I wasn’t truly complaining, it just wasn’t how I remembered it.
For a second main course to share, we sampled the “Wine and Swine” pizza. The crust was perfect — yeasty yet crispy — and the toppings (apple butter and gruyere) were inventive and complemented the shaved ham well.
Sometimes, restaurants offering extravagant desserts get so caught up in being over the top in presentation (think: Black Tap’s Instagrammable milkshakes) that they lose a quality of flavor. This was not the case with the “Death by Chocolate” masterpiece. The dessert, a mini bundt cake coated in fudge and layered with chocolate mousse and coconut pecan frosting, paired with a chocolate truffle on the side (because why not?), was blissful.
As for TC3’s prophesied farm (it is still in the works), the project consists of approximately 32 acres adjacent to TC3’s Dryden campus, with just 12 to 15 acres under cultivation at the moment. In addition to teaching sustainable farming practices, the farm operates as an organic CSA (community-supported agriculture) supplier to the greater community and collaborator with Coltivare. The farm intends to succeed as a profitable CSA and restaurant supplier as well as an outdoor classroom for the Sustainable Farming culinary students.
Although the restaurant tries to be as local as possible, with “80-85% of the menu sourced from Tompkins County,” Sidle reminded me that, as a business, “we need to have things that people want to buy — seafood, for example.” The restaurant must be a profitable business in order for students to learn the trade. This means that, while the restaurant would ideally serve 100 percent local food, economic constraints of demand prevent it.
In all, Coltivare is an icon to explore that offers much more to the Ithaca community than high-end meals. Its culinary program adds depth to the culture of the restaurant that is worth consideration and appreciation.
Oh, and next time you go, ask, “Are there any students in the kitchen tonight?”