Ernest’s @ NAIT and the Urban Cultivator Program

I’m all for locally-grown produce. I like the taste. I like that it promotes sustainability. And I like supporting our fabulous local suppliers and farmers.

NAIT’s Culinary Arts program has recently taken a gigantic step in the direction of local produce – so local, in fact, that they’re growing microgreens and herbs on-site. Enter: the Urban Cultivator.

In a strategic, innovative move, NAIT has partnered with a British Columbia-based company that is becoming known for its hydroponic gardens. The Urban Cultivator allows NAIT’s Culinary Arts students to grow pesticide-free herbs, flowers, and micro-greens in their very own kitchen. The machine simulates perfect growing conditions to foster crisp, tasteful greens at a fraction of the cost. A machine of the same size as NAIT’s costs $8,000 and can save an organization anywhere from $400 to $1200 a month on vegetables and herbs.

Personally, I think it’s a great addition to the program, not least because it’s teaching Edmonton’s chefs of the future that locally-grown produce can be both affordable and delicious. It’s teaching them that there are alternatives to buying GMOs in bulk. Likewise, when you grow your own vegetables, you have the ultimate freedom to decide what you want and when you want it.

I was intrigued by the Urban Cultivator project because St. John’s Institute, my current employer, is also getting involved with local produce and urban farming. They’ve recently partnered with Reclaim Urban Farm, who will be using the organization’s free land to grow organic veggies. I’m hoping that more and more projects such as these will surface as the weather grows warmer – people might just begin to see that it IS easy being green!

After touring the kitchen with Culinary Arts instructors and hearing about the Urban Cultivator from founder, Tarren Wolfe, we were treated to a three-course lunch that utilized many of the herbs and vegetables recently harvested from NAIT’s own hydroponic garden.

Our first taster was a carrot, beet, and bull’s blood sprout juice. The flavours were rich and hearty, although the sprouts were a chunky surprise for those who thought they could down the drink in one fell swoop.

The juice was followed by the salad course, which consisted of pickled carrots, sprouts, a beet horseradish emulsion, ash-covered chevre, in-house made fresco with maple syrup, and a peanut breaded soft cheese. Beautiful, diverse, and delicious.

For our main course, we were treated to a pan-seared wild sockeye salmon with a trio of carrots, pearl onions, pea shoots and sprouts, and a white beet puree. I would’ve liked a little more seasoning (i.e. salt) on my salmon, but it was perfectly cooked and the carrots were crisp and caramelized. The pearl onions were a delightful addition and the beet puree was a lovely, savoury touch to the dish.

We took a break between courses by drinking chocolate almond milk with amaranth. The amaranth puffs weren’t my favourite thing in the world, but it was a nice palate cleanser and prepped us up for the final course: dessert.

We received a trio of beautiful desserts that, for me, really brought Ernest’s culinary game to the table. A wobbly, jiggly, perfectly-made panna cotta sat between a refreshing prickly pear sorbet on a sesame cookie and an orange marmalade topped with a microgreen salad. The marmalade, alas, tasted like marmalade, which I despise. The panna cotta, though! The prickly pear sorbet! Beautiful, delightful creations from some very talented chefs at NAIT.

The microgreens and herbs from the Urban Cultivator were excellent additions to an already fabulous meal. I’m looking forward to trying more creations from this restaurant in the future…and, in the meantime, maybe even looking into a small Urban Cultivator of my own.

Ernest’s Restaurant
NAIT Main Campus
11762 106 Street
Edmonton, AB T5G 2R1
(780) 471-8676