Kitchen Gratitude: Another Year in the Foodshed

 Above two photos: (top) Sous Chef Mike Cuseo gets some help trying out a crazy ides: Oyster (mushrooms) on the Half-shell. (bottom) After the oven… Photos by Kacey Shoemaker

This time of year, there’s few of us here at the Learning Center with as much to be thankful for as the kitchen staff. The whole idea of Thanksgiving seems to be a celebration of what we do as cooks. It also gives us the opportunity to highlight the hard work of the farmers and ranchers who supply us with the goods we need all year round to continue the work of the Foodshed Project. It’s called a project because we didn’t initiate it and it’s never finished, but we’re nonetheless thankful to be a part of something that’s simultaneously mundane and ephemeral. So in the spirit of the season I would like to extend a few Thanks You’s on behalf of the kitchen staff from a demanding and productive season at North Cascades Institute.

Chefs Mike Cuseo, Myles Lindstrom and Matt Douglas (not pictured: Chef Shelby Slater). Photo by Lauren G

Seattle City Light: I suppose there’s the obvious, like the entirety of Diablo Lake, the roads, the electricity and the light. But we have even more to thank Seattle City Light for, and that’s our role in the continuation of the Skagit Tours on Diablo Lake. The program has brought a wide-ranging audience of curious folks from all walks of life to the Learning Center to share in what we do as an educational organization. Sharing the dining hall, the campus, the lake, and especially the food with our mutual participants has helped us spread the word about what we do as well as strengthened our partnership.

Anne Schwartz shows off a field of winter squash plants to a group of high-schoolers under the watchful eye of Sauk Mountain – August 2012. Photo by Mike Cuseo

Cascade Climate Challenge: Aneka Singlaub and Chris Kiser did so well at integrating food security into the curriculum for their youth programs this summer that they even created a farm tour with a guest appearance by North Cascades Institute chefs. It allowed Chef Shelby and I both the chance to get out of the kitchen and show the students some of the actual dirt that supplies the produce for the midsummer menus at the Learning Center. We were able to really articulate our perspective as cooks on the way our work interacts with culture, climate change, agriculture, health, community values, social justice, and a wide variety of other topics. It felt great to not only be included in the fabric of the curriculum, but to be taken seriously by the educators and the youths in the programs at North Cascades Institute.


Lee Whitford (at left) and her troops. Photo by Kacey Shoemaker

Lee Whitford and the Mycologists: You’re right, that IS the greatest band name ever. But Lee Whitford and the Mycologists can also be thanked for bringing the “fungus among us.” The mid-October program succeeded in not only attracting some of the coolest folks around to enjoy the food here, but they were genuinely interested in learning more about cooking and seeing some culinary-based programming here at North Cascades Institute. Cooking classes? Consider us flattered. The entire group even stayed an hour longer than expected in the rain to chat with Anne Schwartz of Blue Heron Farm about organic farming. All told, it was a great example of how our mission to educate about the environment and our desire to talk food align quite nicely. Thank you, Lee!

Intern Lauren Squires holds up a plate of braised short ribs with cayenne BBQ, roasted brassicas and honey-cider coleslaw. Photo by Mike Cuseo

The Harvest, of course!: This might seem like old news to the seasoned Skagitonian, but I for one am constantly in awe of the bounty that the Skagit Valley offers. By the time the harvest season rolls around, it’s like a generous icing on an already delicious cake. We can celebrate the time of year by serving menus that feature a generous majority of local products—though I can’t calculate percentages, you can be certain we were doing the best we could. Some of the menu items from the fall were beef wellington with grass-fed tenderloin filet and wild Chanterelles, layered pumpkin cheesecake, local green-chili gazpacho and fried anaheim peppers, acorn squash gnocchi, local pesto crostini, and too much more to list here. Thanks to the dark dirt in the Skagit Valley for all of our choices.

Graduate student Chris Kiser (on right) herds hungry young minds through a tomato jungle. Photo by Mike Cuseo
Climate Challenge Coordinator Aneka Singlaub holds up a genetically mutated (but not modified) cherry tomato. Photo by Mike Cuseo

The Youth Leadership Conference: Apart from helping us to test the seam-busting limits of the dining hall, the 2012 Youth Leadership Conference brought many of the youth program staff and participants back to the Learning Center for a big party (there was some serious stuff going on, too). I had a chance to listen in on one the groups’ discussions about food security and was amazed with the depth they were bringing to some of the common topics we discuss here, like affordability, local economies, nutrition and social justice. A few days after the conference I received a note with the gold seal of the National Park Service and a genuine Thank You from a longtime park employee; somebody for whom food is an authentic part of the big picture. So this is a shout out to him and everybody who agrees that food and the environment are one and the same. Being able to put that concept on the plate for literally hundreds of impressionable minds each summer is a great opportunity and we give thanks.

The magnificent Michael Brondi presides over the greenhouse and the hungry minds.

In conclusion, the kitchen staff at North Cascades Institute (recent recipients of the “Team Awesome Award”) say Thank You. Our hopes are high for another great year!



  1. Carolyn Waters

    What a thoughtful post, Mike. It’s great to hear from your perspective how all of these different programs are linked together through food. I really miss your cooking! Oh, and your self also, of course.

  2. Gina Vitali

    What incredible things you are doing! Very proud, inspired and thankful!

  3. Chris Kiser

    thank you, Mike, for the wonderful, thoughtful (as always) writing. Its also a great way to understand what the kitchen has been up to all year! You guys are amazing!!

  4. Aneka

    This is so awesome. Great work team!!

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