Jeff Shelby Slater never dreamed he would be in charge of feeding thousands of people of all ages in the heart of a national park. But as the head chef in charge of food service at North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, this is exactly what he does: prepare healthful and delicious meals for customers young and old participating in a wide variety of educational programs offered by the North Cascades Institute.
“I started working in restaurants when I was 15 years old in and around Anacortes, (Washington) where I grew up” he explains. But his humble beginning soon led to a thirst for more adventure. “I wanted to keep working with food and menus, but I wanted to do it in a way that was exciting and led to more diverse life experiences.”
Chef Slater found his calling in remote Alaska, where he spent 19 years as chef -- then chief steward -- onboard a large commercial fishing boat in the Bering Sea. The challenges of feeding a large crew of hungry laborers in challenging environmental conditions forced him to add new skills to his repertoire: flexibility, improvisation, unusual work hours and pleasing the palates of large groups.
When the time came for him to find work closer to home – not to mention on dry land – he found a new place as the head chef and Foodshed Initiative manager for North Cascades Institute at the Learning Center. The facility is a product of a unique partnership between the Institute, Seattle City Light and the National Park Service and hosts thousands of students, adults, families, private groups and graduate students every year.
Eat in the Learning Center’s historic dining hall on Diablo Lake and customers have the opportunity to explore how food flows from fields to tables and all of the steps in between. Purchasing organic foods from local growers and teaching about the local foodshed not only contributes to sustainable operations at the Learning Center, it creates new ways to connect people, nature and community through education.
“The most rewarding thing is meeting kids that come up with their classrooms or for a family gathering and getting them excited to eat healthy,” Chef Shelby explains. “One of the biggest reasons the kids get hooked on our fresh vegetables is where I get them from: direct from local farms. I can take a fast food-style meal like cheeseburgers and turn it in to something healthy and great for the kids. I’m using free-range beef, fingerling potatoes instead of tater tots. I want kids to think about “What is on your plate and where does it come from? What impact do our food choices have?”
Chef Slater has created and nurtured relationships with several local farmers and producers, including Blue Heron Farm and Osprey Hill Farm (organic produce), Nooksack Delta Ranch (100% grass-fed beef) and Taylor Shellfish Farm (local seafood). He also attends regional conferences and trade shows where he gets inspiration for his healthy and delicious cuisine as well as meet local producers.
Foodshed Project goals include offering appealing, wholesome food choices; serving organic and sustainably produced food; purchasing locally grown, seasonally appropriate food; minimizing waste and educating about the power of food choice.
In another unique twist in the Institute’s Foodshed Project, food scraps and leftovers from meals go in to 2 large “Earth Tub” composting machines which produces rich, broken-down compost that is then returned to the farms where the foods originated from.
“We are beyond fortunate to live in a part of the country where there is a lot of energy put in to sustainable agriculture and doing right by the planet,” Shelby says. “It’s an honor to be a part of that cycle: supporting local farmers and producers, purchasing organic, healthy ingredients and especially being able to present them in delicious ways to kids, families and other visitors that is both nurturing and educational. It’s the most amazing job I’ve had in my whole life!”