Every Monday morning during the spring and fall semesters, students in the Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture gather plant materials at the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens (UDBG) and transport their harvest to Vita Nova, the fine dining student operated restaurant on campus, where the materials are arranged and placed in vases to serve as centerpieces for the tables at the student-operated restaurant.
Frances Jackson, one of the current Longwood Graduate Fellows, said that going out and picking the flowers is a fantastic way to start the week.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to give yourself time to walk around the garden, and there’s worse things to do than go out and pick flowers,” Jackson said. “It’s a lovely garden and it’s a really useful resource. It’s great to be out there even if it’s just picking flowers and looking for plant materials. It’s a great sort of breathing space.”
Brian Trader, the interim director of the Longwood Graduate Program, housed in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the partnership allows students a chance to get outside and be involved with experiential learning.
“Most of the Longwood Graduate Program is experiential learning. The students learn by doing, but a lot of it is inside and a lot of it is around a conference table and everyone on their laptops, so I think it’s very refreshing for the fellows to go out and be immersed in the garden,” Trader said, adding, “It’s very easy to take for granted that we have these beautiful grounds right outside the walls of Townsend Hall. The gardens are a great resource for the University.”
Having beautiful, locally grown flowers is all part of teaching the students at Vita Nova the art of providing an experience for the guests at the restaurant, which is located on the second floor of UD’s Trabant University Center.
“Fine dining and beautiful flowers go together, so we get a lot of use out of the flowers,” said Venka Pyle, manager of Vita Nova. “In a restaurant, creating a good ambiance for our guests for conversation is vital. I think it’s part of teaching our students about what it takes to pamper our guests and give great service.”
Sheryl Kline, chair of the Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management(HRIM) in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, said the collaboration was one of the first undertaken by Vita Nova and that it helps the students to appreciate all aspects of the restaurant industry.
“You don’t just learn about operating a restaurant and it is a complex business. In restaurants, you have flowers, you have centerpieces, you need to work with florists, you need to understand seasonality of what’s available and how to compliment the food and decor,” said Kline. “And we do that with our collaboration with the Longwood Graduate Program and UDBG. It is a wonderful learning experience for students in both programs.”
Trader said that the collaboration is “a seamless partnership. It runs and it runs very well. It gets the program and the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences a little bit of recognition, and the restaurant benefits from having beautiful flowers and beautiful arrangements on the table. It clicks.”
John Frett, professor of landscape horticulture in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences (PLSC) and director of the UDBG, said that the Longwood Graduate Program students are always able to find something to provide for the centerpieces, no matter the season.
“There’s enough material in the botanic gardens that there’s always something, whether it’s foliage or stem color or fruit or flowers or seeds,” said Frett.
In return for providing plant materials for the centerpieces, informational brochures about UDBG are available at the restaurant, as is a sign thanking UDBG and the Longwood students for the flowers.
Robert Lyons, UDBG board president and former director of the Longwood Graduate Program, was initially contacted by Vita Nova to start the collaboration and said that he “looked at it as a great service project and an opportunity for our students to be good citizens of the college and the University. We had different students doing it every week and we have 10 students in the program, so that’s 10 weeks — that’s almost the whole semester covered. I told the students, ‘Go select what you like.’”
Lyons said it was always great to visit the restaurant and for the students to see how the vases were put together.
“I would go up with my students and have lunch and then the staff from the restaurant would come out and they’d welcome us and they’d thank us for doing this, and UDBG was thanked for the materials, so it was this great pat on the back all the way around for this one collaborative effort,” said Lyons.
Getting flowers and plant materials locally from UDBG also helps with Vita Nova’s sustainability goal.
“There’s a big sustainable push. We want to tie that to other student initiatives and collaborate on research projects and events,” said Pyle.
Lyons said his students took the sustainability goal to heart, with many of them picking the flowers and then taking the bus to deliver them in order to cut back on fuel use.
“Some of my students, after they gathered the cut plant materials, would take the bus or they’d make the delivery on bike,” said Lyons, who noted one student in particular would ride to main campus on his bike with a big bucket of flowers and other plant materials under his arm.
“That’s the ultimate sustainability practice. He’d hand deliver the plants and then ride back to South Campus on his bike. They really got into it,” said Lyons.
Many UD collaborations
Vita Nova has many partnerships and collaborations with organizations throughout UD.
In the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources alone, they work with Mike Popovich, a research associate in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, to get fresh produce grown at UD’s Garden for the Community and UD Fresh to You. They also get Dare to Bee honey from UD’s apiary, and they serve ice cream from the UDairy Creamery.
In addition, they collaborate with students in the College of Arts and Sciences, having students’ art featured as part of an art exhibit in the Vita Nova Bistro Dining Room, as well as students and faculty in the College of Engineering, with engineers showcasing their experiments and using some of those concepts to create dishes, such as food that looked like molecules.
They also partnered with Xiang Gao, UD Trustees Distinguished Professor of Music, and the English Language Institute (ELI) to put together the UD World Kitchen Series.
Kline said that all of these collaborative efforts are “a great way for undergrads, graduate students, faculty and staff to meet people they wouldn’t normally meet. For example, in the UD World Kitchen Series we are using food to break down cultures and build interdisciplinary relationships. The most intimate thing you can do for someone is to prepare a meal, and the idea is that we’re going to prepare a meal and we’re going to sit down and have conversations and break down barriers and build awareness of diverse cultures and perspectives.
“Again, it’s part of the diversity and interdisciplinary goals that we have in the department. We want to expose our students to different people and different cultures,” said Kline.
Pyle added, “Our customers love the fact that we have so many UD things, that we’re local, we’re UD, we’re young and vibrant, and I would love to do more.”
For details on creating a colorful bouquet, see the Pinterest site.
Article by Adam Thomas
Photos by Wenbo Fan and Ashley Barnas
This article can also be viewed on UDaily.