A Duckrey student smells the fresh herbs he just harvested at Osteria

If you’d never tried fresh oregano before, how would you describe its flavor?

After snapping a leaf off a live stalk and chewing on it thoughtfully, a fifth-grader in a bright blue shirt and khaki pants issued his verdict: “Tastes like Chef Boyardee.”

Sorrel didn’t get as pleasant a response, its lemony tang inciting a wrinkled nose, a spat-out lump of partially chewed greens and the blunt assessment, “This tastes bad.”

Basil was considered more bearable, but sage didn’t fare well. “Smells gross,” observed an 11-year-old girl in a bright pink jacket.

The face of someone who doesn’t love the taste of sorrel Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Along with a dozen of their classmates, the first-time herb-tasters were getting a crash course in gardening from chefs at one of the city’s poshest restaurants, Osteria.

The upscale Vetri Family trattoria on North Broad once had a flourishing garden in the outdoor space next to its greenhouse-like dining room annex, but in recent years the beds were not maintained. When cofounder Jeff Michaud and new Osteria chef de cuisine Jesse Grossman made plans to revive it, they decided to involve students from Tanner G. Duckrey Public School.

The Vetri Community Partnership’s Mobile Teaching Kitchen already makes regular visits to the K-8 school at 15th and Diamond, but this summer’s garden planting — and subsequent October harvest — was the first offsite collaboration of its kind.

Chef de cuisine Jesse Grossman with Duckrey students in the Osteria garden Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

For many of the Duckrey kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever had anything to do with gardening at all.

Introducing the young city-dwellers to the wonders of how fresh food grows and tastes was the driving force behind the project. Asked how many of them had gardened before, only three raised their hands. Of those, two had planted flowers, but not foods. Not surprising for kids born and raised in the middle of the urban grid.

But, aside from some misgivings about the intensity of the fresh herb flavors, most of the students took to the garden work.

Handling seedlings requires some care

July’s visit was all about planting, so the kids dug holes and placed seedlings in soil according to layouts printed on an instruction sheet. Scurrying armadillo bugs provided a popular distraction — “I call them pillbugs!” “I call them roly-polys!” — as did meeting some of the Osteria staff.

“Can you make a million dollars working here?” asked one boy, garnering a smirk from Grossman, who was valiantly trying to keep up with the little fast-moving fingers as they sowed rows of chicory, collards, mint, tomatoes and peas.

Consulting on where to place the seedlings Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

A return trip earlier this month brought the project full circle.

“Now we get to harvest what we planted,” Grossman said, adding with apologies, “I’m sorry, but the peas didn’t make it.” He attributed the loss to pests, explaining that because the garden was insecticide-free, that happens sometimes.

A student admires a tomato from a seedling she planted Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Various insects and slugs were out in full force, in fact, prompting the skeptical statement: “Why would we eat that, there’s bugs crawling all over it.”

However, eat the buggy greens they did — and enjoyed them, too.

After enough leaves had been pulled and plucked, the group headed to the sidewalk, where the Mobile Teaching Kitchen was waiting. Along with VCP Community Outreach Program Manager Amy Falkenstein, the fifth- and sixth-graders learned how to turn what they’d just harvested into a fresh salad of kale, apples, roasted sweet potatoes and apple cider vinaigrette, each ingredient added to taste.

Making kale salad with the fresh harvest Credit: Vetri Community Partnership

Then it was back inside the restaurant to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The salad, served as a first course, was deemed “Crunchy, salty and a little bit of everything.” Next came pasta with pesto made from the garden’s basil, which half the kids loved and half despised — perhaps because its taste was unfamiliar.

The biggest hit was the pizza, which came topped with just-harvested collard greens. “It’s amazing!” offered one student.

Can’t go wrong with pizza Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

All in all, the project was deemed a success. Said one 10-year-old girl as she traipsed through the fancy dining room: “Best day ever.”

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.