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Seedling Students Flourish in Mountainside Montessori and Field & Main Collaboration

Seedling Students Flourish in Mountainside Montessori and Field & Main Collaboration

Written by Beth Rasin | Photos by Gracie Savage

All winter, students at Mountainside Montessori School in Marshall break ice in water troughs and carry bags of feed through the frost. When spring arrives, they fill the pasture’s mud holes with water and check on the growth of their pigs. They care for the animals rain or shine, including on holidays and weekends, knowing one will be the centerpiece of a special dinner they prepare and serve at the award-winning Field & Main restaurant in Marshall.

The annual “Seedlings” dinner, hosted by Field & Main, offers students direct insight into the hospitality business, the farm-to-table experience, and the importance of community as they work with top chefs to develop, prepare, and serve a themed meal. The Field & Main staff, led by owner Neal Wavra, teaches the students everything from butchering cuts of meat to creating desserts, setting tables, and serving guests.

Eighth grader Sawyer Lowery participated in his second Seedlings dinner this year. “The whole time you’re working, you’ve got something to do,” he says about the experience. “There’s a lot of energy, and you’re going to whatever needs to be done next. But it’s super rewarding to step back at the end of the day and say, ‘I just served 90 people.’”

Seedling students Maggie Metcalf, Sawyer Lowery, and Charlie Ruggiero.

Micheal Hutt, a seventh grader who has been at Mountainside since 2017, notes that he eagerly anticipated this event as a younger student. “Nobody gets this opportunity; it’s incredibly rare,” he shares. “When you’re a kid, you never really think [about] how hard it is to make the food or work in the kitchen, but you’ve been working on these pigs the whole year, and we’ve had a lot of conversations about how to make them better, what to feed them.”

Lowery says that the yearlong work makes the night of the dinner even more rewarding. “When the moment comes, it’s cool,” he explains. “It gives you a lens into the industry at an age when not many people know much about it.”

“Worksheets and things that don’t feel relevant to your life don’t feel rewarding — but meaningful, purposeful work, the experience and everything that goes into it, working in a restaurant with professionals themselves, it’s an incredible and rare opportunity,” says Mountainside Adolescent Program Director Theo Grayson of the Seedlings program.

This year’s Greek-themed dinner was held on March 27, and tickets sold out within 48 hours.

Seedlings — named by Wavra to reflect his hope that it will plant seeds benefiting the community and students — embodies Wavra’s philosophy about food and beverage bringing a community together.

Grayson also believes communities would be stronger if everyone could experience working on a farm for a month, traveling to a country that won’t be the same in your lifetime, and working in the service industry.

“I think if that happened, our world would be in a very different place,” she notes. “I am always amazed that these students … have done all three by the time they’re 15, when most people haven’t done them in their whole lifetime. That’s something I really value, and I think it speaks to the power of the program.”

Left: Ruggiero fills a trough with water. Right: A pig gets camera curious.

Supporting local farmers is another mission at Field & Main, and the pig used for the dinner comes to Mountainside from American Heritage Family Farm in Warrenton and is processed outside Winchester.

“Its entire life radius is less than 30 miles, which is pretty remarkable,” Grayson shares, adding that the students also learn about the carbon footprint of their food choices. “Knowing where the pigs came from and how they lived is really valuable.”

Students track expenses for the pigs in Quickbooks, and the money raised by the Seedlings dinner (as well as individual pork sales) goes toward educational programs and trips.

Although the work is unusual for seventh through ninth graders, Grayson believes that trusting in students’ abilities encourages them to rise to the occasion, teaches perspective, and brings the students closer together.

“As an adolescent group they have this common goal of working very intensely toward a final product that they’re very proud of,” Grayson explains. “The power of shared experience is amazing. It doesn’t matter who you are, your walk of life, or what your story is — having those joint meaningful experiences are incredibly powerful and bring us together.”

She hopes that the program might become a model for other restaurants and other experiences that nurture students’ interest and offer opportunities.

“You create that space, and they really rise up in ways that our educational system and society don’t always allow them to do.” Grayson finishes, “They get the opportunity to figure out who they are and what they want to be, which is really the big question at this age.” ML

Published in the May 2024 issue of Middleburg Life.

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