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HGTC feeding interest in local produce

Behind the scenes at a local farm-to-fork restaurant

The menu at the Rivertown Bistro in Conway is driven by whatever produce is available locally and employs several Horry Georgetown Technical College culinary arts students.
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The menu at the Rivertown Bistro in Conway is driven by whatever produce is available locally and employs several Horry Georgetown Technical College culinary arts students.

Horry Georgetown Technical College’s International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach will soon have a new location.

And the timing is right.

“I’ve pulled people from that school either through internships or employees as long as I can remember,” said Darren Smith, who owns the Riverfront Bistro in Conway. “Within the last five or six years, it’s really starting to evolve into a culinary student’s destination for schooling. I think the facility that they’re about to do and the knowledge of the professors are really a showcase. That, coupled with our area, which is a tourist mecca but not a hotspot for restaurants, will let it go into the next level.”

First look at the new institute

Inside the new $15 million, 30,000-square-foot building, workers are still finishing up the interior. Black and orange power cords are strung along the floor and ladders are set up near the walls.

The institute’s executive director, Joe Bonaparte, said the building should be ready for students by mid-October.

“This is our restaurant,” said Bonaparte, standing in a big room with large windows near the front of the building. “This is going to become the Fowler dining room, which is currently in Conway.”

The dining room will have room for 100 seats, with a table set aside for reservations. The kitchen is in plain view of the dining room so patrons can watch the students in action while they wait.

In the past, Bonaparte said kitchens were designed to be hidden away from customers in the restaurants.

“This kitchen in particular is really trying to bring the education up to another level and exposing the students to the public, because now people want to talk to the chef,” said Bonaparte. “It’s not hiding behind closed doors.”

The institute will also have a bakery and a demonstration kitchen for guest chefs and competitions. The demo kitchen is set up with cameras and televisions surrounded by a small auditorium for seating.

But the demo kitchen isn’t the only room with technology.

“Each of these kitchens is going to have a large flat screen on each end of the kitchen,” said Bonaparte. “And each kitchen is going to have an overhead camera that can swivel around so if an instructor is demonstrating and you’re over there, they can say ‘look up at the screen’ instead of everybody having to hover around.”

The new institute will also feature a greenhouse and raised-bed garden. A beehive and a hydroponic garden may also be included in Bonaparte gets his way.

Although not every ingredient can be sourced from nearby, Bonaparte said they try to source the majority of ingredients locally.

“I like to teach students to know where their stuff is coming from,” he said. “I like to know where my stuff is coming from and how it was raised. Go down and visit the farms or know the fisherman.”

At the Fowler dining room, Bonaparte said the menu is driven by whatever is available locally.

“We try to support the local community, teach students about seasonality, what’s growing around here and about the value of keeping dollars in your community and supporting people who are trying to do stuff the right way.”

The family farm

Miracle Lewis is one of the folks who is doing stuff “the right way.”

She and her fiance Jimmy Rabon run Home Sweet Farm in Loris, which sells produce to HGTC year-round.

The farm produces grapes, melons, tomatoes, corn, zucchini, cucumbers and okra, among others.

The two are preparing to enter their fourth year of farming, but the farm land has been in Lewis’ family for four generations.

The farm was originally owned by her great-grandfather and was handed down to her grandfather and then her dad.

Homesweet Farms outside of Loris supplies to area farmers markets and to Horry Georgetown Technical College.

“My dad’s not a farmer, so he was going to rent the farm out after my grandparents passed away,” said Lewis. “We didn’t want that, so we started diving in vegetables here and there. And we really enjoy it. Right now, we’re just on a learning curve; we’re experimenting with all different varieties of things just to see what we’re good at growing.”

Growing up, Lewis helped on the farm during summers but never liked it.

“I wanted to get away from it as fast as I could,” she said.

But while studying at Coastal Carolina, she was required to do an internship and chose the Clemson Extension office in Conway.

“My degree is in health promotion so it’s really nutrition and education-based,” she said. “And I went there and learned about all the different programs they offer for farmers and for youth, teaching youth about agriculture, and that was it.”

Lewis works full-time at the extension office and considers the farm her “vacation.”

“There’s definitely a rising increase in demand for local produce, she said. “I see people coming into the extension office and I see people who want to start farming that have no background at all and I guess they’ve just picked on the popularity of the farmers market and local produce. They think there’s a big need for it so we have more young farmers, and new farmers starting.”

According to Lewis, there’s a big difference between local crops and the produce that’s available at local big-box retailers.

“The more miles it travels, the less nutrients it has, the older it gets, the less nutrients it has, but there’s definitely a difference in taste,” she said.

The farm can also grow more varieties of certain crops such as pattypan squash, which is saucer-shaped and comes in several colors.

“That was one of our specialties this year and we sold them to a few different restaurants,” said Lewis.

Occasionally, the farm will have an excess of a certain crop and HGTC is usually willing to buy.

“They’ll contact me and be like ‘Miracle, what do you have coming in this week that you have too much of?’ ” she said. “And sometimes they’ll take it all.”

Bonaparte himself occasionally visits the farm in addition to talking to area farmers at local farmers markets.

“Joe (Bonaparte) came out one day, and last year we had onions out in the back field, and Joe told me about a bloomin’ onion that he had made with an onion blossom,” said Lewis. “And I had never head of them. I started selling to Rivertown Bistro after that. It was just the blossom off an onion and they deep-fried them and sold them as an appetizer.”

“A full-circle community”

The Rivertown Bistro, owned by Darren Smith, first opened in 1994 in Conway.

The restaurant employs several HGTC culinary arts students and sources lots of its produce from local farms including Sweet Water Farms.

“When I moved to Conway, I rented my restaurant before I purchased it,” said Smith. “And the gentleman I rented it from was also a farmer.”

Smith said he started building relationships with other farmers and eventually met Miracle Lewis.

“She’s fantastic,” he said. “They bring us all kinds of beautiful heirloom melons, zucchini, squash, the flowers from they’re plants, tomatoes, sweet corn, okra, potatoes, the list goes on and on. It’s really the backbone of our seasonal cuisine.”

The meats and proteins generally stay the same, said Smith, but local seasonal produce drives the menu.

Smith echoes Lewis and Bonaparte when talking about the benefits of local produce compared to crops that have been shipped from far away.

“No. 1, it tastes better,” he said. “Number two, it reduces our carbon footprint as far as the fossil fuels that it takes to ship the stuff. I guess most importantly, I need produce to serve at my restaurant, the farmer that’s right across the street from me needs somebody to buy the produce so that supports their farm, people in our community need to eat, so they’re eating with me. It’s really a full-circle community relying on one another and it happens to be a perfect harmony.”

The school is giving away up to $400,000 in scholarship funds to students taking part in eligible career education programs.

Christian Boschult, 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian

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