A Southeast Asian chapter of The Culinary Institute of America tours Monterey County’s conscious food stars.

Super Fresh: Casanova’s Johnny De Vivo crafts beet-root “ravioli” with enoki and goat cheese filling, topped with caraway crumbs, fennel, carrot tops, edible flowers and a black truffle vinaigrette.”

In Singapore, Ivan Chong tells me, “The camera always get to eat first.” I smile instinctively, as this applies to my California dining – as well as to increasing avid food lovers everywhere in the U.S. But there are all sorts of things we’re doing here that aren’t remotely as common in The Republic of Singapore. Or anywhere.

Which was why Chong and 41 fellow students from the Culinary Institute of America’s Singapore campus were visiting California: to learn from our unique approaches to food, wine and agriculture, and have an adventure of a lifetime while they’re at it.

Erin Fogg of Spoke Consulting in Carmel organized the Monterey portion of their trip, dubbing this two-day leg “Sea to Soil.” The Weekly tagged along and fulfilled some local epicurean – and educational – dreams too, as the tour was overflowing with pioneering work, geniune passion and artistic flair.

We started at MEarth Hilton Bialek Habitat, where CIA students helped select beautiful fennel bulbs from the garden located just a few hops and skips away from the shiny new LEED platinum educational kitchen. Talented, young chefs Johnny de Vivo and James Anderson from Casanova and La Bicyclette, respectively, then whipped up two dishes: a shaved raw beet ravioli with an enoki and goat cheese mousse filling and a shaved artichoke salad with a white balsamic wild flower vinaigrette. And the crew from Singapore knew more about farm to table and ecoliteracy than they had before.

The scenic bus ride to Hahn Family Winery was nothing compared to the exhilarating ATV rides through the hilly vineyard. While the students enjoyed a barrel tasting led by Winemaker Greg Freeman and a vine time with Director of Viticulture Andy Mitchell – which included word falcons are used to deter other birds from eating their grapes – Chef Dyon Foster prepared an elaborate tasting menu paired with four varietals. The breakthrough here: Not only is Hahn SIP (Sustainability in Practice) Certified and a member of the Monterey Area Green Business Program, but with the help of their in-house chef and his predecessor Brian Overhauser, has created a cutting-edge winery food program.

Up next:Rancho Cielo in Salinas. If you’re not familiar with this place – or simply want to see good being done on behalf of local hard-luck youngsters – then head up the hill to an amazing sunset dinner Friday nights. The food is prepared by at-risk students (some of whom are referred to the ranch by the probation department. In addition to vocational training, the students also work toward diplomas. Grilled Monterey Farms artichoke proved a first for one Singapore student: I whispered to him it was OK to spit out the leaf. I got a bit choked up with pride while clapping for the student chefs. The foreign chefs were similarly inspired by the trailblazing training.

Day two started on a brisk morning at the end of Wharf Two with Alan Lovewell, one of the two pioneers of Local Catch Monterey Bay, who explained that he wanted to help local fisherman reconnect with the community since 90 percent of fish served in Monterey is imported. Now 400 members of his CSA-style weekly fish pick-up program help support local fishermen. I became his 401st customer that evening.

A short walk down the bike path, the students ended up at the Monterey Bay Aquarium ecstatic for two free hours and photo ops of a lifetime. But equally aesthetically pleasing was the lunch at Cindy’s Waterfront. The newly revamped restaurant rolled out an amuse bouche of Swank Farms tomato gazpacho followed by three courses, including a tomba tuna poke and Monterey Bay wild king salmon atop a bed of spring vegetable succotash. The dessert was Cindy Pawlcyn’s “famous” flourless chocolate cake – naturally gluten free (thank the food gods).

After a study session on the Seafood Watch Program it made sense to hit Passionfish for dinner. Our crowd dominated more than half the restaurant, which filled up to capacity within minutes of opening. Many locals know Passionfish is supremely dedicated to sustainable seafood – and we basked in smoked salmon “ceviche,” crab-avocado salad and sea scallops with savory rice custard. Fewer know they dish some of the best desserts in the area too: Our fourth course was the family-style Meyer lemon panna cotta with a strawberry-vanilla compote and – my favorite – a gluten-free chocolate truffle torte with passion fruit syrup. The stunning seafood and enthusiastic crew provide ample evidence why “passion” belongs in the name.

Two days, endless inspiration. The CIA group was understandably more blown away than me – a reminder how easy it can be to take artichokes, a world-class aquarium, fresh sustainable fish, organic sources, school gardens and local wines for granted. I might have gained a pound, but I also added a big dose of pride knowing we live in an area packed with brilliant minds whose ideas represent templates to aid the environment, fisheries, troubled youth and education through forward-thinking food.

For more morsels on each local agency and their ongoing good work, visit www.mcweekly.com/edible

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