Commune’s Cream of the CROP
Commune restaurant’s newly launched nonprofit education program is a win-win for students and diners with a passion for good food and sustainable living
When 21-year-old Beatriz Balderas, mentor for the new Norfolk-based nonprofit CROP Foundation culinary education and agricultural program, dreamed up a recent dessert special of brown butter carrot ice cream with parsley cake and rose custard, she was drawing on her roots, literally.
Near the tiny village in Mexico where Balderas spent her early childhood, there was a local farmer who sold ice cream on the street made with fresh ingredients from his farm—including carrots. Balderas decided to pair her version of this “nutty, sweet and delicious” cold confection with a bright green sponge cake and floral custard—the latter a nod to her affection for Mediterranean cuisine.
In this case, the carrots came straight from the soil of Van Dessel Farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and would find their way to a beautifully plated presentation for a special dinner event at Commune Norfolk, where CROP has been up and running for a little less than a year. It’s just the sort of culinary ingenuity and exploration CROP founder and Portsmouth native Kip Poole envisions for his students, who now help run the popular farm-to-table restaurant’s NEON District location (the other is in Virginia Beach).
Balderas became one of Poole’s star pupils when he established CROP about six years ago in Delaware. Though Balderas spoke some English when she moved to the U.S. at the age of 10, she found herself in a new place with an unfamiliar culture, lacking confidence in her ability to communicate and connect with others. That was until she found CROP and Poole, whose passion for food, community and “finding the best in every student” bubbles over like a boiling pot—especially when he brags about the successes of his “li’l chefs.”
“I always describe it as being in a little box, and he destroyed that box and made me come out,” Balderas remembers. “Kip made me realize that I wanted to pursue food and cooking, and I just fell in love with all it, and CROP was such a big part of that.”
Balderas went on to receive a scholarship from CROP that allowed her to pursue both her culinary and bachelor’s degrees from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, among the most prestigious institutions of its kind in the country, and to spend time cooking with famed chefs like Michael Solomonov of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia.
Yet, with a world of gastronomical career possibilities in front of her, Balderas decided to pick up and move to Coastal Virginia so she could work with Poole and his team and be a part of nurturing the next generation of students at a new iteration of CROP (short for Creating Opportunities).
Poole’s professional background in both the culinary arts and education, along with a natural affinity for connecting with young people, led him to first find success with the unique CROP concept at Delaware’s William Penn High School. The school received a Head Start grant, part of which they invested in farmland and a kitchen. Poole developed CROP, which gives students hands-on experience and insight into not only cooking techniques, farming and locally sourced ingredients but nearly every aspect of the industry.
“We went from a dirt floor having 30 kids in a culinary class to a year later we had 420 students in culinary program and a seven-acre farm,” Poole recalls. “The kids grew everything, we put it all back into the culinary program and had a restaurant in the school.”
When fate and life brought Poole back to Virginia, he quickly connected with Commune’s Kevin Jamison, who also owns New Earth Farm in Pungo and Prosperity Kitchen and Pantry in Virginia Beach’s ViBe District. And, after Poole’s two-year stint as the Executive Chef for Virginia Beach Public Schools, Poole and Jamison decided the time was right—smack in the middle of the COVID pandemic—to bring CROP back to life. And Commune’s Norfolk location seemed like the perfect spot. Poole took on the role of the restaurant’s executive chef and set out find his first “crop” of local students for the nonprofit education program that would now feed it in more ways than one.
Fast forward seven months in what has been an incredibly challenging time for restaurants in general, and Commune seems to be going strong. During a recent midweek lunch at the Norfolk location, a steady stream of happy, socially distanced patrons noshed on menu faves like the Big Backyard Salad with roasted veggies, chèvre, sourdough croutons and creamy herb dressing, and the Brisket Bowl with Carolina Gold fried rice, sweet potato puree, cabbage slaw, pickles, smoked peanut salsa and sunny side up fried egg.
Many diners who have grown to crave Commune’s gloriously colorful, bursting-with-seasonal flavor food and sustainable sensibility may not even realize that the love and care on their plates is now thanks in part to Poole’s students and alumni, including Brent Hillard, who graduated from the CROP program and went on to become the sous chef at Commune’s Virginia Beach location. The menus at both locations remain similar with an unflinching commitment to using local ingredients and Virginia-made products.
On any given day at Commune Norfolk, CROP students might be making collard greens for a new sandwich that one of them created, notes Poole, mixing up a hot sauce with dried peppers preserved from a nearby farm, cleaning a whole fish or discovering the patient art of curing prosciutto. They may find themselves designing a menu, reimagining tableware for the dining room, learning front-of-the-house guest services or navigating the ins and outs of managing restaurant finances.
“So, we are just really creating a real deal institution where it’s not just books and desks,” Poole explains. “They come here, and they learn the culinary aspect of it, and they realize that it’s not just a hot, crazy kitchen but a place that we do care, and we’ll take the time to show you how to cut instead of just saying ‘I need that case of carrots cut!’ But, then they are also learning every aspect of how to run a successful restaurant, and it’s awesome to see and awesome to hear.”
The CROP program is set on a seasonal cycle with flexible hours for students to balance school and family obligations, but participants must complete 400 hours at the restaurant, 100 hours on a nearby farm—typically New Earth but Poole is looking at partnership with others—and another 100 hours volunteering in the community or in the bakery at Prosperity. They currently have about 10 students enrolled in the program, ranging in age from 14 to 23.
Among them is 17-year-old Reese Bellstewart, a student at Heritage High School in Newport News, who Poole refers to as nothing short of “amazing.” Bellstewart, who is autistic, says it was his mother who recognized that the CROP program might be a good fit for him. “My mom watches me cook, and I always wanted to cook at a restaurant ever since I was little, so she hooked me up with Kip and we just got to know each other, and we connected.”
Bellstewart says that the experience has opened his eyes and tastebuds to many new and skills and flavors—he tried shrimp for the first time but hasn’t graduated yet to oysters—and he feels like he has joined a family there. It has also helped him with situations he previously found difficult—the distractions of a noisy, busy kitchen, for example. Now, he explains, he just pops an earplug in one ear and keeps the other one open for instruction from Poole or other mentors to get the vegetables prepped and the sauces made without missing a beat. And, if a beat is missed, there’s always someone to lend a hand.
During a recent visit, Bellstewart was working on his biscuit making technique, sharpening his measuring skills and getting comfortable with the French concept of mise en place—or making sure all your ingredients and tools are where they should be before you start cooking. Bellstewart hopes to use the money he receives as a stipend from CROP each season of the program to purchase his own smoker and start making steak—Poole is quick to suggest brisket as the perfect cut of meat for smoking—for his family.
“I am just very passionate about these guys,” says Poole, “they are doing such a good job.” Though Poole notes he already gets calls from restaurants looking to hire his graduates and has connections with other educational institutions, he hopes to expand and formalize the CROP program in ways that would allow it to be implemented and officially recognized elsewhere.
“So, we are now in not only a restaurant but an institution, and our goal is to offer curriculum that will soon one day be worth credentials at college. So, you can be here, you can do culinary or you can walk over to TCC and say I did the program with CROP, and that’s thousands of dollars worth of school.”
Poole likens his students to heirloom seeds, just waiting to sprout and show their unique talents to the world, an idea eloquently stated on a recent CROP Foundation social media post:
“What is an heirloom? The term is usually applied to fruit, flower or vegetable and are open-pollinated—meaning that unlike hybrids, seeds you collect from one year will produce plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plant. At CROP, we collect passionate youth and teach them to continue to carry on their skills through passing it to next generation of students. This is heirloom! This is Commune.”