Dec 13, 2011 | News

Roadhouse Chef Alex Young Cooks Up a Better American Diet

Dexter, MI‚—Although his “day job” as chef and managing partner of Zingerman’s Roadhouse restaurant keeps him plenty busy, Alex Young has always found time to pursue new passions. In 2006, after experiencing the thrill of serving his restaurant guests vegetables that he grew in his home garden, Alex launched into farming with Zingerman’s Cornman Farms. Today, Cornman produces much of the produce served at the Roadhouse and raises livestock for much of the meat that reaches guests plates as well. These days, Alex has a new passion that he is working into his daily schedule: introducing schoolkids to new and different foods that are full-flavored, and sustainably grown and raised, and helping them learn the value and fun and of healthy eating.

“My dream is to get all processed food out of our school lunches,” says Alex. “There are lots ways we can improve our kids’ diets in schools.” Alex first saw the impact he could have on kids’ diets when he joined his son for “bring your parent to lunch” day at school. “I thought we could do more to get fresh, seasonal food on the menu,” he remembers. “As someone who grows food and raises livestock, the key for me is building relationships with the people in my community to help get the word out that there’s a better way to do this and then to help make that happen.” Getting the kids to try different foods can be a challenge too. Often they will walk right past the healthier choices in the cafeteria and choose something that their parents would rather they didn’t. “It’s all about educating the kids to stop and think about what they are putting into their bodies,” says Alex.

Timing can be a problem too. Schools often schedule lunch right before a recess. Rather than take the time to relax over nourishing food, kids rush through their meals so they can go play. “Perfectly natural reaction,” notes Alex. “But, let’s work on altering schedules so lunch doesn’t have to be rushed.”

In recent years, Alex has embarked on an ambitious plan to make a change in his community. He works with the Farm to School program in Ann Arbor giving talks on the health and environmental benefits of fresh vegetables; the importance of organic and non-genetically-modified foods; and the effect of “food miles” and the impact of time from harvest to consumption on nutrition.

He also works in the kitchens at the Chelsea and Dexter schools with the cafeteria staff preparing lunches for the students and bringing traditional but new (to the students) flavors for them to try. “Taste,” Alex points out, “is the most important thing to change kids’ habits. They really do enjoy preparing the food and learning its history, but getting them to experience the fuller flavor of truly grass-fed beef or the huge taste in a just-picked tomato—that’s when the light bulb goes off and you know there’s some progress in changing the way they approach food.”

Alex uses his Roadhouse restaurant as well to get the message out. He hosts dinners there and at local schools to raise money to build gardening programs in the Dexter/Chelsea schools, and his annual fundraiser dinner for the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation raises money for farm field trips in local schools. Alex hosts many such field trips himself at his own Cornman Farms in Dexter.

Currently Alex sits on the board of the Wellness Committee for the Dexter/Chelsea public schools. “This is where I can really develop the partnerships necessary to change our approach to eating in our community.”

Though he’s devoted to his family, farm, and restaurant, Alex doesn’t have any plans to slow down his education mission. “Right now the calendar has 10 school or library events through December. And, I’m sure it’ll pick right up after the school break.”