Where does our food actually come from? Do we know where the romaine lettuce in our salad was picked? Who tossed it together and put it on the plate? Do we want to know? These questions deserve answers, yet so many people and places don’t want to comment.

Jason Sidle, Director of Operations at Coltivare, wants diners to know, learn and share exactly where the food on their plate comes from and who puts it there. Coltivare, located on South Cayuga Street, places a massive emphasis on seasonality and community. With a menu centered around these two elements and a kitchen staffed with students, everything at Coltivare is intended to give back to the community in some way. 

Sidle shared the inspiration behind Coltivare, his personal goals, as well as his goals for the restaurant that he "runs 50 laps around on a busy night."

Many people know Coltivare serves an educational purpose in its connection with Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3), but many don't know the extent of this. Sidle explained that the restaurant wouldn't exist without the academic institution, as Coltivare is TC3's very own restaurant. The  culinary academic curriculum is the fastest-growing program at the college. The school's culinary arts major enrolls 60 students annually, with 50 more on a competitive waitlist. Students graduate with both a degree and practical experience. Class time is spent testing recipes in Coltivare’s lab, which has the equipment equivalent to what would be in 10 kitchens, while dinner service is spent rotating jobs in the restaurant, ranging from bartending to hosting and serving.

As enriching as this sounds, Sidle mentioned that there are challenges along the way. Specifically, students can struggle when comparing theory taught in textbooks to real-life experiences. This is where Sidle comes in. As students read about the classical techniques, Sidle spends a great deal of time translating this into a practical approach in a restaurant where the staff serves up to 200 customers a night.

As Director of Operations, Sidle's job consists of looking at the  long-term state of the restaurant. A typical day involves administration tasks in the morning, followed by meetings in the afternoon before monitoring the dinner service and preparation. It sounds hectic, but he said, “I couldn’t sit at a desk, and I love that Coltivare isn’t that.”

Sidle has always loved to teach and learn simultaneously. “Just because I’m the paid professional doesn’t mean that I don’t learn,” he said. Leading by example is a big component to his work, but he never wants to be the person “sitting around telling others what to do.” It’s Sidle's personal mission to touch the lives of family, friends, co-workers and students.

He lives for the chaos and adrenaline that comes with being in the food industry. A favorite story Sidle shared was from  Coltivare's grand opening in December 2014. As the president of the college was about to introduce Sidle and the rest of the management team, Sidle was just getting the final approval from the building inspector, while simultaneously ordering liquor for the first night of service and putting on his tie. He ran out into the event just as his name was called, and not one of the 600 people in the room had any idea of the chaos behind the curtain. Looking back and laughing, he said, “No one gets anything out of an easy night.”

People in Ithaca know good food. There is no doubt about it. With more restaurants per capita than New York City and 65 farms in the county, people understand the value of a quality meal. Coltivare fits right into this environment with its “farm-to-bistro” mantra. Its focus is to be hyper-local in an industry where farm-to-table is the latest trend. Industry standards define the concept as at least 20% of ingredients being from within 300 miles. Coltivare gets 60% of its food from Tompkins County alone.

With a heightened care for the quality of ingredients, Coltivare needs to work closely with farms in the area, including TC3’s own farm. Coltivare has even hosted networking events with farmers and restaurant owners. The restaurant's goal is to source as much food from the area as possible. But, with limited resources, that isn’t always feasible.

Sidle deconstructed a Spring menu item, the maple-glazed chicken, which features sap taken from trees on the TC3 farm. Everything on the plate comes from the county, except for the chicken. And, everything that makes the dish unique is locally-sourced.

Sidle said he hopes that the farm-to-table movement sticks around longer than any other food trend. He believes that this is a way for people to get back to how they should be eating: focusing on where food comes from over convenience, which benefits the environment, economy and individual. Skeptics blame the price tag that comes with fresh quality, but Sidle emphasized that people in Ithaca prefer to know where the eggs in their omelets come from.

Sidle's strives to educate the Ithaca community on Coltivare’s mission. He has found it challenging to tell the entire story without forgetting any details. Ideally, he wants others to look beyond the restaurant and see that Coltivare is education at its core. Every dollar spent on a meal goes toward supporting education, whether it's for a student’s chef coat or their textbook. 

Sidle believes it's important to support education in a town like Ithaca. To tell Coltivare's story, he’s focusing on getting the word out in any way possible. Upcoming projects include posting bios of students and farmers around the restaurant to show diners who grew the potatoes being eaten. By putting a story behind the creation of the meal, the cycle of education continues, making everyone involved a better community member. At the end of the day, that’s all Sidle could ask for.