Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

BRATTLEBORO — Graduates of this year's Strolling of the Heifers Farm-to-Table Apprenticeship Program made "crazy food," according to chef and lead instructor Tristan Toleno.

"We went right at it," he said Monday at the program graduation at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden. "We just went for things that were hopefully mind-opening but also skill-developing. But really, it was about us getting into a rhythm, of getting into the kitchen, of holding our knives correctly."

Toleno said with a smile that he would not pick on the students during the ceremony, but that's the sort of tough love some of them came to enjoy.

"Would you rather get picked on or would you rather get yelled at?" Damon Tier, one of the seven graduates, said. "I'd rather get picked on."

Tier said he and Toleno shared "a mutual funny relationship," where they could joke with each other. He called Toleno "a wonderful teacher" and "a very loving person."

The ceremony started with Art Styles, another graduate, telling attendees about the different cheeses they could enjoy before the main courses.

"I'm really excited to be able to do this," he said.

Joe Green, who collaborates with Grafton Village Cheese and is the owner of Cheese Ronin, taught Styles about cheeses during a portion of the classes. Styles is now fielding questions on the types available at the Brattleboro Food Co-op and Grafton Village Cheese.

Toleno told attendees they would be presented with "a kind of smorgasbord of different things," including potato corn leek chowder, warm roasted chicken salad, smoked mac and cheddar cheese, chocolate chip cookies and a couple dessert items.

"We ate a lot of things people were uncomfortable with in the beginning," Toleno said. "There was some stuff spit out."

Toleno said he felt privileged to be part of the program, which is in its third year. He sees people "advancing their lives" through the classes. The idea is to match graduates with local employers.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

Orly Munzing, founder and executive director at Strolling of the Heifers, called the program "incredibly successful."

"We're just so proud of this class," she said. "We couldn't do it without all the partners we have."

The list includes the Windham Foundation, Vermont Department of Labor Workforce Development Division, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Brattleboro Retreat, Sandy River Charitable Foundation, Voc Rehab Vermont, Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs, Vermont Student Assistance Corporation and Creative Workforce Solutions.

"What a tremendous honor it is to congratulate all the graduates of this wonderful program," said Cindy Del Gatto, senior business account manager at Creative Workforce Solutions. "This training is truly a collaboration of many individuals that all believe opportunity comes when a community offers hope and encouragement."

Toleno, who has worked in the food services industry for 25 years, said the program is always a highlight of his year. It allows him to tie together the policy and support systems he works on in Montpelier as a state representative with the community at home. Toleno, a Democrat, represents the Windham-2-3 District.

"I think I'm unique in having the opportunity to have a front line program to deliver those services and be a partner in people's learning," he said. "I fall in love with the class, even those who don't make it to the end. I fall in love with everyone."

Toleno held back tears before asking students — Styles, Tier, Catherine Favreau, Erik Noonan, Jonathan McAuliffe, Julian Isenberg, and Michael Smith — to stand up to be recognized. They "took some big risks to be here," Toleno said.

Vicki Friedman, volunteer coordinator at Strolling of the Heifers, said the graduation is also "very emotional" for her. She recalled friendships formed, mistakes made, floors cleaned and eggs flipped.

"These are my kids," she said. "I called them my kids and it's been a great 12 weeks for all of us. We got to know each other. I'm sure I'll be in their dreams. I'm sure, because you've been in my dreams."

The students had passion for food right from the start, Friedman said, encouraging them to come to the River Garden to share stories and techniques learned in the field. They have been working at places such as The Marina, Restless Rooster, True North Granola, Grafton Village Cheese, Brattleboro Food Co-op and The New England House.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.