Freshtoberfest empowers CLE youth to rock the turntables—and the chef's table

Fresh beats and even fresher bites are the name of the game at Freshtoberfest—where Cleveland youth battle it out hip-hop style for culinary domination. This year marked the third annual installment of the event, which was held at Tri-C's Hospitality Management Center last Friday.

Meshing hip-hop and horticulture, the "youth garden battle" competition teamed nine youth gardens with eight local chefs to design a dish inspired by their own ingredients. Pairings included Mary Bethune Elementary with Molly Murray of Wake Robin Fermented Food; Greencorps Midtown and Slavic Village Learning Farms with Brian Doyle of Café Avalaun; and Iowa Maple with Shirelle Boyd of Mustard Seed Market + Café. 

The event's format consisted of a round-robin tasting, followed by hip-hop performances and freestyle rap battles (with a live band providing the backdrop) and an awards ceremony. Judging criteria included taste, presentation, and educational impact—as determined by a 7-person panel from Edible Magazine, the Plain Dealer, Lake Erie Ink, and more. Led by chef Scott Wehe, Refuge Garden took home the top overall prize for its eggplant shell tacos.

"Our goal is to support some of the youth gardens around the city and use our hip-hop edge with hip-hop music and the whole battle style of competition," explains founder David "Dee Jay Doc" Harrill (whom Fresh Water dubbed the "Fresh Prince of Glenville" back in 2012). "We want to energize youth and increase their motivation to grow, cook, and eat healthy food."

Freshtoberfest is an offshoot of Harrill's non-profit Refresh Collective, which offers a range of programs designed to empower and educate local youth. A long-time resident of Glenville, Harrill first founded the organization in 2011 as a way to "reach out to kids in my neighborhood to share my skill set as a hip-hop artist, producer, and recording engineer and help kids create their own songs."

From that desire grew Fresh Force, a workforce development program; Fresh Gear, a cheeky hip-hop clothing line; and Fresh Camp, an annual summer camp that started first as a hip-hop intensive but later morphed to include both urban music and urban gardens.

"While doing our hip-hop camps, we saw a lot of gardens popping up in our neighborhood," explains Harrill. "I live on the same street as Mary Bethune [Elementary], and we ended up helping build their garden—it grew from there. Kids come because it's a hip-hop camp, but at the end, it's often the gardening [aspect] that they say was their favorite part."

For Harrill, it's a natural marriage between good eats and good beats. "Fresh food enriches our lives and makes us healthier, and so does music," he says. "We try to put the whole experience together and unite with those already trying to engage kids in growing food. They say that Cleveland rocks, right? So we better bring the music into what we do."

Mic drop.

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.