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Thursday, June 16,2011

Plowing a new field

Owners of Leaf, Aji take to farming to bring fresh produce to your table

By Clay Fong

At his father’s urging, Lenny Martinelli began his culinary calling as a teenage dishwasher at Pearl Street’s now-defunct New York Deli. After working this job for a while, he asked his Dad for his weekly allowance. His father pointed out that since the younger Martinelli was now more financially self-sufficient, he no longer required his dad’s cash. While he may have lost his allowance, Lenny gained something more valuable, namely the roots of an enduring restaurant career.

“We’ve never had a plan,” says Martinelli, a former architecture student, regarding restaurant strategy.

But the story of Three Leaf Concepts, the collection of eateries owned by Lenny and wife Sara, is rife with examples of things serendipitously falling into place. Self-taught painter Lenny met Sara, also an artist, in the early ’90s when both worked at the Boulder Broker before they took the reins of Naropa University’s cafe.

A few years later, they won the contract to run the Dushanbe Tea House, in part because Naropa’s president was a fan who sat on that landmark’s oversight committee. Today, their portfolio also includes the Latin American Aji and vegetarian Leaf in Boulder as well as “funky country” favorite The Huckleberry and Zucca Italian Ristorante in downtown Louisville.

Currently, the Martinellis are chasing after a new field. They’ve started their own organic farm in East Boulder County to supply their own produce to their restaurants. While Lenny freely admits “there’s nothing sensible about starting a farm,” an assessment of the Martinellis’ history makes this move seem logical, if not inevitable.

In the beginning, buying fruits and vegetables for the Naropa Café was a straightforward task. Martinelli made regular runs down to Denver and filled his pickup with $50 worth of produce from the Denargo Market, basing the menu on what he brought back.

However, the Denargo Market closed, and the Martinellis’ growing restaurant family inevitably demanded bringing on more local food suppliers.

For example, you’ll see that Zucca features gnocchi paired with local sausage, while bread from nearby Udi’s appears at Huckleberry. Leaf, which fulfilled Lenny’s dream of opening a vegetarian restaurant, features a wine list spotlighting biodynamic, sustainable and organic wines, including Colorado Western Slope vintages.

But serving local ingredients isn’t necessarily good enough for Martinelli. He cites many advantages to do-it-yourself farming. Growing their own food helps keep their restaurant prices down, and there’s real value in having a deeper, more respectful connection to ingredients. But perhaps an equally important driver is his contagious relish to take on new challenges.

“You can’t tell me I can’t do something,” he says. “My nature is to grow it, build it myself. I want to grow my own food.”

The Martinellis recently began working their 10-acre spread near the intersection of Highway 287 and South Public Road. A former dairy, it now produces Russian kale, spinach, tomatoes, peppers and zucchini. Zucchini finds its way onto Three Leaf menus as fritters, the star of a parmigiana, or as part of a Naropa Café combination plate.

Farm microgreens find their way into all the restaurants, and the Martinellis’ arugula is a salad staple. Braising greens, such as mustard, chard and baby bok choy, are another part of the bounty, and you’re likely to find these leafy vegetables as a side accompanying Zucca’s poultry entrees.

Future plans for the farm include planting greenhouse greens that can take root in cold weather months. Extending the growing season with winter squash, beets and potatoes is also an option. For now, Martinelli is rolling up his sleeves performing such critical work as picking up fertilizer, a task echoing his past produce runs, and amending the clay and sand-laden soil.

Compost from the restaurants is valuable in addressing this issue. The Martinellis use their Louisville home garden as a test bed for their farm techniques. Lenny recalls how certified herbalist Sara warned him there was something out in the yard one night. Martinelli ventured outside to discover that the ground was vibrating, a disconcerting sight. Upon closer examination, he realized the soil was teeming with earthworms experiencing a population surge nourished by the rich restaurant compost.

Getting others interested in the farm is a priority. In addition to creating a buzz among restaurant employees about this new venture, the Martinellis are also involving family. For example, their 11-year-old daughter helps out with the planting and harvesting of microgreens at home. One suspects that her allowance will soon run out, as father and daughter discover together that planting the greens close together yields more produce while requiring less water.

After getting the growing operations dialed in, there are many long-term possibilities for the farm. Perhaps they’ll be a farm-to-table restaurant and perhaps even an event. Whatever happens, it’ll fit in with Lenny’s philosophy.

“We’re interested in doing food at a good, fresh and exciting level,” he says.

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