Plowing a new field

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


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

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.