A taste for transparency

Organization recognizes great restaurants that are doing good

PIzzaiolo Jose Rodriguez, left, prepares food in Basta’s wood-fired oven.
Susan France

America turns its hungry eyes to you, Boulder and Denver… yet again. 

America has looked to us in the past for leadership on issues of culinary integrity. Think about the craft brew renaissance that launched and headquartered here. Consider the nascent natural foods industry that blossomed in Colorado, along with the health-focused fast-casual dining boom.

Now, the critical issue is transparency in the food we eat, especially at restaurants and other eating destinations.

Hooray for sustainability! We heart local produce. It feels good to support restaurants that seem to be doing the right thing. But, there is a problem: How do you define “transparency?” There has been no way to tell if a bistro/trattoria is walking the talk or just sharing feel-good, farm-to-table buzzwords on a chalkboard menu.

That’s what was bothering Boulder’s Sara Geiben Brito two years ago when she co-founded Good Food 100. She wanted to recognize restaurants for more than chefs, wine lists, ambience and service.

“It’s hard to know where you want to go with sustainability if you don’t know where you are today. We were frustrated with the lack of data and metrics,” Brito says.

Denver’s nonprofit Good Food 100 publishes an annual list of chefs, restaurants and food companies making a direct impact by purchasing locally and sustainably, and following practices to control food waste.

“They choose to use their dollars for the right things and support the local farmers and their own employees,” Brito says.

The Good Food 100 is notable because it applies to fast casual spots, college dining programs, grocers and caterers, not just fine dining establishments. Our food system won’t improve unless the establishments that feed most of us most of the time shift to a more sustainable path. “We vote every time we decide where to eat, where to spend our dining dollars,” Brito says.

Boulder’s Disruptive Early Adopters

As it turned out, Boulder and Denver are perfect places to launch a dining revolution… or at least a reinvention.

Of the 125 U.S. eateries on the 2018  Good Food 100 list, 40 are Colorado restaurants. The 12 Boulder restaurants and food operations earning the honors are Basta, Blackbelly, Salt, Santo, Snooze, The Kitchen, PMG, Wild Standard, Fresh Thymes, Next Door, the Boulder Valley School District School Food Project, Fortuna Chocolate and CU’s Boulder Campus Dining Services.

“There is a tradition here of challenging conventional ways of doing business. I think some of it is that ‘Wild West’ mentality and activist spirit in Colorado chefs,” Brito says.

Unlike New York, San Francisco or Chicago, the state’s culinary culture is very young. “When you are a new food culture, you can say we’re going to change the rules,” Brito says.

The Boulder/Denver dining scene is also unusually collaborative. “There is such a community spirit. They want everyone to succeed. I think it started in the brewing community and the chefs in Colorado took their cue,” she says.

The decision to stage the nation’s premier food sustainability event, Slow Food Nations, for the third year in a row in Denver, July 20-21, supports Brito’s view that Colorado is an epicenter of good food activity and pushing back against old-school practices.

Making James Beard Transparent

When the stodgy James Beard Foundation went looking for help with transparency it found the ideal partner in the Good Food 100. The national organization is best known for presenting the annual James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the dining world.

“We are excited about the connection to James Beard’s network of chefs. The collaboration provides a national stamp of credibility for the program,” Brito says. Long known for its focus on upscale fine dining, the organization now wants to build a bigger tent, welcoming more diverse eateries and dealing with environmental and labor issues. 

Brito hopes that the connection with the James Beard foundation sends a signal to restaurateurs that transparency is not a niche interest. ”It’s a mainstream concern,” especially with younger diners. “Millennials want to literally and figuratively eat their values,” Brito says.

Food for the General Good

The application for consideration in the Good Food 100 list is not a fun
questionnaire to fill out; it’s more like doing corporate taxes with dozens of detailed questions.

“In the first year we focused on sustainability. In year two, the #MeToo movement hit. We added questions around labor practices and food justice issues, questions like, ‘Do you provide tipped and non-tipped employees with health insurance?’” Brito says. The idea isn’t to penalize restaurants but to support those doing the right thing.

There is no cost to apply. The 2019 deadline is May 31. goodfood100restaurants.org

Local Food News

How We Grow, a documentary about a group of young farmers in the Roaring Fork Valley, shows Feb. 22, Chautauqua Community House. chautauqua.com. … Sign up for a season of veggies from 13 local farms including Monroe, Aspen Moon and Red Wagon Feb. 25 at the Boulder County Farmers Market CSA Fair at Sanitas Brewing. Sign up at the event and get a free beer. … Plan ahead: Colorado Jewish Food Fest, April 7, Boulder JCC. boulderjcc.org. … Only 45 cooking days until the Boulder County Farmers Market opens for the season in Boulder and Longmont. 

Taste of the Week

Nobody expects a slider with cabbage pancake buns, but that’s the beauty of the “burgers” at Osaka’s in Boulder. The classy fillings range from chicken and sliced pork to fried cod filet and three mushrooms in butter ponzu sauce. My favorite is the brunch-worthy sukiyaki beef version with onions, asparagus, sweet soy sauce and a fried egg between cabbage buns. The cabbage or gluten-free kale buns — repurposed okonomiyaki — don’t crumble. I think the shredded cabbage functions like re-bar in the pancake to maintain structural integrity.

Words to Chew On

“This whole idea of farm-to-table today is just absurd. Throughout history, food has been grown on a farm and brought to a table. So, is farm-to-table really new? That’s just the absurdity of some of the definitions.” — Chef Thomas Keller

John Lehndorff is a former James Beard Foundation Awards judge and voter. He hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU. Podcasts: news.kgnu.org/category/radio-nibbles.