Cultivating community

Stewardship of Dushanbe Teahouse inspires local restaurateurs


On July 28-29 world travelers and local lovers of exotic tastes will once again descend upon the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse for the 2012 Rocky Mountain Tea Festival. Before gathering around in celebration of the humble leaf, it is appropriate to acknowledge the local duo intent on bringing foreign tastes from farm to table and back again at the landmark restaurant and throughout the county.

When Boulder’s sister city of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, bestowed a custom-built traditional Persian tea house on Colorado 25 years ago, political and fiscal concerns tabled the construction of the building for nearly a decade.

Deliberations over using public money for the project and even nefarious Cold War rhetoric threatened to derail the process. After the city decided to lease the building for public use, a rigorous bidding process handed the reins of the building to Lenny and Sara Martinelli, local residents who had been partnering to help run Naropa Café on that university’s campus.

“It’s bigger than us,” Sara Martinelli says of their role tending to the building handcrafted by traditional artisans without the use of power tools. “We have a responsibility to be stewards of this community treasure that will almost certainly outlast us. We feel honored, blessed and incredibly fortunate to be the people who are in a position to be the stewards of the Teahouse right now.”

Her husband and fellow steward over their three children, three dogs, three cats and the progressively growing Three Leaf Concepts shares the sentiment. The management group they incorporated to oversee their burgeoning restaurant empire takes pride in operating an architectural icon in the heart of this well-traveled city. It also creates a heightened sense of awareness as a restaurant operator.

“Without complaint, I gladly accept my responsibility to make the Teahouse as best as it can be,” Lenny Martinelli says, adding that the restaurant is well-suited to the city. “People in Boulder are a highly educated community that has actually seen and experienced the world. This building, to me, is classic for Boulder. It’s got that exoticness. Being in front of the farmers’ market, being located in the heart of Boulder, it’s just a perfect fit.”

Finding a menu to perfectly fit the palate of residents with a sense of ownership over the local landmark while catering to out-of-town visitors led the Martinellis to go beyond the borders of the sister city while forgoing the formulaic tourist fare.

“We wanted to do Tajik food,” Lenny says, but other than plov, the rice-based national dish, and a few other specialties, “there’s really not a whole menu of foods that you can attach to the country.”

Lenny took his experience with world food at Naropa Café and the Sister City International ideal of bringing cultures together to create a menu that serves as a cultural touchstone for different cuisines of the world and a springboard for the couple’s own growth as business owners.

By incorporating their love of locally sourced goods and the Boulder community, the success of the Teahouse has allowed the Martinelli’s Three Leaf Concepts to open a number of food-related businesses over the years. It has given residents the ability to imbibe local bounty while sampling far-off flavors, and led Lenny and Sara to take the leap from farm-to-table advocates to full-fledged food cycle entrepreneurs.

The ground beside Coal Creek along Highway 285 and South Public Road in Lafayette is a hodgepodge of organic experimentation that has been known as Three Leaf Farm since 2011. The farm is the next logical leap for restaurateurs intent on providing true farm-to-table delivery. Tilled rows rife with vegetation and fresh eggs from 50 chickens go directly to the couple’s Boulder County restaurants.

This focus on growing their own food, as well as on conservation, recently got the Martinellis recognized by the Nature Conservancy. The Dushanbe Teahouse won a People’s Choice Nature’s Plate Award for favorite green restaurant in the Denver/Boulder area. The Teahouse beat out favorites WaterCourse, The Kitchen, Root Down and Three Leaf ’s own vegetarian niche eatery Leaf.

“We’re still figuring out how to do it,” Lenny says of bringing their version of “seed to plate” to fruition. “Now, we own all of this product coming off the farm. And in my constitution I cannot stand waste. I can’t tell nature to grow more slowly or grow faster, so we are actively changing our menus today to accommodate an abundance of some crops.”

The attitude that has allowed the Teahouse, one of the area’s top restaurant entities, and menus at Leaf neighbor Aji Latin American Cuisine on Pearl Street and The Huckleberry and Zucca Italian Ristorante on Main Street in Louisville to shift on the fly. By adapting to the garden item du jour, Three Leaf satisfies the tastes of local denizens while rigorously composting the waste for return to the ground that produced so many menu items.

“It only makes sense,” Lenny says.

“Because of the Teahouse, when we do a project we try to do authentic things. We like to bring tradition to a lot of our plates. [Getting a farm] just seems to be where we’ve fallen in our role as restaurateurs.”

For his partner, the benefits of doing things right resonate long after a headstrong leap into the unknown.

“A lot of it is being involved in the natural cycle,” Sara says. “For me it’s more about a deep spiritual nurturing of your soul when you work with foods from the seed all the way through the harvest, and you prepare it for guests, and they leave being nourished. That nourishing energy flows throughout the entire process. What we have found is a lot more depth with us being involved in the growing aspect of it. It may sound a little Boulder-y, but it’s true.”

In an area known for both great food and stalwart environmentalism, a little Boulder-y is just fine.