When the cool Colorado dawn gives way to blazing sunlight, farmers across our state are already hard at work preparing the evening meal. Using methods of horticulture that are part science and part art, these field jockeys work year-round making locally sourced a meaningful concept. The journey from the farms to dinner tables around the state has begun — and because of a booming farm-to-table restaurant movement, that journey is getting shorter.
The national eating mentality is shaking awake from a decades-long food coma brought on by commercialization and consolidation. By turning their backs on a one-size-fits-all food distribution approach in our country, an increasing number of Boulder County chefs and restaurateurs are finding ingredients in our own backyards. Besides plating delicious food, this movement is fostering a sense of community that boosts both health and happiness.
At Oxford Gardens near Niwot, owner Peter Volz surveys his four-acre farm.
“Carrots are sneaky,” he says of Oxford’s fall crop, projected to be about four tons this year. “Sometimes they can grow right together, where it looks like one carrot, but it may actually be three. And if you leave them that way, you’re going to get no carrots.”
With constant vigilance in his fields, often on hands and knees to thin out the plants and pluck away pesky weeds, the farmer says he sometimes feels like a battlefield medic.
“It’s like triage. What needs it most today?” Volz says. “Weeds suck nutrients and water out of the soil, and sometimes survival of a given crop depends on keeping it properly weeded and cultivated.”
Before temperatures rise, the day’s vegetables are picked, pruned and packaged, and a portion of them will be taken to area restaurants.
“I will do whatever I can to cater to my restaurants. Whatever they need within reason, I do,” Volz says. “It’s not what’s convenient for me; it’s what’s convenient for them.”
For farm-to-table establishments, looking at the local deliveries is akin to opening your fridge to survey what sort of meal can be prepared from the ingredients at hand.
“Having that ability to see something and say ‘OK, this is what we can do with it,’ is great,” says Hugo Matheson, co-owner of The Kitchen. “It’s knowing what to do and understanding what opportunities are there.”
Getting farm-fresh ingredients saves on shipping and storage costs that are ingrained in the mass-production methods that dominate farming today. It also cultivates relationships among the network of growers and consumers who actually get to meet face to face.
“I enjoy the community, as opposed to eating a carrot that has been grown on a thousand acres,” Matheson says.
“To me, it’s less about nutrition, and more about knowing where it comes from, and if something goes wrong I can get an answer right away.”
At Café Aion on the Hill, chef and co-owner Dakota Soifer says he is willing to pay a premium to support local growers who shower him with fresh ingredients.
“Everyone’s supporting each other with the hope that goodwill will come back around,” Soifer says. “I’m going to pay a dollar or so more per pound to support [local], but it’ll come back around. What’s the point, really, if you can’t support and help your friends with what you’re doing?” Soifer says he tries to avoid overshadowing the taste of the harvest.
Dishes take on a minimalist approach. That doesn’t mean the grilled zucchini served with a simple romesco sauce or the roasted eggplant baba ganoush is bland. On the contrary, he says, simple preparation of changing produce lends itself to experimentation that is passed on to customers.
“Everyone is sort of adventurous and excited to learn and share,” Soifer says. “That sort of excitement is something you need to pass onto guests, rather than trying to get excited about something that’s been on the menu for eight months.”
Like Soifer, Executive Chef Kyle Mendenhall of The Kitchen says he likes the variety that changing seasons brings.
“The thing that I like is it creates excitement for the next year,” he says. For favorite ingredients, he says, you can eat your heart out while they’re in season. Then, you get the pleasure of anticipation. “I think that’s the cool, positive thing you can get from eating locally and eating seasonally.”
Like being a member of theater guild, where you know the performers and players will entertain you no matter what the offering of the month is, diners at farm-to-table restaurants place a certain amount of trust in their chef that the entree du jour will be enjoyable.
“It requires constant maintenance for the kitchen staff,” Mendenhall says. “They have to be very in tune with what’s coming up next in the harvest schedule. The restaurant itself has to be structured in a way to where it’s open to different types of situations.”
Where does the local source movement go from here? Matheson and his team at the expanding Kitchen empire see the farm-to-table movement as an idea with legs.
“Where I see the longevity is [farm to table] will just be something that customers like and chefs enjoy providing,” Matheson says. “My biggest enjoyment is seeing people enjoy themselves. What we do is about community. I think it affects lives if they know where that carrot has come from.”