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Seed to Supper

Eric Johnson, executive chef at The Greenbriar Inn.

Some Boulder restaurants take eating local to the next level by growing some or even most of the food they serve.

Text and chef photos by Peter Bronski

Are you a “locavore?” If so, how local do you eat? It doesn’t get any more local than growing your own food. But even if you dine out, a few Boulder County restaurants are going local, too, by growing their own grub.

From relatively modest herb gardens to full-fledged farms and some in between, the same hands that lovingly prepare your dishes in a restaurant are also the hands that grow it. Here is a sampling of local restaurants backed by their own gardens.

Laudisio Italian Restaurant
Tavio Laudisio (left) and Sakima Isaac of Laudisio
Tavio Laudisio (left) and Sakima Isaac of Laudisio

Antonio Laudisio, son Tavio and executive chef Sakima Isaac are locavore restaurateurs. An herb garden primarily in planters surrounds the patio at the restaurant’s Twenty Ninth Street locale. “It’s based on a philosophy of being able to touch your food with something you’ve grown yourself,” says Antonio of the relatively modest garden.

That philosophy has its roots in 1950s Brooklyn, where Antonio and his siblings shoveled horse manure to fertilize the family’s backyard tomatoes. “We always had fresh herbs and vegetables,” he recalls. Laudisio brought that experience to Boulder, and it’s especially fitting for the restaurant’s Italian fare.

“The Italian kitchen is so simple,” Laudisio explains. “If you don’t have access to fresh ingredients, what is your kitchen?” He grows basil, thyme, sage, mint, parsley and rosemary. They’re started in a hothouse and transplanted to the restaurant’s patio, where they’re harvested for patrons’ dishes during the growing season.

As Antonio passes the torch to Tavio and up-and-coming chefs like Isaac, there’s an implicit lesson in those patio herbs. “They’re a meditation for young chefs to realize the connection between the earth and what they put in a dish,” the elder Laudisio says, and not just any connection—a local connection.

While Laudisio imports some specialty foods and features a cuisine ripe with “worldliness,” as Antonio says, there’s always a local element in his dishes as well—vegetables from the farmers’ market or a dish with a local twist, like pumpkin ravioli made with pumpkins from Boulder’s Munson Farm or Oxford Gardens.

Chef Michael Drazsnzak of Colterra
Chef Michael Drazsnzak of Colterra

Located in Old Town Niwot, with mature cottonwoods providing shade for an outdoor patio otherwise surrounded by a thriving garden, Bradford Heap’s Colterra restaurant has grown some of its own produce since day one. It started out small, like Laudisio’s, with an herb garden. Year by year it’s expanded under the green thumb of local organic gardener Clarence Mills.

Totaling more than 700 square feet, the “herb” garden now includes 30 varieties of tomatoes, sugar snap peas and many other vegetables that are often featured as main ingredients in Colterra’s dishes. What the restaurant doesn’t grow it tries to procure from local gardens and farms such as Oxford, Munson, Cure Organic,

Red Wagon Organic and Full Circle

As it does for Laudisio, that ethic has strong ties to childhood memories. Chef Michael Drazsnzak grew up in northwestern Arkansas, where his grandparents had a 4-acre garden and some livestock. “Every day for our meals, we’d go pick ’em and eat ’em, because they were ready,” he says. “We didn’t think about it as farm to table then. We would just enjoy those fresh vegetables on the table. Any excess produce we would can and preserve.”

It’s central to the restaurant’s ethic, Drazsnzak says. “There’s an importance in that, when you’re sitting on the patio, you can see exactly where your food came from,” he explains. “It brings a connection to the food. That something you’re eating is just an arm’s reach away.”

The Greenbriar Inn
Eric Johnson, executive chef at The Greenbriar Inn.
Eric Johnson, executive chef at The Greenbriar Inn.

When Phil Goddard bought The Greenbriar Inn in 1995 (he’d previously been a chef there in the 1980s), he started—as many of his peers do—with an herb garden. But things quickly grew from there. He added a second garden in 2000 and expanded again in 2004, ending up with an impressively productive 6,000-square-foot garden.

In addition to the usual herb suspects, it features watercress, rainbow and Swiss chard, raspberries and blackberries, peppers (“more than we can possibly ever use,” says Goddard, including red, serrano, cherry, banana and bell), eggplant, tomatillos, “free-range” squash (“it’s taking over from the compost pile”), asparagus, zucchini, green and purple beans, 13-plus tomato varieties (including Roma, cherry, yellow, beefsteak and heirlooms), golden and purple beets, plenty of greens, cucumbers, pumpkins, edible flowers, strawberries, and corn (whew!).

A high-density gardener in the Green Mountain State inspired Goddard, a Vermont native. Dense plantings yield lots of leaf cover, which, it turns out, is great for minimizing water loss from evaporation in Colorado’s semiarid climate. The result is that last year, 100 percent of the Greenbriar’s herbs, 80 percent of its greens and 30 percent of its overall produce came from the restaurant’s garden.

Some foods are particularly prolific, depending on the nuances of each growing season. “I never buy zucchini in the summer,” Goddard says. Two years ago, the garden yielded more than 1,000 pounds of squash and pumpkin. The year before that, tomatoes were especially bountiful, with the restaurant harvesting a case per day.

It’s like being a kid in a candy store for Greenbriar chef Eric Johnson, who was handpicked by Goddard. “This garden is my baby, and I wanted a chef who was on board,” Goddard says. Johnson was formerly chef de cuisine at Flagstaff House, and did a stint in Washington, D.C., before returning to Boulder and the Greenbriar.

“It was an awesome opportunity for me, as a chef, to work out of a real garden,” Johnson says. “It’s so bountiful, it challenges me to be creative and to use it all—not just in dishes, but in pickling, preserves, sauces.” And to use it all when the vegetables decide they’re ready. “I wasn’t a green thumb at first,” Johnson says with a laugh. At one point, he left the corn on the stalk for too long. “I wasn’t ready for it, but then the corn got too starchy. It’s a whole new exciting area of food to learn.”

It’s fun for the Greenbriar’s patrons as well. “People waiting in the foyer or the atrium see kitchen staff going out to harvest, and it’s like, ‘Yes, we’re going out there to get your salad, to get your food.’”

Q’s Restaurant

For chef John Platt of Q’s Restaurant, the journey of gardening for the restaurant began a dozen or so years ago, one growing season after he moved into his current north Boulder home. He had gardened a bit as a child, but it was friends and their gardens that provided the inspiration for the endeavor.

Totaling about 1,200 square feet, his garden grows a surprisingly diverse set of crops in comparatively cramped quarters—radishes, lettuces and cooking greens (chards, kale, mustard greens), herbs, beets, cucumbers, beans, onions, carrots, tomatoes and winter squash. Just enough that you’ll find homegrown produce on the restaurant’s menu five out of seven nights per week during the growing season.

Curiously, the most valuable lesson hasn’t been what Platt can grow for the restaurant, but in a sense, what he can’t. “You plant a 20-foot row of salad greens. Dig the dirt. Add compost. You take a month and a half to grow it. You pick it, and it’s beautiful, and you wash it. And then it’s gone in two hours at the restaurant. It’s pretty humbling,” he says.

“It teaches you how much time, effort and space goes into growing the things that a lot of cooks take for granted in a restaurant situation.”

Black Cat Farm Table Bistro
Chef and Owner Eric Skokan of Black Cat
Chef and Owner Eric Skokan of Black Cat

When it comes to restaurants that grow their own produce, Black Cat Farm Table Bistro is the undisputed king of the hill in this roundup. It’s no accident that the word “farm” comes before “table” in the restaurant’s title. Black Cat is more than farm to table. It’s farm and table wrapped up in one. And that farm isn’t measured in square feet. It’s measured in acres. Forty-two, to be exact.

There are 10 acres of vegetables, plus another 5 destined for garlic, shallots and Jerusalem artichokes. You’ll also find beehives for honey, herbs aplenty, 20 varieties of lettuce, nine types of carrots, turnips, beets, parsnips, Swiss chard, celery, endive, peppers, eggplant, squash, cucumber, melons, berries, grapes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, four types of cabbage, beans, onions, kale, peas and more, including tomatoes and potatoes (though the land they grew on last year will be cover-cropped and pulled out of production in 2011).

About 15 acres is in active production at any one time. The balance is pasture and hay for the animals. Animals? Oh yes: 300 ducks, 24 chickens, 20 guinea hens, 15 turkeys, 14 sheep, 11 mulefoot pigs and three alpine goats—give or take a few, depending on who’s been born and what’s been served at the restaurant.

“Everything has a peak season and a specific use,” chef/owner Eric Skokan says, explaining part of the rationale behind growing multiple varieties of the same vegetable. “In corporate agriculture, they compress the harvest into one big day, which makes economic sense. But it compromises exceptional quality for utilitarian mediocrity. At the restaurant, over the course of a season, our goal is to string together hundreds of smaller, perfect moments.”

Black Cat’s farm workers
Black Cat’s farm workers

During the height of the season, 98 percent of Black Cat’s menu comes from these fields. The only things that Skokan “outsources,” he says, are lemons, limes and bay leaves—things that don’t grow well in Colorado. He also doesn’t harvest fish, but has a goal of ultimately supplying 50 percent of his own meat, including beef.

It takes 12 workers and Skokan to keep the farm running, and another 15 employees at the restaurant. Some are volunteers, some are interns and some are culinary students. Skokan sells surplus produce at the Boulder Farmers’ Market a few blocks from the restaurant.

[quote]Gardening is “pretty humbling; it teaches you how much time, effort and space goes into growing the things that a lot of cooks take for granted.”[/quote]

The market income originally supplied enough money for Skokan to hire more farm staff, so that the farm could then increase production to meet the restaurant demand. “Farm to table is an important part of American culinary growth and maturity in our restaurant industry,” he explains. “I don’t like buying from national companies. I like my neighbors and I like weaving my restaurant into the community.”

Plus, “I get to play on the farm, drive a tractor, pull weeds and play with animals. It’s hard to be stressed in life when you do this during the day, and then play with other people’s food at night.”

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