The term may be overused these days but the intention remains relevant. Diners want inventive dishes made with the freshest possible ingredients and least possible impact on the environment. Chefs want to offer exactly that. One result of this synergistic aspiration is a new focus on something that had all but disappeared from the American landscape in the age of big agriculture–the small farm. Now, local organic produce, animals raised humanely, handcrafted cheese and sausage, house-made canned and preserved goods and a desire to waste nothing all have become the new normal in trendsetting restaurants, and Denver is well ahead of the curve.
The drive to use local purveyors and ingredients is strong in Colorado. From pizza to multi-course meals, casual eateries to fine dining, there are restaurants at which farm-to-table is not a trend but a sustained passion. One of the best-known chefs in this space is Alex Seidel, who has Fruition, Mercantile Dining & Provision and his own Fruition Farms, which both restaurants use. Less known, perhaps, are Johnny Ballen, head “beankeeper” at the Squeaky Bean, which also has its own acreage, and Jeff Rogoff, co-owner with his wife of Sazza, which had a plot in the past and is gearing up for a new one next year, and whose focus from the start has been local, sustainable and organic–something he calls “a lifestyle choice, not a business decision.”
There are many more. The best news is that along with the environment, diners are benefitting.
"We're friends with our farmers and fishermen," says management on the restaurants website. "We focus on heritage-raised meats from Colorado farms we know and respect." The restaurant does its own butchering and cures the meats in-house (you can see the charcuterie room from the dining area). While the emphasis is definitely on meals that meat lovers will enjoy, meat is not the only option. There are also seafood selections, including oysters, and there's a vegetarian three-course tasting menu, so any group with diverse culinary preferences can come together to Old Major and enjoy a meal together. Arrive early for the well-priced happy hour menu and you'll save a few bucks without sacrificing taste (consider the Old Major charcuterie plate). ((720) 420-0622)
"When the farm deliveries come in and menu changes for the season are being written it feels like Christmas!" says Tiffany Leong, sous chef, on the restaurant's website. "I love being so committed to our farms and their products and harvesting vegetables in our urban garden for a night's service. What an incredible privilege it is to be able to walk into our restaurant with such variety and quality of ingredients to cook with and create a menu or an evening special."
Duo's summer menu ranges from such dishes as a farmer's salad or a corn-and-charred-onion fritter with raw summer squash and basil aioli, to wild salmon, buffalo or fried chicken quarter with sour cream potatoes, country ham gravy, green beans, carrots and honey gastrique. The menu changes with the seasons. (303-477-4141)
Potager, which means kitchen garden in French, opened in 1997 in Denver's Capital Hill area. The owners, a father and daughter, say the theme of the restaurant is not about a particular type of cuisine (though there are French dishes on the menu) but about locally sourced and seasonally driven foods. "We've stitched together a network of suppliers that we know personally and whose concerns are similar to our own," they state on the restaurant's website. "We buy food from farmers who know their seeds and soil, ranchers who care about their animals, fish merchants who know the fisherman and are concerned about the sea." Many of the farms and ranches are listed in the menu items for which their products are used. (303-832-5788)
"I'm thrilled to live in a time when farm-to-table has become almost the norm for chefs instead of the rarity," says Chef Elise Wiggins, named by Zagat.com as one of the 10 Most Influential Female Chefs in Denver in 2015. "We at Panzano believe not only in farm-to-table, but also in use of the entire animal so nothing is wasted."
At Panzano, seasonal menus includes such well-known Colorado food items as Olathe corn; Palisade peaches, cherries and apricots; and Rocky Ford melons, as well as lamb, hogs, rabbit, mushrooms, goat cheese and produce from a variety of purveyors across the state. Wiggins notes that she also often buys many cases of Colorado cherries in season, then preserves them for creative use during the winter months.
Light-filled and stylish, Panzano sits in the heart of downtown and highlights regional Italian cuisine along with local and sustainably produced goods. (303-296-3525, 303-294-3057)
Beatrice & Woodsley
"At Beatrice & Woodsley, we search for and serve the best quality and most sustainable products available," says Travis Messervey, executive chef. Like other Denver chefs, he says the term farm-to-table has become mostly a marketing strategy these days, but he believes that exemplary practices will be noticed. "Believing that good food and sourcing methods speak quietly and confidently for themselves, we focus on proper staging, practice and craft so that nature's diverse creations are best understood and celebrated. This fosters a straightforward and honest relationship with our community, without any use for catchphrases or shortcuts."
The South Broadway eatery offers a rustic-American menu featuring local and responsibly sourced goods. "We take pride in serving as stewards for the public's health and wellbeing," Messervey says, "It is our honor that fulfills this unstated promise of quality to every guest who walks through our door." (303-777-3505)
Sazza brings local, sustainable and farm-to-table concepts to the world of pizza. "We have never felt it necessary to define our version of farm-to-table because it is a lifestyle choice not a business decision," says Jeff Rogoff, co-owner of Sazza with his wife, Jenni Hayes. "What does that mean? In our home, we eat only organic produce, meats and poultry and we support local purveyors whenever possible. This is the mantra that we took to Sazza nine years ago and have continued to do more as Sazza evolves." Sazza also takes local beyond food, using local for necessities from ink cartridges to plates. Silverware is donated by customers. "It's all about reusing," Rogoff adds.
Local menu items include butternut squash soup and pumpkin pizza, available in the fall, and other rotating specials. And each September Sazza hosts a farm-to-table dinner that's 90-percent local, with farmer/purveyor speakers; proceeds benefit a nonprofit. (303.797.2992)
Mercantile Dining & Provision
At Mercantile Provision & Dining, the relationship between farm and restaurant goes a step further in the in-house market where provisions from Chef Alex Seidel's Fruition Farms are sold. The market carries herbs, spices and house-made jarred, pickled and preserved items made with Fruition Farms produce and other goods. "We created an environment where we can trade the artisan products that we produce, bringing the farm full circle into the restaurant and market," Seidel says.
Herbs and spices in the market also serve as pantry for the chefs. If you catch a chef grabbing some spices, you can strike up a conversation about ways to use that spice and what goes with it. The open kitchen and five-seat chef's table (ask the host) are another way the restaurant fosters interaction between chefs and guests. The menu is varied, with plenty of veggies, meat, seafood and pasta. Ask about family dinners. (720.460.3733)
The Squeaky Bean
The Squeaky Bean is a farm-driven restaurant in Denver's LoDo neighborhood. "Granted the term farm-to-table has become watered down, The Squeaky Bean truly brings the term to the table," says Johnny Ballen, the Bean's self-proclaimed Beankeeper. "Farm is a verb to us. You can taste that effort on every dish. The pride in practicing what you preach is very important in the culture of The Squeaky Bean."
Produce from the restaurant's farm and greenhouses includes many heirloom vegetables, micro greens, winter tomatoes, basil, arugula and more. Garden herbs are used in the kitchen and at the bar in inventive cocktails. Josh Olsen, the restaurant's chief farmer, considers education a critical part of the process. "I am blessed with the opportunity to teach and influence the next generation of farmers and chefs, "he says.
Patrons can learn, too, sitting at the eight-seat Chef's Counter where they can interact with kitchen staff. (303-623-2665)
Root Down, in Denver's Highlands neighborhood, won't compromise on its dedication to local and sustainable goods and its philosophy that ranching, farming and fishing should be humane and not harm the planet. Almost everything is certified organic. What Chef Daniel Asher doesn't get from the restaurant's gardens he gets from a group of 55 local farms, ranches and food artisans.
"The term farm-to-table began as a small, powerful movement toward awareness of our food supply," Asher says. "Unfortunately, it has become diluted and casually tossed around as a clever and profitable marketing term. The foundation of the Edible Beats group (Root Down, Linger, Root Down DIA and Ophelia's) was based upon principles of environmental ethics that define every decision we make, from what type of paint to use on the walls to what we package our guest's leftovers in."
As for the full-range menu, it absolutely hits the mark. (303-993-4200)
Alex Seidel opened Fruition Restaurant in 2007. With its menu of upscale comfort food it was an instant success and remains among Denver's most popular restaurants. Seidel then bought a 10-acre farm and became a hands-on farmer, producing fruits, vegetables and cheese and raising animals for his restaurant and others.
"I have never specifically used the term farm-to-table," he says. "I've always looked at it as a trendy label that has been given to us." What matters to him are the relationships involved, and Fruition Farms has been what he calls an education in understanding how to grow crops, make cheese and raise animals and how to harvest these foods. "Farm-to-table," Seidel says, "is all of those processes and understanding what goes into the relationship between producer and end user. This hands-on experience has helped us create a viable, long-lasting relationship between farm and restaurant." (3038311992)
About Christine Loomis
Christine has written about every aspect of travel, from romance and adventure to family and wellness. She is also lucky to have had three major home states through the years: New York, Colorado and California. Today she divides time between the Denver and San Francisco areas.
Christine loves shoe shopping and fishing; walking anywhere; horseback riding (she was on the equestrian team at the University of Oregon); and discovering menus that include small-batch whiskeys, craft beer and lesser-known wines.
She would go anywhere in an RV and believes summer is best when it includes a rafting trip.
Read more about Christine Loomis here.