Farm-to-Table Fresh 13

Carbondale Restaurants Harness the Power of Local Ingredients

Lifting the seedling to your mouth, you marvel at its perfection: an achingly green, luminous sprout with a pubescent white root. It’s still alive. Liquid spurts across your tongue as its flesh bursts, and lingering notes of flavor hint at summer, earth, and mystery.

What was that?

Certainly not the standard fare that many of us have grown accustomed to purchasing in the grocery store—vaguely green stuff grown on laser-leveled mega-farms in California, irrigated with Colorado water, cut and packaged seven days ago, shipped 800 miles across a desert in refrigerated trucks, and finally, at last, distributed from a warehouse through a foodservice conglomerate. And it doesn’t stop there. Communities the world over are losing their own unique culinary identities to chain restaurants, corporations, and big box stores. Many have lost faith in our food.

But wait—remember the taste of that seedling?

Underground, a movement of back-to-the-landers has slowly been reclaiming American agriculture for more than 30 years. Small farms have mushroomed across the landscape, from Brooklyn’s blighted lots to rooftops in Manhattan, and from school yards in Oakland to wineries in Napa. The movement has long found a home in the Roaring Fork Valley, as well.

For chef Andreas Fischbacher of Allegria in Carbondale, it’s a culinary dream come true. “I grew up on a self-sustaining farm in Austria. We had ten heads to feed. I live in Missouri Heights now. I ride my motorcycle, pick up some meat, pick up some produce, it’s a cool commute.”

Armed with such local goods, the ballsy, enterprising chefs like Fischbacher are braving the here-and-gone nature of restaurants with finely curated, unique dining experiences. Their menus are familiar but fresh, tapping into deeply-rooted, regional fare. Fischbacher started buying local farm produce from a Paonia hippie when he worked at The Meadows in Aspen in the early 1990s, and hasn’t looked back.

Farm-to-table, field-to-fork, call it what you want—but this relationship didn’t just happen on its own. Many attribute the local phenomenon to the Harvard-educated gospel and grit of Jack Reed, a champion of small local farms. Also known as Farmer Jack, he spent the better part of a decade assembling a network of over 50 Western Slope farms. He was a common sight in kitchens up and down the valley.

“The best thing about all of this is a resurgence in small farms, with big farmers, locally,” says Mark Fischer, of Pullman and Town fame. “The options continue to grow. And we find ourselves aligning with a few more growers every year that tailor their crops to our needs and wants.”

Fischer adds that field-to-fork does, however, have its challenges. “It’s not the most convenient way to run a restaurant,” he admits. “Product arrives dirty, unsorted, unbutchered, and totally unlike the boxed, washed, tagged stuff we grew up with. But it’s the right thing to do, if taste and flavor is remotely important in what you’re trying to achieve.”

Dos Gringos is a local favorite that’s found its stride as a social crossroads, serving everyone from athletes to activists. As such, owner Nelson Oldham fields other issues. “Often the customers who would like to see these products in the food are taken aback at the price we need to charge to make it viable. The Whole Foods customers who are very willing to pay a premium do not make up enough of the market in Carbondale yet.”

But Oldham works with it because he believes in it. “All that said, we are using some local products consistently. Potatoes, beans, sunflower greens, onions, and honey are our staples. The main reason we use this food is because the flavor is definitely a lot better. Taste tests are quite remarkable between food from Paonia and commercial food delivered by a large vendor. The quality is higher and there’s no spraying, dyeing, or radiating needed to survive cross-docking and the many hand-offs between the field and the table.”

With 150 years of farming heritage, Potter Farms is one local supplier that raises organic beef, pork, chicken and lamb the old-fashioned, warm and fuzzy way. “In Ag class,” owner Justina Potter learned, “if you work really hard, make all the right decisions, and the weather cooperates, you have the potential of making hundreds of dollars a year! With small-scale farming, if you are doing it to get rich, you missed the point. This is not just a business; it is our way of life.”

Potter Farms products, found on menus valley-wide, rises to the challenges of field-to-fork. “We asked and listened to what people wanted, likes and dislikes about local food. We found they wanted good-tasting, high-quality, healthy, fresh, truly local food at a reasonable price,” Potter says.

As field-to-fork has grown, there are insiders who say it’s so watered down that it means very little. But, it depends on the heart of the chef. Tucked away in the Little Napa district between Satank and Carbondale stands Silo, an establishment of “simple farm-to-table American cuisine.” Its delicious simplicity attracts a cult following, and chef Lacy Hughes is indeed a beacon for local growers like Erin Cuseo, who has farmed since 2009. Cuseo is able to sell surplus produce from her CSA farm, Erin’s Acres, to Silo.

“Lacy’s not looking for ‘three-months-of-20-pounds-of-something’ each week. Nor is she looking for one committed farmer an entire season,” Cuseo says. “She’s willing to shop from farm to farm. She’s looking for solutions that make it possible for small local farmers like us to sell our produce.”

As a proponent for farms and seasonal cooking, Mark Hardin’s catering service Field 2 Fork Kitchen is aptly named. Known for the vibrant menu he created at Carbondale Beerworks a few years ago, Hardin now works with True Nature, Carbondale’s popular yoga studio, spa, and tea room. He’s driven by the pleasure of working with locally-sourced product; he wants it to be affordable and enjoyed by many.

“I put a lot of effort into monitoring costs. A little bit of creativity can go a long way when it comes to working with what you have. That’s the benefit of working with local farms and being able to adapt seasonally,” he notes. With True Nature, Hardin will focus on healthy, organic grab-and-go lunch items.

For a more immersive treat, consider one of Field 2 Fork’s catered farm dinners held at locations such as Sustainable Settings. These festive feasts harvest ingredients from field and pasture, and serve them up with local libations and music. The events include farm tours. Hardin wants “people to leave with a better understanding of what they are getting when food is grown the way it should be.”

So how can we keep farm-to-table in our valley? In Oldham’s view, “it will take a significant shift in consumer consciousness to take the next step.”

Take this a few fun steps further than a financial commitment. Grow your community connections—befriend local chefs and farmers. Remember the taste of that seedling? Invest in your valley, one sensuous bite at a time.