Foodwise, the American West has long been defined by its borders. The abundant produce and seafood of its coastal areas and the strong Hispanic and American Indian influences found along its southern edge tend to dominate the culinary conversation, while the Rocky Mountain states at the region’s core can be dismissed
as mere meat and potatoes. But in Colorado, the gateway of the West, the culinary landscape is rapidly evolving amid a hospitality boom that began in tandem with the farm-to-table movement. The aforementioned meat and potatoes are hardly excluded: With its own indigenous heritage of hunting, trapping, and shepherding in addition to its ranching tradition, Colorado rightly champions its lamb, beef, bison, and game such as elk and venison. The state is also among the nation’s top spud growers.
Colorado’s raw materials, however, are more diverse than outsiders realize, from notable specialty crops like Olathe sweet corn, Rocky Ford melons, Pueblo chiles, and Palisade peaches (among other fruits from the fertile Western Slope) to the snow suppyling a key ingredient in the state’s celebrated beers and spirits. Together, these ingredients represent the unbridled adventure that draws the young, DIY-minded creatives spurring the growth of Colorado’s craft-minded culture.
Indeed, it’s this new wave of butchers, cheesemakers, coffee roasters, foragers, picklers, and millers who “are strengthening our culinary community” alongside the brewers, distillers, and farmers, says Chef Alex Seidel, Owner of Fruition Restaurant and Mercantile Dining & Provision in Denver. “Everybody’s bringing their piece to the table,” he adds.
Ingredient-driven menus abound at restaurants throughout the state, including the appropriately-named trio of WYLD in
Avon, Velvet Buck in Aspen, and Denver’s Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que. These budding establishments serve to showcase what’s known in different circles as modern mountain, American Alpine, New West, or simply Colorado-inspired cuisine.
Seidel was among the earliest pioneers of this new dining scene, opening Fruition Farms in 2009 to not only grow vegetables and make cheese at its onsite creamery, but to “create an opportunity for conversation and education” among likeminded foodies, says Mercantile Chef/ Partner Matthew Vawter. Yet another trailblazer to watch is chef Eric Skokan—Co-Founder of Boulder’s Black Cat and Bramble & Hare—who tends to some 250 heirloom crops and breeds on his 130-acre Longmont farm (see “Against the Grain” in the Winter 2017 issue of The Clever Root).
And at an institutional level, fellow Boulder phenom Kelly Whitaker of Basta conceived the Noble Grain Alliance to coalesce a network of farmers conducting trials with heritage grains. Blackbelly’s Hosea Rosenberg, meanwhile, runs a full-service butcher shop in the mountain city where everything from myriad salumi to dog food and candles comes from animals raised by that local ranchers.
Beyond the more populated area known as the Front Range Urban Corridor, chef Josh Niernberg oversees two Grand Junction restaurants, Bin 707 Foodbar and Taco Party, in the heart of the agricultural Grand Valley on the Western Slope. He says his “goal since day one was to be at the forefront of defining a regional cuisine”: “We can tell farmers, ‘We’ll commit to 100 percent of your crops,’ and then we’ll figure out how to get them on menus that are 100-percent Colorado-sourced to provide that sense of place.” That philosophy applies to items like blue corn nixtamalized at a local tortilla factory or verjus from green Cabernet Franc grapes in lieu of citrus. (After all, as Seidel points out, “This is high mountain desert. We don’t grow avocados and limes.”)
Where “Constraint Drives Creativity”
Moving the needle still further in the Centennial State are visionaries Patrick Ayers and Seth O’Donovan. In 2015, Ayers began single-handedly working a 1902 homestead at the edge of Steamboat Springs that today includes orchards, low-tunnel gardens, and a greenhouse for hundreds of crops. The property is overseen by a full-time staff who also raise goats, chickens, and bees.
Ayers opened a fine-dining restaurant, Cloverdale, in town last year to feature the enviable bounty of this homestead. It garnered immediate acclaim for elaborate tasting menus composed of dishes like rutabaga “pappardelle” with smoked trout, juniper- and pine-scented new potatoes, and lamb sweetbreads with pickled peppers and preserved cardoons. The terroir driven thrill is in “figuring out which ingredients to highlight” through the microseasons, Ayer explains. “In winter we’re going to have more pickles, more root vegetables, more earthy flavors. That’s what we have; that’s the only way it can be.”
As the mastermind behind The Guest House in Carbondale, O’Donovan concurs. She and her partners are now raising water buffalo on a ranch—now in its sixth generation of family ownership— that already supported game hunting and grazing for both cattle and sheep. They tend countless heirloom and prototype crops in their gardens and woodstove-fed greenhouses there, and also plan to oversee a Biodynamic vineyard to serve a forthcoming boutique hotel. “The entire point is to constrain ourselves to one piece of land,” O’Donovan says. When it comes to truly defining the nature of Colorado cuisine, O’Donovan believes “the constraint drives the creativity.” “We’re starting to ask the hard questions,” she says. “What do you do about sugars in Colorado? All we produce is honey, so we’re putting in hives. What do you do about oils? We’re using land-produced fats like lard. What about spices? We’re foraging a mixture of herbs from our property and calling it ‘land spice.’” As Rosenberg puts it, “We have to work a lot harder here—but there’s so much more we can do with what we have.”