In Colorado, Chefs Are Taking Farm-to-Table to a Whole New Level


The mountains are calling—but not for the reasons you might expect. While Colorado has long been a dreamland for wandering souls and intrepid explorers, it’s now gaining renown as a magnet for adventurous palates. Over the last decade or so, an influx of new visitors, unique tastes, and inventive chefs have transformed Colorado’s food scene into a hotbed of culinary innovation. Just last fall, Michelin made its debut here, awarding five restaurants with One Michelin Star and four with Michelin Green Star designations.

Because Colorado has always served as a hub for interstate trade, railroad travel, and mountain adventure, it’s long been a melting pot of flavors and cultures. But there’s one area where the state’s chefs have always excelled: hyperlocal, farm-to-table dining.

Historians often trace the farm-to-table movement as we know it now to an origin point sometime in the 1970s. But in Colorado, it started long before that.

“It’s not so much a philosophy for us as a foundation,” says Jill Skokan, co-founder of Michelin Green-starred Black Cat Bistro, a Boulder mainstay that sources a large percentage of its ingredients from Skokan’s farm plot just a few miles away. “If you talk to the older generations of farmers in Boulder County, there were no grocery stores,” she says. “They grew or raised their food, preserved it, and traded with neighbors.”

The lamb featured in Black Cat’s menu is raised on the chef’s farm just a few miles away.
The lamb featured in Black Cat’s menu is raised on the chef’s farm just a few miles away. COURTESY OF BLACK CAT BISTRO

Here in the Mountain West, this kind of farm-to-table lifestyle is a deep tradition that traces its roots back hundreds of years. Colorado’s Indigenous peoples—the Ute, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne tribes, among others—gathered ingredients and prepared dishes according to the ebb and flow of the seasons. And when settlers arrived in the 1800s, they ate in much the same way, living off the land and cultivating a connection to the earth. In many places across America, the farm-to-table movement represents a revival of that long-forgotten philosophy. But in Colorado, it never left.

There’s a good reason for that. According to Steamboat Springs chef and restaurateur Hannah Hopkins, there’s something about the Mountain West that fosters both an intimate connection to the landscape and a tight-knit sense of community. Here, she says, the land is rugged and winters are long. It’s impossible to pretend that humans hold sway over the indomitable march of the seasons. So Coloradans learn to live in tune with the natural rhythms of the earth—and learn to look out for one another. The farm-to-table ethos is a powerful expression of that mutualism.

“Steamboat Springs is a small town,” Hopkins says. “The ranchers are our neighbors. And the people who dine with us are our friends, our family. It’s important that we all support each other.” For Hopkins, sourcing ingredients locally is more than just a nice way to ensure fresh, flavorful dishes. It also feels like a responsibility to her community.

“Farming your own ingredients isn’t always easy,” Skokan says. But doing it takes a lot of “passion, knowledge, and respect for what it takes to get the food to the kitchen. It changes you. It changes how you cook, too.”

Cache Cache incorporates local fruit, dairy, and produce throughout its menu—from appetizers to desserts.
Cache Cache incorporates local fruit, dairy, and produce throughout its menu—from appetizers to desserts. COURTESY OF CACHE CACHE

Likewise, Cesar Vazquez, chef de cuisine of Cache Cache in Aspen, says that when he started sourcing ingredients from Colorado growers, his relationship to local agriculture changed completely. He developed a profound respect for farmers’ knowledge of the land and the food they cultivate. These days, he spends as much time as he can visiting ranches and greenhouses across the Roaring Fork and North Fork Valleys and purchasing their best for his restaurant.

For the chefs at Cache Cache, collaborating with local farmers is a way of staying connected to the land.
For the chefs at Cache Cache, collaborating with local farmers is a way of staying connected to the land. COURTESY OF CACHE CACHE

“I like to be connected to the land, and visiting the farmers puts me in touch with it and what they’re doing,” Vazquez says. Every summer, he strolls through greenhouses and verdant fields alongside the growers. Together, they sample the scents and flavors on offer and workshop ideas for new recipes. It’s a community effort, through and through.

The other power of the farm-to-table philosophy is that it brings an entirely new sense of energy and depth to the culinary scene. When chefs source locally, they have to stay light on their feet—constantly reinventing and innovating to optimize their use of whatever produce or protein is in season at that moment.

“We really build our menus based on what our farmers are providing at the time,” says Tiffany Pineda-Scarlett, co-founder of The Farmer and Chef, an Aspen-based farm-to-table catering operation. “Most of the places I’ve lived, people don’t think about where their food comes from, but as soon as I moved to [the Western Slope], I felt this energy. Farmers are considered rockstars in the community here. And we have a really close relationship with them. Sometimes, they come to us and say, ‘What do you want us to grow this year?’ But we know how hard this work is. So we just say ‘Grow what supports your business, and we’ll figure it out!’”

Colorado’s seasons change fast, which means a constant turnover of fresh new produce for chefs to experiment with.
Colorado’s seasons change fast, which means a constant turnover of fresh new produce for chefs to experiment with. COURTESY OF THE FARMER AND CHEF

And every year they do, constantly revamping their menu and reworking recipes to incorporate whatever produce is at hand. That’s part of the game here: Thanks to its dynamic landscape and seasonal extremes, Colorado’s food scene is characterized by constant evolution and reinvention. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve visited a city or restaurant; there’s always more to explore. The good news, Vazquez says, is that even in lean seasons, chefs have an incredible bounty of flavors to work with. Colorado’s mountainous landscape hosts a vast range of climates, elevations, soil types, and slope aspects—which in turn allows farmers to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

“Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the options we have,” says Pineda-Scarlett. “There’s just so much abundance.” Some years, she explains, plentiful rainfall leads to a surplus of heirloom tomatoes, and cold nights give peaches and cherries an otherworldly sweetness. Other years, natural wildfires reshape the land, leaving richly fertilized scars where morel mushrooms flourish.

The drama of the landscape serves another purpose, too. As any artist knows, the environment in which you create has a profound impact on the end result. Colorado chefs are blessed with a cornucopia of inspirational forces: the dynamism of the seasons, the variety of scents and flavors, the flourishing local ecotourism industry, and the interplay of vibrant local cultures. That makes Colorado the perfect laboratory for culinary experimentation.

“The food scene here is exploding,” says Hopkins. “There’s so much collaboration between ranchers and chefs these days. On top of that, the mountain towns are growing and more people are moving here. That motivates us—we all have to keep up and keep raising the bar.”

A number of renowned chefs have caught wind of the recent growth, recognizing Colorado as an up-and-coming culinary hub, and have moved here to catch a piece of the action. The result is a number of new restaurants founded by some of the nation’s most brilliant culinary minds.

Take Jeff Seidel, founder of Michelin-starred Fruition in Denver and sister restaurant Mercantile. Seidel had a hunch that visitors didn’t want to just see Colorado’s mountains—they wanted to get to know that inspirational landscape on a more intimate level. So he opened Fruition, which is built around hyperlocal ingredients sourced from neighboring farms. The whole enterprise is a celebration of Colorado’s vast bounty. And it gives adventurous visitors a chance to explore the state with every single one of their senses.

Hopkins had very similar ideas when she launched her restaurants—Yampa Valley Kitchen, Mambo, & Bésame—in Steamboat Springs.

“When people visit a Western town, they want to taste locally raised lamb, pork, chicken, beef,” she says. “It’s part of the experience and part of the culture here.” So, in each of her establishments, she offers exactly that. She also sources her produce from nearby farms and grows edible flowers and herbs on Yampa Valley Kitchen’s patio. And her customers can taste the difference.

Chefs favor Colorado’s hyperlocal, farm-fresh ingredients for their unmatched flavor and color.
Chefs favor Colorado’s hyperlocal, farm-fresh ingredients for their unmatched flavor and color. COURTESY OF YAMPA VALLEY KITCHEN

“It’s obvious when ingredients are local,” she says. “They’re fresher and richer. The color is better. Everything is better.”

Of course, there’s more than one way to do farm-to-table dining. Over the past few years, Colorado restaurateurs have also experimented with imaginative new formats. Take Austin & Davis Breedlove of Denver. The brothers—one a chef and the other a farmer—run Farm & Market, a cutting-edge new concept where cultivation and dining are separated by just a single glass wall. As you dig into soups, teas, and salads, you can gaze through the glass to watch the herbs and produce growing in real time. You can also pick your own produce from a live tasting station—a row of crops brought into the restaurant lobby specifically for nibbling.

Vertical grow systems allow Farm & Market to cultivate nearly two football fields of produce in a single building.
Vertical grow systems allow Farm & Market to cultivate nearly two football fields of produce in a single building. HOLDEN KUDLA

Almost all the produce Farm & Market serves is grown right there, in house. And because the operation is a hydroponic vertical grow, it can produce more than 115,000 square feet of crops in just a 2,000-square-foot space right in the heart of the city.

Rare greens and native plants alike find their way from Farm & Market’s greenhouses to its restaurant next door.
Rare greens and native plants alike find their way from Farm & Market’s greenhouses to its restaurant next door. HOLDEN KUDLA

“People come to us because they’re craving fresh produce,” Austin Breedlove says. “And once they taste ours, they say they won’t buy lettuce anywhere else because ours just has so much flavor.” While Farm & Market grows rare varietals, it also cultivates local crops, like Anasazi beans, as a nod to the state’s long farming past.

Diners can watch their food growing—and getting harvested—through a window in Farm & Market’s dining room.
Diners can watch their food growing—and getting harvested—through a window in Farm & Market’s dining room. HOLDEN KUDLA

“Anasazi beans were growing in Colorado before America was even in existence,” Breedlove says. “For us, serving them is a tie to the land and what people ate here before our food system became international.”

Elsewhere, other establishments make it possible to not just taste the freshness of the landscape, but to witness it growing in real time all around you. Diners can book elaborate pop-up dinners at the experimental Rock Bottom Ranch in Aspen, or the smaller but equally innovative Lyons Farmette just north of Boulder for an immersive farm-to-table experience.

The farm-to-table ethos isn’t just good for diners, either; it’s also good for the environment. Eating local minimizes the time food spends in transit, resulting in far less energy and carbon waste. And hydroponic operations like Breedlove’s dramatically reduce the amount of water required to grow food. But one of the best benefits of farm-to-table dining is that it intimately acquaints diners with their local food system. The relationships these farms and restaurants forge serve as the backbone of Colorado’s thriving mountain communities. When diners eat at farm-to-table restaurants, they support those communities—and champion farmers who grow crops in ways that nurture the state’s soil and water.

“We are firm believers that the best food comes from the place you are eating,” says Black Cat’s Skokan. “And Colorado is a land of possibilities.”





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