In this era of celebrity chefs and bigger-is-better restaurants, food has become synonymous with entertainment. But to Bradford Heap, food is serious business, and not just because his livelihood is wrapped up in Colterra, Salt and Wild Standard, his three Boulder-area restaurants. The classically trained chef believes that what we eat is an expression of our environmental and economic policies, with significant consequences to both our health and the world around us. “If you don’t believe that factory farming and antibiotic abuse are acceptable, don’t vote for them with your credit card,” Heap says. “The same holds true for genetically modified ingredients.” Keep reading to find out where Heap’s passion comes from and how his beliefs play out in his restaurants.
Westword: Your commitment to sourcing has been widely recognized, going well beyond local and organic produce to pastured meats and GMO-free ingredients. What was the “Aha!” moment that sparked your passion in this area?
Bradford Heap: Actually, there were a couple of them. As a teenager, I saw both of my parents struggle with weight and fitness. Then I went to CIA [Culinary Institute of America] and learned about the evils of hydrogenated oil and high-fructose corn syrup. That was in 1990. Cooking in France and Italy, I learned to adopt the market-driven menu, where you go to the market, then write the menu. When my partner, Carol, and I bought Colterra Food and Wine, I was reading Omnivore’s Dilemma. Subsequently, we made the decision to not condone factory farming anymore. In reading Omnivore’s Dilemma, the GMO seed was planted, so to speak. I am for GMO labeling and would love to see genetic engineering applied to drought tolerance and nutrient enrichment. I do think there are ways that the technology could be used to mankind’s benefit. Right now, I don’t believe it is being used responsibly. Pesticide use is up. Cancer rates are up. California and the World Health Organization say that glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) is a probable carcinogen. Also, the products that are genetically modified are also heavily subsidized by our government and are the cornerstone of the ultra-processed junk food that Big Food makes so much money on. This is exactly the food that is making people fat and sick. I have been very active in GMO labeling efforts and awareness simply because people should know what’s in the food they buy.
You made headlines a few years ago by going GMO-free at Salt and Colterra. Are all three of your restaurants currently GMO-free? And what are some of the hardest non-GMO ingredients to source?
I’d say we’re probably 95 percent GMO-free. Dairy is the hardest place to go fully organic because the price point is so much higher. Chicken was hard until we got a distributor to carry Mary’s organic chicken. Pork has been difficult, and the workaround was a local farmer who was willing to raise GMO-free pigs for us. Unfortunately, we’re not able to get a steady supply of specific cuts yet, but we’re working on it. We have a great relationship with our grass-fed beef producer, Pasture One.
Maintaining a steady stream of local, organic produce is hard enough, but responsibly sourced seafood is even harder, involving an entirely different supply chain. What have some of the challenges been?
I’ve been using the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s watch list and only buy safe and good alternatives. We go a step further by making sure there are no GMOs in the food that the aquaculture fish are eating. Believe it or not, it’s very prevalent.
Restaurateurs have been known to work with ranchers to eliminate GMO feed. Have you had similar conversations related to maintaining your high standards in seafood?
No. Right now we’re just working on the land animals — since we can have direct relationships with the ranchers — and simply not buying the GMO-fed fish.
Wild Standard opened last year. What prompted you to open a seafood restaurant after Colterra and Salt?
I’ve always wanted to do a seafood restaurant. I got the bug early, when we used to take our vacations on Long Island, where I could go crabbing, dive for scallops and body-surf in the ocean. The ocean has always been very special to me. I enjoy cooking fish and local organic vegetables more than anything, and that’s what we’re featuring at Wild Standard.
How long have you been in the food industry?
When I was a boy, money was tight. I started washing dishes on the weekends when I was thirteen years old at the Hotel Boulderado, in a restaurant called Fleur de Lis. I remember the chef was an angry German, and he used to throw pots and pans when he was mad. It really scared the shit out of me.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I’ve always had a palate that got extreme appreciation and happiness from delicious food. Unfortunately, my parents divorced when I was twelve, so I had the option of doing the dishes or cooking, and I chose cooking.
What’s your earliest food memory?
When I was young, I climbed up on the counter to try and find chocolate in the cupboard. I reached in and grabbed the Baker’s chocolate. I took a big bite and was horrified with its bitter nastiness. My mom gave me a cookbook with a fudge recipe, and I learned how to cook sugar, water and cream of tartar up to 238 degrees, or the soft-ball stage. I fell in love at that point with the alchemy of cooking.
You’ve had an enviable career, working in top kitchens in France, Italy and California prior to opening three restaurants in Colorado. If you had to narrow it down, what’s one highlight?
Having the opportunity to cook in Monaco at the Hotel de Paris in the Louis XV restaurant with Alain Ducasse. He is the reason I went to go work in Europe, and I was very honored and blessed to have spent time in his kitchen learning his Provence-meets-Northern Italian cuisine. I also really loved the time I spent cooking in Tuscany at a restaurant named Da Delfina. They took me in as if I were one of their own. I’ve been back a half-dozen times to visit them, and I send people there. They are truly wonderful friends.
Did you have a mentor, and what did that person impress upon you?
Gary Danko is a longtime friend. He hired me as a sous-chef when I was working in California after graduating from CIA in 1990. I was saving money to go cook in France. I learned so much from Gary — how to organize a kitchen, how to get people to care. He was doing farm-to-table way before anyone else even knew what that was in America. He taught me to support the small cottage industries that were producing cheeses, vegetables and meats. He impressed upon me high-quality standards, hard work and passion.
Guilty pleasure in terms of food:
Chocolate ice cream.
What ingredient are you excited about right now?
I am growing 1,000 nettle plants in conjunction with our farm partner, Full Circle Farms. It’s one of my favorite plants to cook with. I love to make pasta as I learned it at Delfina. I love this changing of the seasons. After five months of using root crops, our chefs now turn their attention to spring vegetables. I love cooking in springtime with the lighter style, with a few hearty braises left on the menu for those cold spri ng nights.
One ingredient that’s overused:
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SHOW ME HOW
What do you like to cook at home?
We mostly have healthy vegetarian food, as my daughter is a vegetarian, along with some grass-finished beef or fish on the grill. We grow a lot of food in our family garden. In fact, we have kale that lives the entire winter in a small hoop house. We have spinach coming up right now as well.
Best tip for a home cook:
Take the time to grow your own food and cook a seasonal menu. Embrace cooking as a way to create optimal health. Become a student of health. Eat the most nutrient-dense diet possible while avoiding ultra-processed foods with preservatives, artificial dyes and pesticides. Be conscious buying ingredients for your food.
Any question you wish I’d asked you?
“How can you tell the amount of pesticides used to produce certain types of vegetables?” I use the Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen. The Clean 15 are the fifteen vegetables that have the least amount of pesticide residue when grown conventionally. The dirty dozen are the twelve types of vegetables and fruits that have the highest pesticide residue.
Wild Standard is at 1043 Pearl Street in Boulder. Find out more at 720-638-4800 or wildstandard.com; see our slideshow of Bradford Heap on westword.com.