In a Pickle
Last month, I was all giddy about Colterra, the Niwot restaurant that chef Bradford Heap and his wife, Carol, were planning to open in place of Le Chantecler, which Heap had bought after he'd sold his interest in Chautauqua Dining Hall and Full Moon Grill ("All the Way," April 12). But it wasn't just the thought of a new restaurant in Niwot that had me excited. It was the kind of restaurant Heap and his wife envisioned: one based on Bradford's reading of Michael Pollan's groundbreaking and life-altering book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (which I discussed at some length in "Survival of the Fittest," the column published on June 22, 2006).
To vastly oversimplify the book's premise, Pollan follows a series of meals — a box of Chicken McNuggets, a humanely raised and slaughtered chicken, a foraged supper in California — from start to finish, from one end of the food chain to the other. In doing so, he illuminates their advantages and disadvantages in terms of "the omnivore's dilemma" — that being, when an animal has an overwhelming variety of choice in its diet, how does it choose what's best to eat? Like Fast Food Nation before it and The Jungle before that, Pollan's book was incredibly affecting, particularly among those in the food world. I know that since reading it, I haven't looked at my dinner the same way again. I also know that I'm not alone.
So I was thrilled when I heard that Bradford — a serious veteran chef who learned his trade stateside, made his bones in France and Italy (working for Georges Blanc and Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo, among other luminaries), then came home with visions of La Cuisine dancing in his head — had been similarly juiced by the book, inspired to take the drastic step of trading in a cushy exec chef's position in order to get back onto the line at a place of his own where he could try to do good by Pollan and the earth.
When I talked to Carol about their plans for Colterra, she mentioned supply chains and partnering with local farmers and le cuisine du marche — the market-driven, ever-changing, fully seasonal menus that Bradford intended to offer at Colterra. And she mentioned in passing that they'd been talking to Paul and Anne Cure of Cure Farm in Boulder about putting in a garden on the grounds of Colterra so that they could keep the menu even more local — so local, in fact, that the cooks would be able to go out the back door in the morning and pick what was going to be on the menu that night.
Cure Farm was going to be "putting in a series of organic gardens on the Colterra property so that they could grow some of their own produce," I wrote after speaking with Carol. And the following weekend, when people found Paul in Cure's stall at the Boulder Farmer's Market, they told him how excited they were at the prospect. Trouble was, Paul had no idea what they were talking about.
"We never had any plans to put in a garden at Colterra," Paul told me last week. "We sell him some produce, but that's it."
Cure Farm raises pigs and chickens and grows about a hundred varieties of vegetables — "basically everything but corn," Paul said. It does grow for several restaurants in the area (including Colterra and Bradford's former restaurants), and also does a good business at the Farmer's Market. It sells a lot of arugula, a lot of salad mix and spinach and frisée to chefs. And the Cure Farm name shows up fairly regularly on the sorts of menus that name-check farmers and producers as a way of showing how committed to locality and seasonality their attendant kitchens are. "The thing is, people will come up to me at the market and say, 'I had your eggs at such-and-such restaurant,'" he continued. "And I'm thinking, 'Funny. I've never sold eggs to that restaurant...'"
For Paul, the Colterra confusion seemed just another example of that. "It's frustrating from our point of view," he said. "I confronted Bradford about it."
"Paul was really tweaked," Bradford told me. Ultimately, the confusion came down to a disagreement over terms. Anne and Paul weren't going to be "putting in" a garden at Colterra. They weren't going to design it or maintain it or anything like that. But when Bradford was planning his gardens on the property — both a main garden in the space where Le Chantecler's old patio had been, and a long perimeter garden that could one day provide Colterra with sweet peas, herbs, squash — he'd discussed them with Anne Cure, had even asked her if she could provide him with seedlings and starters. "I had certainly spoken to Anne about the garden," Bradford continued. "I was going to try and get some plants from her. I don't know. It's just a bad situation. The whole thing made me feel kinda bad."
And I'll apologize for my part in the miscommunication.
For Paul, the problem isn't really the Heaps (Brad says they buy "thousands of dollars of produce" from Cure every year), but other, less noble restaurants that slap the Cure Farm name — or the names of other local farms and farmers — on their menus without having any relationship with the farm at all. "They're trying to piggyback on the name and other people's hard work," Paul explained, and laughed. "I know, it's not the first time anyone's said that there's a little selfishness in the restaurant industry. But some of these guys get high up on themselves. They think that they are creating something when, really, it's the producers, the growers who are."
Paul named some names, told me some people to talk to. And over the next few weeks, as we come fully into the growing season, I'll be on the lookout for blatant deception, as well as sheer stupidity. Farmers don't exactly have it easy these days, so good for you if you're a chef or a restaurant owner out there pimping for the little guy — buying his produce, putting it on your menu and paying your bills on time. But if you're co-opting his name without buying the greenery, stop. Now. You want to be local, natural and seasonal? Then be local, natural and seasonal. Don't fake it. Don't wear the Ramones T-shirt if you've never been to a show, you know what I mean? No one likes a poser.
Garden snafu aside, things are looking good for Colterra, which has been open just over a month. "We just got rocked this weekend, man," Bradford told me. "We got the patio open. Added another forty seats." This is the new patio — the one just built to take advantage of the view over the grounds and still purely speculative gardens. The patio was a huge project; the gardens will be an even bigger one. Still, Bradford's hoping to get a bunch of heirloom tomatoes in the ground soon, some eggplant, maybe melons.
"I'm pretty stoked about growing some of my own produce," he said. "I mean, I'm not trying to be an organic farmer here. My concern is how we can align ourselves more closely with the soil. The challenge for me — my dilemma, I guess — is how far I can push this, right?" How much of his stock, his menu, can he get locally, seasonally, from good people doing good work.
We talked about his training — how affected he'd been by the idea of market-driven menus in Europe, the cuisine minceur of Michel Guerard — and how tough it is to pull off something like that in the United States, where industrial agriculture has such a lock on the market. He told me how, years ago, he'd sold his motorcycle and everything he owned to finance his first year overseas; how, much more recently, he'd done the same thing all over again in selling Chautauqua and Full Moon to pursue his dream of having a restaurant he could run exactly the way he wanted. "I finally have the ability to do this," he said. "And I'm thankful, happy we can change the menu when we want, grow things."
He'll be happier still when the gardens start bearing, but for now he's just writing a lot of checks. Three hundred dollars here, a thousand dollars there. Spinach and salad greens, tomatoes, cases and cases of produce from local farms with whom he's trying to build a relationship and plans for the future.
"We're spending money like drunken sailors down here," he told me, laughing. "And if I blow it, I'm going to be living in a box at the dump." He paused. "Way to put that positive energy out there in the universe, right?"
Leftovers: I just got word from City O' City — the new joint that Dan Landes and company opened in the former home of WaterCourse Foods at 214 East 13th Avenue — that it's pulled the PBR kegs and replaced them with frosty cold barrels of Genesee Cream Ale, or Genny Cream, as it's known to the legions of underage drinkers in Rochester who grew up filching cans out of their parents' fridge.
Pablo Torres, City O' City's bar manager and former Mezcal tequila savant, convinced the guys loading up trucks at Genesee Brewery that it would be worth their while to ship kegs all the way out to Colorado. "Of all the retro beers," he says, "Lone Star, PBR, Old Style, Rolling Rock, et cetera, it's arguably the best."
Arguably, like hell! It is the best, hands down. Don't believe me? See for yourself. The first pint got pulled last Friday, and City is offering 'em up at a buck per during happy hour and three dollars a pint (I used to pay less than that for a full sixer) the rest of the time.
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