Eric Skokan opened Black Cat Bistro in 2006 and added a kitchen garden the same year, "originally just to relieve stress," says the chef/restaurateur, who now also operates Bramble & Hare just two doors away from his original Boulder restaurant. He remembers "puttering around in slippers with a cup of coffee," tending to the plants that would provide flowers, leaves and herbs -- finishing touches to dishes that were otherwise created as they are at most other restaurants: by cooking meats and vegetables from boxes delivered by food distributors. But those little tastes of homegrown produce made them come alive, and Skokan realized he could probably do more.
The following year, Skokan expanded his plot to a third of an acre, adding a variety of vegetables to the herbs he'd fallen in love with the previous year. During the height of the harvest that September, almost all of the vegetables on the finished plates at Black Cat Bistro came from his garden.
If there's a fine line between a garden and a farm, by the third year Skokan had clearly crossed it. He was able to expand to almost three acres by leasing land from Boulder County Open Space along with a group of like-minded budding farmers, whose adjoining leased properties totaled nearly ten acres. He bought a tractor and learned to drive it -- poorly, at first. In his new cookbook Farm Fork Food, Skokan writes that "'undulating' is the charitable word to describe the look of the rows that first season." By the end of the year, though, he was the only one still farming that leased land and had taken over some of what the others had left, finishing with more than five acres.
Black Cat Farms now covers 130 acres and includes pigs, cows, chickens and turkeys; what comes from the farm determines the menus at Skokan's restaurants. During the early years, he says, he hoped to "drive the farm into the center of the plate," growing staple vegetables like carrots, beets and cauliflower. "Instead of saying 'three weeks are from us and the rest of the year is from California,' the goal was to expand deeper into fall and winter and earlier into spring," he explains.
Pointing to Maine's Eliot Coleman, "the godfather of four-season farming," as inspiration, Skokan says Black Cat Farms now shapes his menus almost year-round, except for a small window between Valentine's Day and mid-March every year. He uses homestead techniques common 100 to 200 years ago to ferment and pickle kimchi, sauerkraut, cucumbers and jalapeños. During the tomato harvest, his restaurants put up fifty gallons of tomato sauce a day. Deep-freezes and commercial food dryers help preserve more vegetables for the lean months, while root cellars under the farm store 35,000 pounds of root vegetables -- beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, onions and other varieties -- to sustain the restaurants well into May.
But Skokan didn't stop there; he was also thinking about greens. "What do people north of us do in the middle of winter?" he wondered, and soon found that seeds purchased from Scandinavia -- spinach, mâche, chervil, Asian mustards, kale, escarole and arugula, to name just a few -- performed well in Colorado winters. He uses seed saved from his own plants now, and can harvest outdoors until mid-January, using shop brooms to push snow off fabric covers; a greenhouse the size of Black Cat Bistro itself provides an additional boost.
"No one does it to the extent we do," Skokan says of how his nearly year-round production ranks on the Front Range farm-to-table scene.
Skokan's book features recipes from his restaurants that were inspired by the farm, but also describes his evolution as a chef and farmer and includes tips for diving into more advanced home-food preparation (stocks, charcuterie, preserved vegetables), home gardening and selecting produce from farmers' markets. He describes the book as "one part inspiration and one part nuts and bolts," citing recipes built off what he loves to cook at home and ideas he gives customers at the farmers' market every Saturday. (As if he's not busy enough as a farmer and restaurant owner, Skokan and and his wife, Jill, also run a CSA and a booth at the Boulder Farmers' Market.)
Keep reading for more with chef, farmer and cookbook author Eric Skokan.
At the market, he says, customers ask questions like, "Eric, what do we do with cardoons?" Farm Fork Food provides answers, along with ideas for substituting other seasonal vegetables to keep at least some of the recipes alive throughout the year. But before he could come up with those answers, Skokan had to learn how to grow cardoons, as well as the other 250 or so types of vegetables his farm now produces.
Along the way, he's had his fair share of failures, including an enormous crop of turnips so woody they were fit only for pigs. In fact, that's when he started with pigs. His first were Mulefoots, a black-skinned breed with thick fur and a gentle disposition that were perfect for sunny Colorado summers, cold winters and his lack of experience with more aggressive breeds. Now he uses the pigs to help manage soil fertility and crop rotation. With a little assistance from temporary electrical fencing, he has the pigs roaming free on specific plots, devouring what's left after a harvest, rooting up dirt and converting what they eat into natural fertilizer, spreading it more efficiently than a human driving a tractor could.
"Imagine a crazy scenario," Skokan suggests, where a commercial hog farm is leaking pollutants -- mostly excess nitrogen and phosphorus -- into aquifers and waterways, while right next door a farmer is spraying chemical fertilizers to add depleted nitrogen and phosphorus. With his method, he points out, there's no runoff and no need for added fertilizer, "and the pigs live a really amazing life."
Skokan and his team walk the fields every day or two, "tasting for inspiration for what we find in the rows," he says, interaction that in turn inspired the recipes in Farm Fork Food. But you don't need to have your own farm to take advantage of the right ingredients at the right time. "You can pick up anything that's excellent in the farmers' market," he explains, "and use this as a tool book." A burdock-root soup could be made just as easily with salsify, for example.
He considers many of the recipes simple, but says his editor deemed a few of them "aspirational." Headcheese is "simply made from the rich meat of the pig's head," according to the recipe, but still calls for "a pot just large enough to accommodate the head." But other recipes are striking combinations that use easy techniques to let the ingredients do the work: Dessert wine, duck, chard and apricots come together in short order with little more than sautéing and simmering, for instance. Skokan has prepared the slow-cooked pork shanks with heirloom beans at home more than fifty times and taught his kids how to make spaetzle: "It's fun for kids because it's goopy and delicious," he notes.
His menus -- and the cookbook -- also feature foraged ingredients. "'Wild herbs' is the euphemism we use for weeds," he jokes. "Mallow, wild lettuce, lamb's quarters and thistle root" -- all of which grow without assistance at Black Cat Farms. He thanks customers for participating in weed control on the farm when they order dishes with these ingredients.
Although it took two years to bring Farm Fork Food to fruition, Skokan says he "enjoyed the process so much, the discovery of learning to be a writer." And when he received his first copy from the publisher in London, he stayed up all night re-reading it, thinking, "Oh, my God, I can't believe I wrote that." Now he wants to write another book, possibly with more narrative and fewer recipes. Writing, like learning to be a farmer, involves long hours -- but, he concludes, as with everything else that has sprung from his passion for great food, "When you come across something in life you really enjoy, you want to do more of it."