Get ready to stock your kitchen with the freshest vegetables, fruits and flowers around: The Union Station Farmers Market kicks off on Saturday, May 12. Everyone involved is anticipating the opening, including Paul C. Reilly, chef and co-owner of Beast + Bottle and Coperta, and a member of the market's elected board. Not only does the chef love fresh and local goods (something you can get a taste of at both of his restaurants), but he thinks everyone should get into the practice of meeting the farmers, trying the best seasonal produce and supporting local agriculture. We caught up with him to find out what to expect this year at the downtown farmers' market, and why you should get excited, too.
Paul Reilly: I am excited about the return of Ollin Farms [out of Longmont]. They were here during the inaugural years, but took last year off to focus on the farm. I love their produce, and the head farmer has an agriculture advocacy side that he brings to the market.
This year, for the first time, there's going to be a CSA [community shared agriculture] pickup courtesy of Cure Organic Farm. I was lobbying for that pretty hard, and I am pumped Cure is going to do it. [The vegetable shares are sold out, but you can sign up online for other CSA offerings through the farm's website, cureorganicfarm.com.] Having a CSA forces you to cook recipes you normally wouldn’t.
This year we also have more prepared food at the market, which people have been asking for. In fact, it's the most prepared food found at any of the markets.
Can you tell us more about what prepared food will be there?
In addition to Stoic & Genuine and Mercantile, we have a stand from a food truck called True West Tacos. It's run by a former chef from the Steuben's empire, Cameron Mengel. It's breakfast- and market-inspired. The other is, I believe, Bao Bao, and is Asian-inspired street food. I know a lot of people have been asking for more of a variety of food down there, so we have looked into that.
When the market was conceptualized, the board [of the Boulder County Farmers Markets, which oversees the Union Station branch] knew they wanted to have a presence with the growing restaurant community. I was recommended by a farmer who said they should talk to me. That's how I was recruited, and I focus on how can we tie in Denver's fast-growing restaurant scene going forward. For three years, I have sat on the elected board, and the Union Station market is my specialty. I help with organizing it, making sure events are there, cheerleading the market, and tying in the chef aspect as well.
You must like it!
I love it. It allows me to pursue my passion without being in the kitchen all the time. I can still be a part of the good food movement and use my chef knives. It's a great outlet.
We are doing multiple cocktail competitions this year. It was really popular last year, and we did two. They would pick an ingredient from a farm and then pair it with a local spirit. I think there are four or five scheduled this year. I am also going to be doing the farmers' market tour and luncheon that we did last year. This includes a guided tour by me and the chef teams from Beast + Bottle and Coperta. After the farmers' market tour, we have a three-course lunch featuring a seasonal ingredient. This year we're doing cherries for one (on June 23) and a corn one in August (on August 4). We also have the chef demos [with EatDenver], and it's always interesting to see who we get. Some are returning chefs, but a lot are new people, so that's exciting. [Highlights this year include Thach Tran of Ace Eat Serve (May 26), Chris Starkus of Urban Farmer (June 30), and Amos Watts of Corrida (July 21).]
Restaurants do a great job promoting local food, but there is no flagship stage for that. I think it's important that there's a place that people can see and meet the people responsible for this stuff. It's like a home base for the food movement in Denver.
I also think, as we are growing as a dining community, the market can serve as a launching pad for young cooks. I see the market as a classroom for learning about local food and as a way to meet the people behind it and forge relationships with them. That's what happened with me. The Union Square farmers' market was a classroom for me in New York City. It's such a part of the culture in that downtown Manhattan area, and I hope Union Station becomes that in Denver.
I definitely have my favorites down in the market, farmers I call my friends — like Josh Olsen from ACRES and Christian Toohey of Toohey & Sons Organic. I have been forging that farmer/chef relationship for a long time. It's the circle of life in terms of local food, if you will.
Last year we had the greatest local asparagus season with Kiowa Valley Organics, who were a guest at the market. They had asparagus the first four or five markets, and it was blowing everyone's mind. It doesn't do that great in Colorado, but he had amazing asparagus. Another ingredient is from Toohey, the Violette di Firenze eggplant. You have never had an eggplant until you had this. It's the most amazing, milky and custard-y eggplant. I could tell the story behind it, but I would rather you go to the market and have Christian Toohey tell the story.
Anything else we should know about the Union Station Farmers Market this year?
I think people should know, and this is not new: Corner Post Meats does a meat CSA for grilling season. You pre-order online and pick up in the market. It's ten pounds of different cuts for $200. You get some serious food in there. You get a whole chicken, burger meat, lamb chops...all geared toward grill season. It's the best pasture-raised meat you can buy locally.