Clear Creek Organics, chef Michel Wahaltere prove farm-to-table is no fad

Farm-to-fork, farm-to-table, pasture-to-plate: Whether industry buzz phrases or genuine attempts to improve the quality of meals for restaurant diners, the trend has blossomed into a nationwide obsession for restaurateurs and dedicated gourmands alike. The sincerity of a kitchen's efforts is generally apparent with the first forkful: Is the salad topped with wan pink tomatoes in February; does the menu feature tropical ingredients flown in from hotter climates; why is there asparagus in my pasta in November? But when you're seated at a long table in the middle of a field within view of boisterous goats and rows of ripening produce, you know at least a few of the dishes sport ingredients that just recently had the bugs and dirt rinsed from their roots.

On Sunday, June 28, Michel Wahaltere, executive chef of the soon-to-open Dorchester Social Eatery in LoDo, teamed up with Clear Creek Organics to host a farm dinner at Steven and Lauren Cochenour's acre-plus parcel of fertile soil and burgeoning vines.

See also:First look at Ambli, Michel Wahaltere's new restaurant, that puts a global spin on takeout

The Wheat Ridge land, which is owned by Amanda Weaver, who teaches geography and environmental sciences at the University of Colorado Denver, is tagged as a conservation easement by the Colorado Department of Revenue. According to Steven Cochenour, development is no longer an option under easement regulations, so farming is an excellent alternative use for the property. That, combined with Weaver's scholarly focus on the environmental implications of transitional rural-to-urban land, meant a great business opportunity for the Cochenours, who already have previous experience in organic farming and community-supported agriculture.

In operation for two years, Clear Creek Organics, which works under a lease agreement with Weaver, already has some sixty families subscribed to its CSA and also sells produce to some of Denver's top restaurants, including Mizuna and Lower48 Kitchen.

Chef Wahaltere is also commited to local products. His menu at Dorchester will feature Colorado lamb, which is "the best in the world," he says, adding, "and I would know; my father was a butcher." Wahaltere, who hails from French Belgium, says he hopes to to partner with Clear Creek Organics because he was so impressed with Cochenour's garlic: "As someone French, I must admit I love their un-cured garlic. In the pesto I made this morning, it is so sweet without the burn of cured garlic."

Walhaltere showed off the candy-sweet beets and earthy kale in a warm salad and also put that fresh garlic to use in a rich and complex eggplant caponata. What struck me about the farm and the food cooked from its produce was the variety and volume possible from such a small plot and the intense flavors imbued in vegetables grown without the use of high-tech equipment and chemicals.

Cochenour indicated that he might be able to squeeze another 15 percent out of the farm's yield with the use of chemical fertilizers, bug sprays and weed killers, but he'd rather use the weeds to create a harmony that adds to the health of the soil than strip everything to bare dirt. The goats and chickens also looked happy; small batches of goat cheese are already in the works and Weaver is getting a license for her kitchen to sell the cheese commercially in small batches, Cochenour adds.

Evidence of dedication to efficient but traditional farming on small plots of land is obvious throughout the metro area. The Squeaky Bean operates its own parcel -- the Bean Acre -- in Lakewood; Fruition has gained national recognition for its eponymous farm -- yielding sheep-milk cheese as well as veggies; and Cure Organic Farm raises its own hogs and lamb for sale to restaurants and through its own retail store.

Small food producers are taking advantage of this local bounty. Ian Lee of Boulder's Pressery brought some of his kale and pear juice to the dinner and mentions that much of the produce he uses comes from Colorado. He's even trying to market Colorado watermelon juice -- hydrating and high in electrolytes -- as an alternative to the vastly popular but imported coconut water so common on grocery shelves.

Wahaltere's Dorchester is scheduled to open in late July. "I don't want to compete - except in a friendly way," he says of other LoDo restaurants. Instead, he wants to carve out a unique niche with a globe-trotting menu dotted with locally produced ingredients to "add to the neighborhood."

A 4,000 square-foot rooftop patio will certainly help guests appreciate Colorado's natural beauty and abundant sunshine, so any prominently featured Centennial State menu items can only deepen that appreciation.

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