Word of Mouth

Kelly Whitaker tends an urban garden at Pizzeria Basta

Kelly Whitaker, chef-owner of Boulder's Pizzeria Basta, spent every summer of his childhood on a farm -- and he hated it. "My grandfather was a farmer, and I spent every single summer on his farm, but I hated vegetables, and my family was the kind that said, 'You're going to eat your green beans before you leave the table,'" recalls Whitaker.

But the restaurateur came full circle later in his adult life after working in restaurants in Italy, Los Angeles and San Francisco. "Most of the restaurants I worked at in Italy had a garden going," he explains. "And I saw a lot of urban gardening projects in L.A. and San Francisco. I became a huge advocate of urban gardening."

So when he found himself staring out of his kitchen window at a sad little plot of dirt, he knew exactly what he should do with it. After negotiating with his landlords at the Peloton, the development where Pizzeria Basta resides, and promising to keep the garden looking nice, the chef called in Abbondanza, a local farm, to plant an organic garden.

"We started with 100 basil plants from Abbondanza," he says. "They transplanted six-inch, already-started organic basil plants and brought in organic soil, too." Then he added chard, kale, nasturtium, arugula, mizuna, tomatoes and a variety of herbs.

For the most part, the vegetables took root: Whitaker is still getting chard, basil and nasturtium from the garden, and he plans to jar the basil so he can use it into the cold months. "In this concept, basil is everything," he says.

But he struggled with the tomato plants: "They didn't go as well as we liked," he admits. So next year, he'll focus on getting those right by expanding his growing area, adding fifteen feet of beds on the patio to soak in direct sunlight and help the produce thrive.

That's something the owners of the building, which is filled with condos, are also excited about. "It's become part of their regular tour," Whitaker says. "We put effort toward making it nice so we could go back and ask for more space."

He supplements the outdoor garden with a little window-box planter full of herbs that Altan Alma Organic Farm brings in every three or four weeks. "They bring them to us in dirt," he explains, noting that the restaurant keeps them growing in the sunshine as the cooks use them for recipes. "It's crazy how inexpensive and good those herbs are."

Though the chef supplements his garden with a lot of produce from local farmers, he says he's pleased with how much he's gotten out of his own plot of dirt. "We're only a forty-seat restaurant," he says. "We've gotten a lot of use out of it.

Plus, he says, it boosts morale during long hours in the kitchen: "If we're standing there rolling dough, we can look out the back window and see a big field of basil."

Read about restaurateurs with farms this harvest season:

- Marilyn Megenity at the Mercury Cafe

- Olav Peterson and Melissa Severson at Bittersweet

- Eric Skokan at Black Cat

- Yasu and Toshi Kizaki at Sushi Den, Izakaya Den and Ototo Food and Wine

- Dan Landes at WaterCourse Foods and City O' City

- Elaine Granata and her partnership with Olivea

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk