The phrase "farm to table" has become more of a marketing term than a restaurant philosophy, but there are still chefs who adhere to the practice of forming alliances with local farmers in order to give guests a year-round taste of what's growing in their region. Denver is losing one of those dedicated chefs this month, though, as Teri Rippeto is selling Potager, her 22-year-old Capitol Hill restaurant, to two employees, Paul and Eileen Warthen.
From the start, Rippeto was committed to buying meats and produce from Colorado farmers and ranchers and designing menus around them. The menus shifted depending on what was available — Rippeto made trips to the Boulder County Farmers' Market twice a week to stock up — and dishes evolved throughout the year as weather changes both gradual and sudden affected what farmers could grow.
And she kept at it as Denver's dining scene grew and other restaurateurs picked up on the locavore trend. "'Farm to table' became the tag word, and anyone who said it got publicity," Rippeto recalls.
Meanwhile, Rippeto continued to walk the talk. "It was the same then as it is today," the chef explains. "It was a way to honor the farmer and what's grown here — on a scale that could support their businesses and their families. My goal was to bring it to the public and to inspire my staff to look at food differently."
Through the decades, Rippeto's goals and methods have remained constant. "I see about the same variety," she says of the products she buys. "We rely on about ten to fifteen farmers; they know what grows well here. It requires a lot of flexibility because of the weather — hailstorms are a bigger problem now."
One thing that's changed is that farmers are now more willing to drive into Denver, and not just at the height of the summer growing season. "When we began, no farmers would come to Denver with food. Now, as long as they have food, they come down — even in February," Rippeto notes.
And Potager will take what they have. "We close the patio at the end of September, and it becomes storage for winter crops," Rippeto says, explaining that wooden pallets are stacked and filled with root vegetables and covered with heavy blankets so that the kitchen can continue to come up with fresh dishes even in the dead of winter.
Running a restaurant this way isn't easy or particularly profitable. "It's expensive to do business this way," Rippeto admits. "I never haggle over the price. I pay whatever they ask because it's worth it. But keeping food cost at 25 percent is impossible. Nobody's going to pay that much for their food."
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Despite the difficulties inherent to true farm-to-table cooking, the movement has grown, both in Denver and across the country (even if many of the claims are exaggerated). Rippeto is hesitant to take credit for getting the movement going in Colorado, but admits that Potager may have been a leader. "We were the first to do it this way, so maybe I did [start a movement]," she recalls. "I talked about it a lot, so maybe. I was younger and banged the drum a lot louder then."
But 22 years is a long time to carry a banner, and Rippeto is ready to pursue other interests. She's an abstract artist who works with acrylic paints, and she's putting some of her works in upcoming shows at the Art Students League of Denver. She also plans to travel more with her husband, now that she knows Potager is in good hands with the Warthens, who officially take over on April 29.
"They're hard workers," she says of Paul, the chef, and Eileen, the beverage manager. "I've spent the last year and a half trying to back out of the kitchen so that the staff listens to them and not to me."
For Rippeto, it's time to step out of the kitchen and into the studio. And for Paul and Eileen Warthen, it's time to pick up the drum and bang it loudly at Potager.