BOULDER, Colo. — The way Eric Skokan describes food makes you salivate; the chef and farmer has a way with words that makes even the most bland ingredients sound delicious.
Skokan runs Black Cat Restaurant and farm in Boulder, a 425-acre property that grows and raises just about everything featured on the dishes it serves.
When he acquired the property a decade ago, Skokan says the land was in the process of desertifying and one of the buildings was even condemned. Since then, Skokan and his team have worked hard to bring the land back to life.
Skokan is one of a number of farmers using regenerative farming as a way too heal the soil overtime and draw carbon out of the air.
“Just like driving down the highway, you can choose to be a reckless driver or you can choose to be a safe driver. Farmers are choosing which methods they are going to end up using. One method can end up being extractive and create more of the global warming effects that we’re seeing in our lives, and then the other style is really productive and to make things better and safer and enrich our communities overtime,” Skokan said.
It’s a mantra that’s being taken from the farm and to the tables inside Black Cat Restaurant. The menu changes regularly to feature fresh foods that are in season rather than importing ingredients from other countries.
The concept is not new by any means, but over time people have started to shift away from eating seasonally to eating what they desire.
He likes to think of it as if he’s fitting round pegs into round holes; rather than trying to engineer a solution to grow or import something that’s out of season, he allows his land to dictate what’s on the menu.
“Instead of having a red pepper on the menu in January and having it flown in from Chile, we roast beets and put those on a salad. Equally delicious. One is seasonally appropriate and came from our farm right here and the other required who knows how many carbon miles to get it here,” Skokan said.
Black Cat is just one of a number of restaurants taking a closer look at its carbon food-print to consider ways to be more climate conscious.
A recent United Nations report concluded that one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from food production, from agriculture and land use to processing, packaging and waste disposal.
“Our food choices matter and it’s really a simple as that,” Skokan said. “We have to do this because this is an imperative for our lives and for our children and grandchildren‘s lives.”
Changing a restaurant goers’ mentality about menu preference can be a challenge, though. Over the years through globalization, consumers have become disconnected with the ingredients on their plate and the seasonality of each.
“We expect to have little cherry tomatoes and slices of cucumber on a salad irrespective of the time of year,” he said.
As a result, restaurants and chefs work to find the ingredients for regular menu items their patrons want so they keep coming back.
Constantly changing the menu can also put an additional burden on chefs and requires a lot of pre-planning. Already, Skokan is looking ahead to his fall menu and planting his own broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussel sprouts and potatoes.
Skokan believes it would take a major shift in mentality on the part of consumers and businesses, but one meal at a time, he’s working to prove that eating seasonally tastes better and is good for the environment.
Just 15 minutes away in a busy part of Boulder, the owner of Fresh Thymes Eatery is trying to bring that sustainable eating experience to a fast-casual dining crowd.
“It’s more common to find a farm-to-table restaurant that’s more like fine dining and sit down,” said Christine Ruch. “I really like the idea of turning all of that on its head and providing hyper-local, seasonal food on the regular in a fast casual setting.”
Eight years ago when she came up with the idea, Ruch was told the concept wouldn’t work. Plate by plate, she’s trying to show other fast, casual restaurants it is possible to cook sustainably without going out of business.
Almost everything at the restaurant is made from scratch, from the mayonnaise to the salad dressing, and most of the ingredients are sourced from local farmers and ranchers in the area.
“We can tell everybody where every single ingredient comes from, we can tell people where all of the animal protein on our menu comes from all the way to the farmer that raises that animal,” Ruch said.
On any given day at Fresh Thymes, local farmers can be seen bringing in crates of vegetables or meats and even tortillas. The menu is also written in chalk so that it can change with the seasons.
The menu itself is also quite unique; currently, it features an egg-salad sandwich made of chickpeas and a cashew cheesecake. Ruch has fun educating the customers about the seasonality of her menu items and says it can be exciting for people to rediscover sustainable eating.
While she is paying a bit more for the food from local farms than from major food producers, she believes the cost is worth the benefit, and she says businesses and consumers will pay more one way or another.
“I think we’re all learning that we’re paying for right now with poor health with climate change and soil degradation, we’re paying for it right now, and if you’re not paying the farmer, you’re paying the doctor and I would so much rather pay the farmer,” she said.
Fresh Thymes is a member of the Zero Foodprint nonprofit organization that crowdfunds grants to help local farmers switch to regenerative practices.
Participating restaurants donate 1% of the customer’s bill and an addition 1% of their own to the cause to restore healthy soil. This year, some of the money collected by the nonprofit will go to the McCauley Family Farm in Longmont to help the business switch to compost and plant windbreaks.
Roughly 21 Colorado businesses are taking part in this nonprofit’s work along with dozens of others from across the country and around the world.
Cooking seasonally and sustainably can be tough, but at least two restaurants in Boulder say they are up to the challenge.