Consider the different ways to view the things we eat. Depending on how we’re wired, we can see food as everything from routinely consumed caloric fuel to sacred ingredients of culinary nirvana. Not only that, from the time we learn to chew, we tend to put food in one of two categories: “Tastes Good” or “Good For You.”
Unless, that is, we’ve had the chance to taste something fresh from a garden. Because I don’t care how dulled to the world your tired Type A tastebuds are, when you bite into a plump, juicy, sun-warmed, sweet-ripened, fresh-off-the-vine organically grown tomato, something in the deep recesses of your collective human psyche clicks and you remember why we were put on this Earth to begin with. We were put here to eat delicious food, food that was freshly picked and bursts with real, authentic flavor. Food that tastes good because it’s good for you. (Now, try to not forget that again.)
It’s that exceptional flavor of garden-grown fruits and vegetables that, in the last few decades, has inspired chefs from coast to coast to plant organic restaurant gardens of their own. Even — perhaps especially — chefs who work and live here in the Rocky Mountains, where the growing season is famously short.
You can’t get more local
Anthony LaRosa, executive chef of Vail’s Larkspur, has six raised garden beds on the lawn outside his kitchen door, planted with multiple varieties of peas (including Oregon sugar, Alaska, green arrow, golden sweet yellow and mammoth melting sugar peas) as well as beets, radishes, greens, turnip, carrots, herbs and squash.
“I have a greenhouse at home, ad I’m extremely passionate about fresh ingredients. Being able to walk out to the garden and see the fresh produce growing is a great reminder of where our food comes from,” LaRosa said. “The rich intenseness of flavor is always unexpected. Even during the prime summer months, when farm-bought produce taste fresher than fresh, it still doesn’t compare to something picked that day and prepared that night for a customer.”
The Larkspur menu currently features tender garden-grown greens in the mixed green salad with ginger champagne vinaigrette; sweet sugar peas on the wild striped sea bass; and beet tops for braising greens.
To supply its summer menu with garden ingredients, Beaver Creek’s Splendido restaurant has its own plot in the Eagle-Vail Community Gardens.
“When you’re at 7,400 feet, it’s not exactly the Garden of Eden,” said David Walford, Splendido’s executive chef. “The season is brief, which in a way, makes the fruits of the labor even sweeter. We have lots of different peas, carrots, including baby carrots in rainbow colors, kale, beets and beans. We never harvest enough of one item to feature exclusively on the menu, but we incorporate our garden-grown ingredients in a lot of different dishes.”
Splendido’s mixed greens dish features its own garden grown mustard greens, and Walford shaves his garden vegetables into the market vegetable dish. There are also two herb garden plots behind the chateau and large pots of herbs on the restaurant’s deck.
“When we can grow it, we revel in it,” Walford said.
Freshness naturally preserved
Both LaRosa and Walford combine the harvest of their gardens with the supply of organically grown fruits and vegetables supplied by local vendors. Canning, preserving, and pickling are great ways to enjoy a bountiful seasonal crop when the gardens are buried under four feet of snow. For their winter menus, both restaurants just finished slicing, sauteing, and vacuum sealing over 900 pounds of fresh porcini mushrooms, and LaRosa will be putting up 150 cases of fresh Wynn Farm tomatoes for Larkspur’s famous tomato soup. Rachel Ortega, the executive pastry chef at Larkspur is busy canning Palisade peaches to be served with cheeses and with foie gras in the winter months.
Loaded Joe’s, with locations in both Avon and Vail, has also kept a plot at the Eagle-Vail community gardens for the last two years.
“Ours is pretty much an experimental garden,” said owner Kent Beidel. “We’re learning as we go. We love the idea of sustainable, local and organic — and we stick to those practices by sourcing Colorado-raised and grown ingredients as much as we can. But mountain gardening has its challenges and so far, we haven’t harvested enough of one thing to feature on our food menu. But mint grows very well up here and we’re using our garden-grown mint in our mojitos.”
OK: mojitos with garden-grown mint. Tastes good, good for you, or both?
Madeleine Berenson is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur (www.larkspurvail.com), at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999.