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What Now: Eat Your Horizon

What Now: Eat Your Horizon

Farm-to-table cooking is the hot trend in ski town kitchens. It's healthy and sustainable—but more work.
By Paul Tolme
posted: 02/22/2010
Food for Thought

Ryan Hardy swings open the door of his drip room, a walk-in refrigerator where the executive chef at Aspen’s posh Little Nell hotel ages his custom charcuterie, to reveal a meat lover’s candy store. Molasses-soaked hams hang beside fennel-cured salamis and slabs of fatty prosciutto. “Watch your head,” Hardy says, ducking a low-hanging lomo (cured tenderloin) that’s suspended between racks of handcrafted cheese  rounds and organic fruit preserves.

In addition to being highly prized by diners, Hardy’s charcuterie is special for another reason: All the meat comes from local ranches and farms. Same for his house-made cheeses—mountain Tome, Camembert, Maroon Bells chevre—all produced from local goat and cow milk. Hardy is a rising star in farm-to-table cooking, a movement to create a more healthful and sustainable food supply by emphasizing local meats and produce.

“It’s a return to the roots of old-world peasant cookery,” says Hardy, who sources the majority of the Nell’s produce from Western Colorado and his own 15-acre Rendezvous Farm. He raises pigs, chickens, sheep and goats, grows tomatoes, artichokes, eggplants, beans, squash and a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. All end up on the menu.

The eat-local trend is catching on in ski towns from Vermont to California. Resort restaurants specializing in farm-to-table fare are often high-end establishments, but the movement’s goal is to bring sustainable, healthy food to the masses. That’s why Jackson Hole now serves all-natural beef hamburgers, burritos and even all-natural hot dogs in its cafeterias across the resort. 

In Colorado, Steamboat resort now buys its beef from Yampa Valley ranches, where highland cattle graze on pastures 10 minutes from the slopes. Steamboat also purchases organic produce from a Colorado family farm. “They email us about what produce is currently ripe. It’s picked to order and served to our guests one to two days later,” says Liz Wahl, Steamboat’s food and beverage director.

Vermont, with its counterculture vibe and agricultural tradition, was one of the early supporters of the farm-to-table movement in the East. The Vermont Fresh Network pairs restaurants with local farms. “The trick is finding restaurants that put more local products on their menus than just the basic maple syrup and Cabot cheese,” says Jean Hamilton of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.

“This type of cooking requires more legwork, but it’s healthier and it feels better,” says chef Mark Estee, who serves regional duck, grass-fed beef and seasonal produce at Moody’s Bistro in Truckee, Calif., and Baxter’s at Northstar. “You get what’s being harvested now.”

In Jackson, Couloir executive chef Wes Hamilton shops farmers markets and buys crates of fresh produce from nearby farms, never knowing until the last moment what he will be serving that night. Call it the Iron Ski Chef challenge. “I drive my restaurant manager crazy because he can’t print the menu until an hour before dinner,” he says.

The hunger for a locally based diet comes at a time of rising obesity, industrial food recalls and climate change. An estimated 20 percent of American fossil fuel use goes to the production and delivery of food, and more than 70 million cases of food-borne illness are reported annually in the United States. Even so, locavores remain a minority: only 3 to 4 percent of U.S. food is organic or local.

Some things—the beans for your morning cup of coffee, for instance—simply don’t grow in North American backyards. Still, there is progress to be made. Jackson Hole, for example, switched to a local coffee roaster this winter, dumping Starbucks. “We keep that money in the community,” Hamilton says.

Beer is another skier staple. Located in Middlebury, near Vermont’s Mad River Glen and Sugarbush, Wolaver’s Organic Brewery makes brews with local wheat, pumpkins and hops.

For home consumption, skiers are joining CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture farms, where members pay fees to receive weekly supplies of the current harvest. “It starts with greens in the spring and then goes to summer crops and then to potatoes and winter squash in the fall,” says Dale Sharkey of Cosmic Apple Gardens in Victor, Idaho, near Grand Targhee. The farm’s 230 members pay $450 annually for a 16-week supply of veggies—enough to feed a family of four. “We can’t take any more members. We’re maxed out,” says Sharkey. Farming is hard work, but rising before dawn has advantages, says Tyler Webb, owner of Stony Pond Farm in Fairfield, Vt. “It totally annoys our friends when we score first chair on powder days time and time again,” says Webb, who skis 90 days per winter.

In Aspen, Hardy preserves fruits and vegetables during the fall harvests. When winter arrives, his larder is stocked. Organic waste generated by his kitchen is composted or fed to pigs, whose manure fertilizes the gardens. “We call it full-circle cooking.” This waste-not ethic is why he produces so much charcuterie: choice cuts are served immediately; everything else goes into the grinder.

Hardy provides a glimpse of his gourmet peasant-style cooking in his kitchen, where a pig head simmers in a giant pot. When cooked, meat will be picked from the porcine skull and poured into terrines to make head cheese—an old-world staple that will be served warm with toast points at the holidays. “We use everything but the oink,” Hardy says. He learned about the commercial food industry from his father, who worked as an executive for the restaurant chain Long John Silver’s. His mother, meanwhile, gardened and fed the family fresh vegetables and fruit. “He was bringing home the bacon from fast food while she served us healthy, natural foods.”

The Colorado chef got a lesson in the benefits of buying locally early in his career. A farmer planned to slaughter his goats because nobody wanted the milk. “I told him, ‘I’ll take it,’” says Hardy, who made cheese from the milk and taught the farmer how to do so. Customers loved the cheese, and Hardy saw that his purchasing could sustain a family farm.

Jovial and fit, Hardy practically bounces with enthusiasm when talking about sustainable eating. “We’re trying to change the culture of eating and restaurant cooking. Aspen is a leader in promoting renewable energy, and I want to do the same for food.”

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