During the peak of summer, Executive Chef David Gutowski and his staff clip fresh greens twice a week from Grouse Mountain Grill’s garden plot in the EagleVail Community Garden. They fill two huge garbage bags and return to the Beaver Creek restaurant to wash and spin the mix of organic lettuces. Just a few hours later, lucky diners taste the peak of summer on their plates, experiencing one of the freshest, most local salads in town.
Gutowski represents a growing trend of chefs who are taking the quality of their product into their own hands, literally, by growing their own vegetables in restaurant gardens and on patios. Most of those chefs work in places like the Front Range or in California, where climate and a longer growing season reward a larger bounty for more months of the year. Gutowski, on the other hand, along with a handful of other Vail Valley chefs, brave the infamous high altitude gardening conditions: a short 50-day season, hot days and cold nights. Tomatoes shudder at the thought. So why are they taking the time out of an already busy chef’s life to grow their own?
“I feel like I owe it to the guest. There are a lot of restaurants who tout local this and local that, but a lot of chefs just ask their purveyor if it’s from Colorado and throw ‘local’ on the menu, but they have no idea where it came from,” Gutowski says. “At Grouse, we take a different approach. We grow our own when we can, but we also visit the actual slaughterhouses and ranches, gardens in Boulder, Palisade and in Paonia. When you meet the people that it’s their life work, you put more care into the food.”
For Gutowski, time spent in the garden forges a stronger connection and deeper respect for the food he cooks and serves. And, it has a ripple effect on the sous chefs, line cooks and servers. Suddenly the food – and their work – has a much more interesting story, helping to retain great staff in a competitive market.
Picked today sounds a lot better than came off a truck,” Gutowski says. “The servers pick up on that and take pride in it. And from a cook’s perspective, plating something you grew from seed is pretty awesome. It’s awesome to have that connection to the food.
Chefs find that growing their own veggies has benefits beyond connection to the land. It also produces a better quality for a lesser cost, saving the restaurant money. Belgium Master
Chef Daniel Joly, uses natural and organic ingredients at Mirabelle, his restaurant just beyond the main gates of Beaver Creek.
“We have always grown our own fresh herbs,” says Joly. “And we are now in the process of building a greenhouse for the restaurant. We are going to grow everything that’s green and are exploring being able to grow root vegetables like leeks. For us to find something fresh and right outside our back door of the kitchen will make our job easier. “Right now we buy from a farm in Rifle and another in Gypsum that grows microgreens. We’ve always been focused on buying local, closer to home. There are a lot of benefits from having our own greenhouse, including being able to use the scraps of food that we don’t use to create a compost.”
These days, you can find the outstanding, fresh ingredient-driven Chef Kelly Liken in her new restaurant, Harvest by Kelly Liken, at the Sonnenalp Golf Club in Edwards that is owned by Johannes and Rosana Faessler. “The Faesslers have a long history in the area and truly understand hospitality,” says Liken who closed her Vail restaurant last year.
Liken’s menus have always reflected her reverence of Colorado’s varied seasons and has nurtured relationships with small family farmers and artisanal food producers. “If I can’t find an ingredient or product from Colorado, I won’t buy it from someplace else,” she explains. And this philosophy has her changing her menu frequently as various products come into, and go out of, season much to the delight of her loyal customers.
“My passion has always been to serve local and seasonal food,” Liken says. “At Kelly Liken in Vail, e served people from all around the world. Now, at Harvest, we’ll be able to bring that same sensibility to the community and show how amazing farm to table can be.”
To that end, Liken is working with the Sonnenalp’s head groundskeeper to source organic plants that she’ll grow in a garden she’ll have on site. “We’re going to be able to pick our veggies and herbs right out of the garden,” she says, excitedly. “My husband, Rick, and I have a pretty extensive garden at our house. Combining gardening and the culinary world has always been a passion for us.