Skip to main content

Sensi Magazine

Chef Spotting

Jul 14, 2017 07:51AM ● By John Lehndorff
See that frumpy guy in shorts, sunglasses, and a floppy hat poking around the garlic scapes at the farmers market? He might be the same person who will greet you tonight and feed you butter-poached salmon over sautéed greens paired with a pleasant chardonnay.

In fact, you might be virtually surrounded by chefs and never know it if you shop at the Boulder County Farmers Market locations in Boulder, Longmont, Lafayette, and at Union Station in Denver.

I arrived one recent Saturday morning and lurked near the escarole at the Cure Organic Farm stand and waited. The incognito chefs tend to come early looking to score the freshest, rarest crops. They stick out a little because they often pull an overloaded wagon or are weighed down with huge bags of lettuce, herbs, and veggies. They are always in a hurry because Saturday is the busiest dining night of the week.

The Boulder Cork has become known as the place for great steaks in a less-than-carnivorous town, but the restaurant’s chef for 35 years, Jim Smailer, is focused on everything else on the plate. He has been a regular at the Boulder market from the start and also maintains a kitchen garden outside his North Boulder eatery.

“I just did a quick walk through today. I picked up some nice lettuces, some rhubarb that will go in a cobbler, Kiowa Valley asparagus for polenta, and epazote (Mexican herb),” he said. Smailer also picked up turnips he planned to slice very thinly and sauté in olive oil and butter until slightly browned.

Many farms deliver directly to the restaurants, but many chefs prefer the visceral feeling of being at the market, interacting with the farmers and literally walking the talk when it comes to supporting sustainable, local, organic produce.

There are other farmers markets much closer to home, but chef Teri Rippeto has walked the Boulder market in rain, shine, or snow virtually every Saturday since opening Denver’s Potager restaurant 20 years ago when she unpaved a parking lot and planted a kitchen garden.

Rippeto is warmly greeted when she arrives at the Cure Farm stand pulling a wagon laden with tiny ripe strawberries and various lettuces. “I’ve come up from Denver every week because, until last year when the Union Station Farmers Market opened, this was the only farmers market just for growers, all local,” she says.

All “farmers markets” do not follow the same rules.

Some allow vendors to sell oranges, pineapples and other items imported from outside the state.

“It’s all about supporting the farmers in what they do. I never ask about price. I pay whatever they are charging and it’s worth it,” Ripetto says. She left with some escarole, dandelion greens, and Vermont cranberry beans for the evening specials at Potager.

Some chefs are always at the market because they operate stands for produce or prepared victuals in the food court.

If you stop at the shaded Black Cat Farm counter, you’ll usually find Eric Skokan behind the counter. His thriving 130-acre Longmont family farm helps supply his two downtown Boulder eateries, Black Cat Bistro and Bramble and Hare, as well as other restaurants. The farm produces everything from organic purple artichokes and cracked wheat to heirloom pork. Skokan’s recent book, Farm Fork Food: A Year of Spectacular Recipes Inspired by Black Cat Farm, includes recipes ranging from cardoon and kale to basil ice cream with summer berries.

Dakota Soifer, the chef-owner of Cafe Aion near the University of Colorado campus, presides over two huge paella pans in the Boulder market’s mobbed food court. The rice variations usually include breakfast paella with market veggies and eggs. (Tip: Always ask for some socarrat, the crispy, toasty rice from the bottom of the paella.) 

Soifer uses a salad greens mix grown for Cafe Aion at Oxford Farms. “I walk around the market and pick up things for paella. I love to watch the flow of ingredients through the seasons here,” he says.

“If you can make a habit of coming to the market every week, you will learn so much, even if you don’t buy anything. Talk to the farmers and ask a lot of questions,” he says.

Trust and a relationship means you might try a new vegetable like kohlrabi with cooking instructions from an expert. If you ask the farmers how to prepare certain items of produce, they tend to advise keeping things simple to allow the taste of the crop to shine. They might also suggest alternative tweaks like cold smoking eggplant or quick pickling fruits like peaches and melons. They also know the answer to the big question: “How much basil does it really take to get a ‘packed cup’ for pesto?”

All of this flavor and freshness comes with a price tag. Produce is almost always more expensive at a farmers market. “It’s worth it because it is fundamentally better for you—higher quality, fresher stuff, and you know where it comes from and how it is grown. I’m glad that Safeway has organic kale available to everyone, but, sometimes, smaller is better,” Dakota Soifer says. One tip: Ask farmers if they have any marked-down No. 2 small or bruised produce you can use in cooking.

Matt Collier of Seeds Library Cafe is a chef on a small mission. The cafe, set scenically on the bridgeway over Boulder Creek at the main Boulder Public Library, and the Seeds food stand are a partnership between Boulder County Farmers Markets and the City of Boulder to promote local food.

At the market, Collier said he is like any other culinary tourist. “I just visit the stands and see what looks good to me,” he said. That day, he picked up some baby beets, turnips, Siberian kale and garlic scape—that’s the tasty green that emerges from a garlic bulb.

Collier’s shopping tips start with a call to be brave. “My advice is to go outside your comfort zone by trying new vegetables and greens in season,” he says.

The sustainably oriented chefs and farmers have developed a nice symbiotic relationship that is great for us shoppers and diners. Some of the heirloom and organic greens, beans and veggies we find at the market are only available because restaurants and natural food stores created a demand.

Farmers markets are also an essential way to create community among like-minded foodies … and even among chefs, according to Dakota Soifer. “It’s a time-honored tradition to get together at the market all over the world. This is one of the few places chefs ever see each other because we’re always at our restaurants,” he says. 

“You can get the ingredients for this gazpacho at the market, the tomatoes, onions, cukes, peppers and bread from Udi’s — everything is here,” says chef Dakota Soifer of Boulder’s Cafe Aion.

Cafe Aion Gazpacho

-1 quart roughly chopped ripe red tomatoes
-2 cups peeled, chopped cucumber
-1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
-5 garlic cloves, crushed
-1 small hot chile (optional)
-2 cups torn day-old artisan bread
-½ cup extra virgin olive oil
-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
-2 teaspoons salt

Mix it all up and let it sit out for one hour. Purée in a blender and adjust seasonings. Chill soup and serve cold with a splash of nice olive oil.

In the summer, chef Jim Smailer of the Boulder Cork serves a highly popular and “super easy” grilled watermelon salad.

“I grill wedges of watermelon with a little olive oil salt and pepper. I place a round of Cana de Cabra (tangy, creamy goat’s milk cheese) on one half and top with another wedge of melon and serve on a salad of arugula of mixed baby lettuces. I drizzle a little super high quality balsamic vinegar on top.”