"I feel like I'm doing a good thing for the world. I have four kids. I want to model that this is what adults who care about the world do. They decide that they are going to make the world a better place and then they make the world a better place."
Chef/Farmer Eric Skokan, owner of the Black Cat Bistro in Boulder, Colorado.
I found myself unexpectedly in Boulder for tango and an economics conference a few months ago. I prayed there would be some decent organic food to enjoy. And that is how I discovered the Black Cat Bistro.
The Black Cat Bistro boasted of mostly organic farm to fork "Front Range" cuisine, rooted in produce unique to the local forests, fields and mountains. Surprisingly, however, the restaurant was about as local as local gets, and was sourcing produce from its own fields - a farm that included sheep, pigs, geese, turkeys and chicken spread out over 130 acres of land. How in the world can a husband and wife team, with four kids, run a farm and a restaurant for over a decade, I wondered, when any one of those factors could be the straw that broke the business? For answers, I turned to the source: owner/executive chef/farmer Eric Skokan.
Natalie Pace: Did you grow all of the food that is being served tonight?
Eric Skokan: The rule that Jill and I have is that if we can grow it, we'll try our best to. The greens are us. Every vegetable that you've seen is us.
NP: How important is sustainability to your operation?
ES: I purchased a set of harvest and transport boxes seven years ago. I still use them. We use and reuse the same totes over and over again.
NP: You have a pretty big smile on your face for a man who has been up since dawn.
ES: It's a great operation. I love it, though it can get muddy in the fields. That's okay. It comes with the territory.
NP: You're in the fields in the morning and here at night. It seems like your day is endless. How do you keep the energy going?
ES: If I didn't love cooking and I didn't love farming, it would be hard to make it happen. I feel like I'm doing a good thing for the world. I have four kids. I want to model that this is what adults who care about the world do. They decide that they are going to make the world a better place and then they make the world a better place.
NP: Do you ever bring in other young chefs and show them the way?
ES: All the time. We have some fly-by-night, ephemeral internships that happen, when someone will come from another restaurant and say, "Hey Eric, I love what you're doing, can I come hang out with you guys for three nights in July?" Then we have a proper, set, internship program.
NP: What's the process behind harvest-inspired dining?
ES: An intern will receive a text from the cooks saying, "Hey, we need these things." Then the interns will write a long text, row by row, "Here's what's happening at the farm," which creates the product list for the cooks to know what they are going to have for the following day. That texting goes back and forth.
NP: That sounds a lot more exciting than peeling carrots...
ES: I love having the interns in that interplay, instead of just saying, "This is how you pull weeds," or have them do rather mindless things. They are harvesting. The interns wash, dry, pack and sort everything in the walk-ins.
NP: Boulder feels so isolated. Do you think you'd get more attention from the culinary world if you were in a different city?
ES: This is the hinterlands. Not only that, this is a bubble in the hinterlands.
NP: Your sommelier is extraordinary!
ES: We have more master sommeliers in this town than L.A. does. We have more in this town than Atlanta or Chicago or Seattle. It's a bubble. The quality of life here is so spectacular. It attracts sommeliers from around the country, who come here and beg to work for free. It's nuts! I don't get it. But that is just the way it is!
NP: The Boulder climate is so unique, there must be a lot of crops that simply don't work here.
ES: We were talking about sesame seeds with someone who asked, "What does sesame even look like?" I thought, "I have no idea!" So, I looked at the sesame plant. It's gorgeous. We're right on the edge of where it can grow. Not super well, but we can get it to grow here. So, we supply our sesame seeds now. Only because someone asked and I thought, "Why not?!"
NP: The arugula flowers were a pleasant surprise and very tasty. Are your fields organic?
ES: Two of our four fields are certified organic. The other ones we are transitioning in. The sheep will be certified next year, now that the field they are eating in is. We're debating whether or not we'll certify the hogs as organic. Even though the hogs eat all organic feed, we also give them brewer's grains and some of that is not certified. We don't use any antibiotics or anything. They get food scraps from the school district, and that's not certified organic. So, bit by bit. We're taking it in stages. The big push this year, in addition to certifying and getting some of the fields ready, was that we had the different parts of the animal operation certified animal welfare approved. That was great. It was a lot of work. We didn't have to retool our operation much. It turned out we were doing everything correctly to begin with, which is good. Just the paperwork part was challenging. This next year, we'll certify one more field and then the year after that, we'll get the last one certified. So, bit by bit.
NP: Did you start out as a farmer or a chef?
ES: I've always been a chef. I started a garden as a stress-reduction thing. Opening a restaurant is a pretty stressful endeavor. I fell in love with it, so I doubled the size of the garden and then doubled it again. I plowed my neighbor's front yard with a tractor.
NP: With the interns and experienced team, have you been able to pare back to a normal work schedule? Or are you still working insane hours?
ES: The hours are really long. But at this point, Jill and I have surrounded ourselves with a spectacular staff. They make it so that Jill and I don't have to do all of the heavy lifting that we used to have to do. Which is a luxury.
The Black Cat Bistro is fine dining with a uniquely impressive wine list. Next door is the more moderately priced Bramble and Hare, Skokan's organic gastro-pub. At Bramble and Hare, bar czar Griffin Farro mixes up some of the most unique cocktails on the planet - such as the popular "So Much More Than a Toy," made with beet juice, vodka, lemon and rosewater. I immediately became addicted to the spinach tart, only to discover one evening that sadly the spinach had been saturated too much by the previous rain for that evening's meal. Ackk! That's the downside of farm-to-fork... You fall in love with something, and it leaves you on one sad, rainy day.
In the end, however, that's real life and part of becoming more in harmony with nature, accepting the seasons and the storms, with the sesame seeds and soggy spinach.