According to Eric Skokan, the very foundation of his work as a chef at Black Cat in Boulder shifted when he also became a farmer and started Black Cat Farm. His goals as a chef shifted, from seeing ingredients as merely material for creative endeavors to seeing them as the ultimate expression of his creativity.
Yellow Scene: What is your personal food philosophy as a chef?
Eric Skokan: To me, some of the most powerful food moments happen from surprisingly simple ingredients that are harvested at their peak and eaten fresh. The first great peach of the season, the warm velvety tomato off of the vine or sweet peas that pop with flavor and freshness. My goal in the restaurant is to collect those vivid, wonderful bites and highlight them on the plate.
YS: What local produce do you look forward to the most each year?
ES: Strawberries warmed from the sun, petit pois (the tiny version of English peas), the first mache of the season (normally harvested from under the snow), and the last carrots of the year (also harvested from under the snow).
YS: How has seasonal cooking colored or shaped your menus this year?
ES: Making the shift to cooking seasonally (which for me means changing the menu every day) required that I redesign the basic kitchen system entirely. In a typical restaurant, the chef writes the menu, writes the recipes, procures the ingredients, trains the cooks, trains the service staff, and hopefully, makes the necessary adjustments. That may happen once a year in corporate/high volume restaurants or up to four times a year in “seasonal” restaurants. Once the chef makes the commitment to cooking locally, that system falls apart. Farmers know how difficult it is to grow great romaine lettuce. They also know having it great and available continually for a Caesar salad, week after week is almost impossible. Now multiply that across all of the different ingredients in a menu and it becomes staggering. At Black Cat Farm Table Bistro, the farm and kitchen are in constant communication on availability of produce. Sometimes the chefs will say, “I need some fennel to finish a dish.” Other times the farm crew will say, “We have fennel that you need to use.” Through that dynamic, the menu is written in the afternoon and printed just before dinner service. Every day.
YS: Winter is always a challenging season for locavores; how do you work around growing restrictions with our climate?
ES: I spend many hours researching how to extend our season at the farm so that we can serve local food in the restaurant, even when the snow is blowing sideways outside. At Black Cat Farm, we harvest outside in the fields from late March through the middle of January. I devote lots of time to planting special varieties that can withstand very cold temperatures. In January, we’ll have a team in the fields with big push brooms to push the snow off of the beds for harvesting. Additionally, we have a hoop-house for harvesting in February and March. Lastly, we have two root cellars under the farm in which we store 30,000 pounds of root vegetables and cabbages for winter use.
It wasn’t enough for Eric Skokan to simply peruse the farmers markets or farm stands of Boulder County. He instead opted to develop his own farm.
Black Cat Farm
What is arguably the coolest part of having a chef-owned farm is that you are sure to have a solid product, in the restaurant and at the farm’s market stand. “One of the great joys of having a 70-acre farm just outside the city is that it allows me to harvest great product and rush it into the restaurant just in time for service,” Skokan says. “It turns out that most produce grown in the U.S. and served in restaurants is bred for “shelf life” not flavor. With our farm so close, I am free to choose varieties solely for great flavor.” Black Cat Farm grows 250 heritage and heirloom cultivars on the farm, which specializes in open pollinated fruits and vegetables.
Thanks to Black Cat Farm for the generous gift of pumpkins from their patch to the Shepherd Valley Waldorf School. We are so happy to share our campus with such a wonderful neighbor. We look forward to harvesting the pumpkins on Monday.