Scoot your chair closer to the table and tie that linen napkin around your neck. Here's a review of a truly authentic farm-to-table experience.
The cookbook: Farm Fork Food: A Year of Spectacular Recipes Inspired by Black Cat Farm
The author: Eric Skokan, together with his wife, Jill, own the 130-acre Black Cat Farm and two bustling restaurants in Boulder, Colorado: Black Cat Bistro and Bramble and Hare. Eric has the unique perspective of being a chef-turned-farmer-turned-restaurant owner. In the past, he worked at high-end restaurants in D.C. and San Francisco before settling at the base of the Rocky Mountains with the goal of reconnecting with food. Wait. How does a chef become even more connected to food? Eric explains that best in the intro of his cookbook:
"From a chef’s perspective, the life of a vegetable begins once the box is opened and ends with the finished meal. Cases of vegetables arrive on the morning delivery and get packed into refrigerators. Lettuce arrives in 6-pound cases, carrots in 25-pound bags, apples in 40-pound bushels. Cooks arrive for their shifts and begin to work on the prep list written by the chef the night before: cutting, chopping, slicing or julienning. The goal is always the same: be ready for dinner service on time. There is never time to consider the essence of the carrots—they need to be peeled and trimmed, not contemplated. For my first 15 years of cooking, such was the role of vegetables.
Then I took a job leading the kitchen in a historic 300-room hotel. On any given weekend during the season we would execute six 100-person weddings, plus another for 300. At the same time, the main dining room would do 200 covers. From the outside, one might reasonably assume that a big hotel operation would be overwhelming. That’s not the case. Our industrial food system is geared toward making operations like this run like a top. Pre-peeled carrots ready to go for pre-made veggie dip, pre-cut cheese cubes for the cheese platters made a day ahead, pre-made salsas and dressings waiting in the wings, pre-portioned steaks lined up for a moment on the grill to be followed by a packaged sauce and pre-cut broccoli. In a big kitchen operation the cooks need more pairs of scissors for opening pre-cut food baggies than knives for cutting. On my first day, there were 23 cooks, 6 knives and 43 pairs of scissors.
In my many years in the kitchen I had been surrounded by food and yet insulated from it. There, on the hotel’s loading dock surrounded by pallets of food, I couldn’t find anything that looked, smelled or tasted like food. Something inside me snapped. If the chef only sees the vegetables from box to plate and the farmer only from seed to shipment, who has a better perspective? Neither. Gaining a depth of vision for food was the most profound change that my gardening time brought about. Pulling carrots, a few per week to check their growth, provides the opportunity to think about their whole life. Tiny and precious carrots become sturdy and rock hard at the end of a long season in the sun and it’s a long, delicious life in between."
Swoon. [Drops scissors.] Can I get some of those carrots, please, Eric?
Initial impressions: Well, obviously, Eric is the man. I lingered over every word in his 8-page introduction, where he shares how farming made him a better chef and vice versa. I drooled over every recipe, from the charcuterie (Pork Rillettes with Horseradish sounded better than I would have ever imagined) to the desserts (Strawberry & Rhubarb Tart Masquerading as Pizza, anyone?). Don't fool yourselves, folks. These are chef-quality recipes, complete with layers of yummy fats and salty brines, and you're going to want to try everything on the menu.
What’s cool: This is farm-to-table done right and true. The level of expertise and passion Eric brings to these recipes, his farm and his restaurants is utterly admirable. The recipe intros are insightful and educational and, I might add, are great fodder for dinner conversation starters. This cookbook is the next best thing to actually talking to Eric or sitting down at one of his restaurants.
Perfect for: Home chefs who also garden / Fine diners who want to mimic restaurant-quality recipes at home / Self-taught culinarians / Vegetable and meat lovers / Homesteaders
When/Where to get it: Eric's book went on sale last year (September 2014) and is for sale at his restaurants and online for $23-$25.