Restaurants with their own farms gain a unique appreciation for what it takes to produce quality food.
Chef Alex Seidel has gotten a lot of positive attention for his expertly prepared, eco-conscious cuisine at Denver’s Fruition Restaurant. The Wisconsin native was recognized in 2010 by Food and Wine Magazine as one of the best new chefs in the country, and is a 2013 James Beard nominee. Despite the prestigious honors, this down to earth chef keeps his food simple and honest. Using seasonal, organic ingredients—many of which come straight from Seidel’s own Fruition Farms—this talented chef is helping put Denver on the sustainable dining map.
How would you describe your personal values and ethics when it comes to food?
“Well, I’ve always had a garden and been interested in growing things everywhere I’ve lived. As far as being a chef at a restaurant, I’ve always had a need to understand where my food comes from, and have had to develop a relationship with my producers. I think it’s just a natural connection to food, especially when it’s the tool you use everyday to make people happy.
“To me, dining doesn’t need to be pretentious. All we do as chefs is apply heat to food. We’re not rocket scientists; we’re not performing brain surgery. These are very simple ideas that have been done for thousands of years. But I think the more experiences you have with food and culture, the better you can educate others—and our dining public has become much more educated over the past 5-10 years.”
Have those values evolved throughout your career as a chef?
“Yes, I would say so. I’ve had the opportunity to live in different parts of the country, and in each region there were different philosophies about food. Growing up in Wisconsin there were a lot of farms, but it wasn’t until I moved to Portland, Oregon and California that I really began to understand the importance of farmers markets and building relationships with the people actually producing the products. Even being on the West Coast near the ocean and having a connection to fishermen, it really started to evolve for me.”
What was your inspiration for founding Fruition Farms and Dairy?
“Part of the whole Fruition Farms idea was not only understanding the source of the food, but also understanding how artisanal products are produced—and just continuing education for myself as well as my staff. Traveling around and cooking for 20+ years, there are only so many ways you can cook a piece of meat or fish, and, for me, I didn’t understand where that food was coming from.
“As far as the sheep dairy, being a chef in Colorado we’re very proud of our lamb. If you go to the nicest restaurants in New York or San Francisco and order lamb, chances are it’s from Colorado. I thought it was always kind of weird that we made these awesome lamb dishes as chefs—and then finished them with goat cheese. So without an artisanal sheep dairy in the state of Colorado I thought there was a need for that type of product. Europe has been making sheep’s milk cheeses for hundreds of years, but the first sheep ever milked in this country was in 1985 as part of a research project at the University of Minnesota. That should tell you it’s a fairly young industry in this country. Those ideas combined are what inspired me to open a sheep dairy.”
Fruition Farms was established in 2009. Does this mean you’re still something of a farming novice?
“I don’t have any background in farming. I’ve had some small gardens and pots of herbs, but didn’t have a background in cheese making, animal husbandry, growing produce, raising bees—none of it. So, again, it’s really just about continuing education. Once we feel like we have our heads wrapped around one thing we’ll begin experimenting with beans or start raising a few pigs or something like that.”
How do you integrate principles of sustainability into your farming and animal husbandry practices?
“By taking kitchen vegetable scraps and egg shells to the farm compost, and using the whey from the cheese to feed the pigs, as well as for various cooking techniques in the restaurant, things like that. We’re making sure that relationship is always open.”
What has being a farmer taught you about food?
“It’s really connected me more with my menu. There’s a process in the brain that, because you feel more connected to the ingredients, it helps in terms of creativity and in constructing that menu. It’s also given me a much greater understanding of seasons, as well as seasons within seasons.”
Do you see Fruition Farms and Fruition Restaurant as two separate entities, or has your kitchen staff gotten involved on both ends?
“Financially and by name they are two different entities but that’s where the line stops. It’s important for me to have my staff go to the farm, so everyone works four days at the restaurant and one day at the farm.
“The cheese maker is actually my former sous chef. When I bought the farm he excelled. You could see it was just in his nature and blood. So, I took him to Albany, New York to attend a sheep dairy symposium, and then asked him to be a partner with me in the dairy. It’s basically him and I who make all the cheese.
“We also wouldn’t be able to do it without the rest of the staff. As far as getting their hands in the dirt, they might one day be shoveling out the barn or milking. The next day they’re making cheese. As a chef, you really understand all those processes. You need to know that someone has to clean the barn everyday, someone has to feed twice a day, someone has to milk twice a day, someone has to make that cheese; then it’s aged, then it’s packaged, then it’s shipped. The idea is when things show up at our back door that are not from the farm there’s a greater appreciation for the process.
“We also don’t have prep cooks at the restaurant. All the chefs, whether they’re on the meat station or the seafood station, are breaking down all their protein and making all their own pastas. They’re 100% connected to the food, from before they even get it at the door to the second they put it on a plate and serve it to a guest. I think there’s a greater sense of pride in the kitchen because they understand that food circle.”