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 just 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.
Some say the farm to table movement is a foodie fad. Do you feel it’s here to stay?
I actually have a different opinion and outlook on farm to table. A lot of people label us as a farm to table, but I really don’t try to live up to those labels. If you think about it, all food somewhere comes from a farm, even in terms of aquaculture and raising fish and seafood. So I do consider it somewhat of a fad term, but I don’t think it’s a fad in the sense that people are becoming more educated again.
When we first settled this country there was a connection to the land, and it was about survival. Then it became about industrialization and making things more efficient and economic. Now we’re back to supporting the food system that we have to survive on, because it will be about survival if we’re not smart about how we farm.
You’ve said previously that one of your proudest moments as a chef was taking your entire staff on a research trip to Portland, a veritable Mecca for sustainable, local foods. How did this experience influence your personal commitment to providing an eco-conscious dining experience?
I went to culinary school in Portland, and thought it was the greatest place I’d ever lived as far as the relationship between the chef and the farmer. The seafood and produce was just impeccable. I felt there was this philosophy in terms of the connection between food and people. At the time we took that trip, I just didn’t think that that connection was really evident in Denver. It’s amazing what has evolved in the last six years since we opened Fruition. Now (sustainability) is becoming more common practice and people are educating themselves about food, but at that time I wanted to share that citywide feel of the importance of understanding the food system.
Are there any foods you personally would not serve at Fruition due to their environmental impact?
There are quite a few things. We always follow sustainable fishing through the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. I lived a few blocks from there and I think they’re very educated in terms of worldwide seafood industries. For example, Alaskan Halibut is not on the endangered list, but Halibut used to be $7 a pound. Now it’s $20. I don’t have to have someone tell me that we have some population issues. I shouldn’t be serving that fish.
So, lots of times when it comes to proteins we’re serving off cuts. People like filet mignon and ribeye, but we use butchers cuts. We try to utilize the whole animal and make sure those cuts don’t go to waste. We’ve never had filet on the menu. We’ve never had a New York strip on the menu. We serve what is called the buvette. We will still use Halibut when it’s in season because everyone loves it, but we try to be smart about it at the same time. We use Halibut cheeks because they’re a byproduct that often doesn’t get utilized.
What do you feel is the single most effective way individuals can help turn the tide toward sustainable, eco-conscious food production in the United States?
The number one way is to support their local food systems and understand what (their region) can be proud of in terms of what products are produced. The more you make those relationships and support those farmers the longer that this trend continues.
We’re just starting to see young farmers getting involved. It’s always been kind of a generational thing that’s passed down, but about 10 or 20 years ago all the kids left the farm. Now you see young people who maybe didn’t have a father or a grandfather to hand farming techniques down, but they’re still curious about it. I think that’s really good, but it’s still a challenge.
Personally, I lose money at the farm everyday. I wake up, money goes out the door. It’s not about economics—I didn’t buy the farm to make money—but if people don’t support the locals by actually buying the product, these producers will just fall off the map. Then we’re going to fall back to the same issues we had 20-30 years ago.
In previous interviews you’ve mentioned River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as a personal influence due to its emphasis on sustainability. Can you recommend any other resources for Ethical Foods readers?
There are just so many places to get information. For Denver, even a local publication like Edible Front Range is a great resource.
Personally, my greatest influence is Dan Barber of Blue Hill Restaurant in New York. His (farm-to-table) model is something 20 times greater than what we’re accomplishing at Fruition Farm. When I started looking at his model and now even today, there still aren’t a lot of opportunities for cooks like mine to work at both a restaurant and a farm.
Finally, can you share a few of your favorite Fruition Farms-grown ingredients?
It’s kind of like choosing between your children. You’ll like different things different weeks, but right now I’m really excited about the changes we’ve made to our sheep’s milk Cacio Pecora, and the product we’ve been getting out of that.
Sustainable Restaurants: A complete dining guide for Point Reyes California, and the Tomales Bay area.
photo credit: Plate photography, Kevin Miyazaki