Remember the whole farm-to-table mania? It hit its fever pitch a few years ago—and continues to rage on—but the trend had its origins in a lot of different places.
One of those places was Boulder, Colorado, where sourcing local meat, produce, and other foods really began to take off in the late 2000s. But Boulder Chef Eric Skokan’s tale goes one step further; the two-year dry-aged ham, lamb chops, carrots, beets, and other ingredients he serves at his restaurant come from the family farm he and his wife, Jill, own just eight miles outside of Boulder.
First, a little background: Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, Skokan worked his way through college at various restaurants, eventually training under a top chef in town. The otherwise self-taught cook got a boost when, on the fourth day of one job as a sous chef, the owner fired the head chef, essentially moving Skokan into that role.
“I was unprepared, but I had a lot of youthful enthusiasm, plus grit and luck,” says Skokan, who went on to run a hotel restaurant in Washington, D.C., and a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco. When he had the opportunity to take over as head chef of a spa and resort in the mountains of Colorado, he jumped at the prospect of being able to continue his healthier, plant-based cooking.
“I fell in love with Colorado, and then with my wife we had four kids, and I worked at that resort for nine years,” he says. In 2006, he opened his first restaurant, the fine-dining Black Cat. The name was a playful nickname for a “construction nightmare on 13th Street,” as he calls it, but thankfully one that stuck in name only, as the restaurant found instant success.
Six years ago, space opened up next to Black Cat, and Skokan quickly took over the space, first treating it as a much-needed private-dining and guest-overflow outlet, but later turning it into what is now Bramble & Hare. The casual outpost showcases more products from his farm, Bramble Hill, while also deriving half the name from Picasso at the Lapin Agile (“The Agile Rabbit”), a play written by Steve Martin and one of Skokan’s favorite works. It’s about a conversation between a young Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso.
“We had a little extra produce and meat from the farm that we weren’t using in the restaurant, so it helped us go through everything we had and offer a very casual, everyday place people could go to on a Tuesday to get simple food straight from the farm,” he says.
As for the “muscle-bound garden-turned-working-farm,” as Skokan calls it, Bramble Hill is set in the rolling hills of Boulder’s picturesque landscape and produces a little bit of everything—from different varieties of candy-sweet carrots to sturdy greens, beets in varying colors, radishes, English peas, and other spring-forward veggies. All of it grows extremely well in Colorado’s mountain climate, which has mild days, cold nights, and frequent frosts. It’s also the same part of the country that makes it “maddeningly challenging” to grow big, juicy Brandywine tomatoes versus smaller ones that don’t need as much of that daily and nightly heat, Skokan says.
An avid gardener since childhood, Skokan started his chef-farming adventure with a modest garden meant for fun and learning. He knew it was his fate to own a farm, though, when he had the opportunity to lease land from the City of Boulder’s open space program to expand his crops and animals for more extensive use in the restaurant—something only a handful of restaurants around the country were doing during that time in the late 2000s.
“When Jill and I were dating, we talked about where we wanted to end up in life, and one of the things that brought us together is that we wanted a quiet life on a farm raising animals, and in my case, making sheep’s milk cheese and enjoying life that way,” Skokan says.
While he and Jill have their hands full with a large family that includes the two restaurants, Skokan says he’s able to retreat to the farm during the week to relax thanks to a trusted sous chef and management team. He returns to the restaurant for the busy extended weekend, where he can be seen serving his many regular patrons their food straight from the tiny, open kitchen. During harvest season in the summer, he might be at the farm more; in October, November, and December, he’s typically at the restaurant much more.
Now that the farm has become its own separate business with its own team of seasonal and full-time employees, Skokan is—and has been for several years now—able to fill out his menu almost entirely with what’s grown and raised on Bramble Hill.
What started as an effort to “just keep pigs in the field and out of the highway” has turned into a full-fledged operation that produces anywhere from 125 to 160 mulefoot heritage hogs at a time. The farm has its own breeding stock of boars and sows that graze on the grassy pasture and enjoy leftover eggplant, tomatoes, and root vegetables, along with composted trim and scraps from the restaurant—all of which leads to pork that’s succulent and sweet.
Skokan makes an amazingly tender ham in the style of prosciutto by packing the hams with salt and hanging them in a walk-in cooler for between 14 and 26 months. “At any time, we’re hanging 110 hams in various stages at a time,” he says.
The chef also raises 250 sheep for use as lamb chops, homemade merguez sausage for roasted quail stuffing, braised lamb shoulder for pasta, pickled lamb tongue, and more. It’s all stored in banquet-size freezers for both short-term and long-term use.
Though the menu at Black Cat changes daily, it once served an incredibly popular goat cheese gnudi. It was lightly dressed with a rich and creamy white sauce that was gently studded with braised and freshly ground chuck meat from the few steers on Skokan’s farm and layered with casiago, a blend of cow’s and goat’s milk cheese, plus a touch of truffle.
As for his carrots? Skokan’s favorite treatment of them is a simple roasting with a Turkish-style blended sauce made of toasted pistachios simmered with fermented black garlic, a little water, seasoning, olive oil, and lemon.
“Back in the day, you would get this box of produce, open it up, and go ‘Ehh… how do I turn this into something delicious?’” Skokan says. “There’s nothing like being able to harvest already stunningly delicious carrots and serve them that day in the restaurant, rather than dumping honey in the cooking water to make them taste sweet. It’s a little extra work to wash the dirt off the radishes and the other vegetables, but it’s now so easy to make truly delicious food.”
Spoken like a true “farm-to-table” disciple.