Dakota Soifer found a contradiction in Boulder’s ethos (being green), and the City’s actual policies:
It is interesting that a lot of health and safety codes are very much anti-water. Too properly thaw food, they want you to run water, at a pretty good rate, consistently, until the food completely thawed.
So it’s sort of tricky. Do we do that? Yes. But, do we want to do that? No. So, it’s hard.
We are very conscious about keeping things to the right temperature and making sure all our food is handled in a safe manner. We find other ways of making sure foods are defrosted safely. To use as an example, which health and food safety wants you to run water on food for about an hour at full stream.
It’s just an interesting conflict about what this city is mandating as the safe way to do something, as well as the most wasteful way you can go about it.
A Guide to Mindful (Green) Dining in Boulder: Cafe Aion.
This is part of a series of profiles about mindful dining practices in Boulder. Through interviews with proprietors, I will show the variety of ways restaurants are conscious of their surroundings. My intention is not to persuade you where to eat on your next culinary excursion (personally, I would dine at all of these establishments).
Rather, these reviews are offered as, together, a guide to eco-friendly, mindful Boulder cuisine.
Located on the University of Colorado’s Hill, tucked behind Innisfree, Cafe Aion is a balance of bistro, bar, and tapas style restaurant. Recently, several elephants and I enjoyed their Happy Hour (as part of our editor’s Good Friends Liquid Appreciation Society bi-weekly gathering of 20 – 40 friends) on one of the coldest nights in Boulder. I will definitely be going back to enjoy some in-house bacon. View their nightly menu here.
I sat down at the bar with Dakota Soifer, founding Chef, while he drank what looked like a wonderful coffee, and he discussed some of the ways Cafe Aion connects to the community:
1. What are your thoughts on Cafe Aion’s social responsibility?
It’s very much at the core of our values. We find ways to do everything in house, and, if possible, using local ingredients first. If not, we’ll source them throughout the state, then America. We work with lots of local farmers. Now, when farmers only have onions, potatoes, squash, when they’re really running out, there’s a company in Denver, Grower’s Organic, that sources across Colorado and America.
The real treat this summer was getting to work with Flatirons Neighborhood Farm. They were just over on Seventh and University, and we were the only restaurant they worked with. It was a real treat getting to know the farmer, Steve, and he would bike produce over. He would pick in the morning and ride his bike over in the afternoon. It is literally six blocks away.
2. What are the ways Cafe Aion conserves on electricity?
We’re one 100% wind powered. Well, it’s offset. We buy wind shares, and the amount of energy we use, we buy the number of wind shares to equal that. It increases our utility bill, definitely, but it shows that businesses are interested in it and provides money for the technology to grow.
The oven is electric, so it is pulling from the wind power compared to gas, which is better as energy sources go.
All the lighting is low voltage, and during the summer, they use “old school” Swamp Coolers compared to air conditioning.
We have all new low-flush toilets in the bathrooms.
4. What are other conservation methods does Cafe Aion employ?
We literally go through one of those small, black trash cans a day (he points to a tiny one behind the bar, that looks like it would be a better fit in an office cubicle than a restaurant). Everything else is either composted or recycled. We work with Eco-Cycle with composting. We pay for the service. We put all the waste into the buckets out back, and they pick it up once a week. It’s great. It’s pretty much everything in the restaurant because we don’t use single serving plastic ware. It’s not expensive. It’s very reasonable.
So really, the only things that get thrown away are the tops to milk bottles, and plastic wrap. A lot of times, we hold onto plastic bags. Brian takes them to pick-up after his dog.
All of our “to-go” ware is recyclable or compostable from Eco Products. We have a trade with our fryer oil. A company (Sustainable Oil Service) comes and picks it up and then we get a couple gallons of cleaning solution. It’s pretty intense stuff and deep cleaning.
The grease is cleaning the grease.
Actually, all of the chairs are from Mountain Sun. They got new chairs, and we got these. We re-finished them, and it has worked out great.
5. How is their menu tailored for mindful practices?
We keep our menu flexible. So if something isn’t available, we change it. Right now, we have pear, because that is in season now, or grapefruit is a great winter fruit.
What Steve (the farmer from Flatirons Neighborhood Farm) had didn’t change from day-to-day. It would be a couple of weeks of zucchini and then a couple of weeks of tomatoes towards the end. Basil was going for most of August. In the summer, we are very much working much with all the local producers.
Sometimes people come in and ask for a side of avocado. “No, I’m sorry. There are no avocados growing around here right now.”
As far as other practices, they try to take an artisan approach to cooking and running a restaurant by making as many of their items as they can:
(I pointed to a bowl of baked goods on the bar counter, one being a fruit-filled treat, and asked if it was made here.)
Yep, yep, so everything. We’re not shipping or packaging or things like that. We make a lot of our own salamis and cured meats. We’re absorbing that labor cost. We make our own bacon. We’re not paying someone else to make it; we put our own labor into it. That way, we can keep costs lower.
(Here, with my mouth watering at the sound of the word “bacon”, I pressed Dakota about this process.)
We get in a side of a pig. Then we cure it. Then we smoke it. Then we cook it. Then we slice it.
We find that the quality is one, really good, and two, a way to use a really high quality ingredient and keep the costs low.
We do a lot of canning and pickling, so that we can serve ingredients all through the winter.
Since they are a full-service bar and cafe, they also take into account where these products come from.
We have awesome wine. Our wine director is here every night to help with pairing food and wine.
Grenade beer is organic and local. A lot of our wines are small, bio-dynamic vineyards.
Our friend Brett imports the Sombra Mescal, so it’s a local connection. We are very proud to support and carry that.
6.What are the main challenges Cafe Aion faces when going green?
It’s hard. A lot of restaurants fall into the trap of needing to please everyone. Since day one, our mission was important to us, saying: “this is what we have available. We’re very excited about it, and the other things will become available, whether it is strawberries in the summer, and we’re going to wait for that. It is what makes them special.”
With local food, especially meats, there comes a price:
The price of growing beef in Boulder County is a whole lot higher than it is in Texas or New Mexico. We design our menu in a way that allows us to be pretty flexible. In the evening, it is small plates (tapas style) or shared plates, and so if we are using beef or pork, it’s only a small amount. The dishes are made to highlight that bit. Then we don’t need to charge quite so much.
In the beginning, it was more work, but as people have gotten to know us, they’ve come to realize that the quality of food here rivals any other fine dining restaurant in Boulder. We try and bring value to the experience. We have a very small staff, and they are super educated and really top of the game.
There were a few other issues:
Because, we rent the space, if we wanted to replace the windows, there are tax breaks that aren’t passed off to us. That would be one way to decrease our energy bill, to put in new windows.
Honestly, the wind power put quite a strain on us. It jacked up our bill quite a bit. I wish I would have waited until we were ready. Ultimately, yes, I’m glad we’re supporting it.
7. What does the future have in store for Cafe Aion?
April will mark our first year anniversary. We are just looking to catch up on our first year and to get our stride. We are really looking forward to make the most out of the turn of the season, making the most of what farmers have to offer.
We did a lot of canning over the summer, but we are on the last, last jar. We are looking forward to doing more of that.
That sort of old world practice, you can taste the difference that is easy for the staff to convey: “We made this in August, we took the time and care in it. We did this.” The server can get excited. “The pickles that we’re serving with the grass-fed beef burger are from Cure Farms, and we made them over the summer.” It’s an easy way to make a connection.
We want to get people excited about food.
Joe Yeoman loves you. He is an MFA candidate at the Jack Kerouac School. As a displaced Chicago writer and editor, he hopes to see the Windy City soon. You can contact him at Joeyeoman [at] gmail [dot] com. Follow him on twitter @themindfullife, @walkthetalkshow, and @joeyeoman. Friend him of Facebook.