July 10, 2011

Minding Your Peas and Cukes. ~ Emily Alex

Eric Skokan is the chef and owner behind Black Cat Bistro, Boulder’s only farm to table operation. The locavorian hero splits his time between the kitchen, the field and the farm stand — raising sheep, pigs, and a veritable flock of fowl — not to mention, two kids (curly-headed human children, that is – not goat offspring), re-writing his gourmet menu on the daily, managing seven acres of crop, and all the while, keeping one ear to the ground for the rumblings of opportunity.

His present mantra of sorts, with which he responded to a friendly fellow farmer’s “Goodness, where have you been” seems to be, “Well… I am where I am —24/7!”

Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to catch the dynamic entrepreneur where he was (at the Boulder Farmers’ Market) and asked him a few questions about the idea behind his business and the future he sees for it.

So which came first: the chicken or the confit?

Hay bales and pig troughs are part of Skokan’s heritage; Eric’s grandparents operated a farm in upstate New York and Eric’s canicular childhood memories include “feeding the chickens” and “riding on tractors.” That said, in his professional life, the chef/farmer has spent much more time putting food on plates than pulling it out of the earth: twenty-two years versus just three. His Black Cat Bistro’s table predates its farm by two years.

Fifteen years ago, Eric worked in America’s first certified organic restaurant: Restaurant Nora, in Washington D.C.. It was there that he learned how to run a restaurant differently.

For one thing, Chef Nora Pouillon introduced Eric to the concept of using “whole animals” — that is, carefully tailoring the menu to the available meat, rather than vice versa.  This week, meat-eating diners at Black Cat can savor this practice in the form of “A Juxtaposition of Duck From Our Farm”  (see menu, drool), and veg-heads (yours truly included) can at least appreciate the mindful practice.

The opposite — offering mono-cuts like “pork chops” or “rib-eye” for weeks or months at a stretch — is unfortunately still S.O.P. in the U.S.’s food industry and, as Eric euphemized, “requires the processing of thousands of animals.” Instead of using the entire animal, this practice may turn a 15 thousand pound steer into a measly 15 plates of tenderloin.

While Eric admired Nora’s practice of acquiring ingredients from organic farms – no easy feat back when the organic revolution was still a twiggy seedling – he was convinced that he could do better. His vision was to provide organic food that was unique, tasty and affordable. Enter the farm-to-table concept. “My customers shouldn’t have to pay for me to truck produce around the country” he says, “I want the price of my plates to reflect the true cost of its production.”  Now that the “vast majority” of Eric’s produce and livestock are, respectively, harvested and processed just miles from the bistro, diners can enjoy gourmet entrées starting at $19.

Wingin’ it

This past April’s unprecedented violent weather inspired apocalyptic-toned articles, like this one on Aljazeera, presaging cataclysmic losses in food production due to shifting weather patterns. Even in a typical, God’s Wrath-free year, twelve percent of your average vegetable farm’s potential profit suffocates or drowns due to weather events. From New York to California, smalltime farmers have been (pitch)forking their homesteads over to the likes of Monsanto and A.D.M. for over three decades now. Meanwhile, here in Boulder Vally, Black Cat’s owner brightly shares his plans for the future: increase the acreage; obtain some cattle; give grains a go…

Photo: Jackyln DeCoster

Whence the optimism? In many respects, Boulder is a privileged region — the climate is only the least of it. Boulderites are sheltered from east-blowing storms, but also from the world’s financial shit-storm, from America’s obesity epidemic, from gangland violence, from agribehemoths.  And somehow, maybe, from the impending food, water and fuel crises too.

Perhaps the Rocky Mountain High P.C.I., or what-you-will, contributes to the upstart farmer’s buoyancy in the face of doom and gloom prognoses from all sides, but it seems too that there is a certain something in his character that allows him to meet the many thorny pitfalls of his trade with a kid grin.

Eric chuckles through a mouthful of farmers’ market popcorn as he tells me about one of last year’s “great learning experiences.” In the farm’s first summer, the tomato crop was an absolute catastrophe. Although Eric would later realize that this was due to the extraordinarily wet June, his initial conclusion was, “Ah, I’m just no good at tomatoes.” The following year, he tripled the number of tomatoes planted. By the middle of 2010’s auspiciously temperate summer, his greenhouse was an impassable jungle of tomato plants – thousands more than he had any use for.  “We ate them all,” he assures me, though one farm worker remembers that the fruit flies may have helped some.

Good-naturedly, Eric admits, “The real challenge will be in 25 years, when I think I know what I’m doing. Now I know I don’t… Ha!”

Perhaps the key to success in agriculture these days is a fertile sense of humor.

Growing the farm

There are a few ways you can get in on the fun. Black Cat’s CSA is in its second summer and currently has 40 members. In addition to enjoying weekly shares of the harvest, CSA members are privy to “You Pick” days.  Last week they were invited to the farm to harvest their own strawberries, snap- and shelling peas.

Photo: Jacklyn DeCoster

The farm currently has four employees, five “or so” interns and accepts volunteers on a “the more the merrier” basis.

Contact Leah Biber for more information; you can find her bagging veggies at Black Cat’s Saturday farm stand or reach her by email at [email protected].

Check back next week to read about my time as a farmhand on Black Cat Farm.

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