In sunny Soda Creek Valley, as we gaze through aspen meadows up to the high peaks and ever-wintry snowfields, it is difficult to imagine farming. Yet only a few generations ago, rows of lettuce provided the cash crop on the ranchland now occupied by Keystone Resort. Even today, at our high elevation, area residents sow salad greens in south-facing windows, raise mountain cattle and insulate chicken coops as we keep connected to the land’s bounty.
In an era of fast food and marvels of dietary engineering (almost everything can be microwavable, instant or filled with preservatives), we’re experiencing an ever-growing movement to return to our roots. And some of Summit County’s finest restaurants—among them Ember in Breckenridge, Vinny’s in Frisco and the Keystone Ranch, located in the 1938 Smith and Reynolds ranch house—are leading the way with their focus on organic local fare.
“In America, we’ve come full circle,” explains Scott Boshaw, owner and chef of Ember. “We’ve been getting food out of a box for a while. Now, everybody wants to be a farmer.” Meeting the demand for farm-fresh food, Boshaw’s stylishly comfortable new restaurant boasts a menu filled with ingredients that are not only organic, but also sustainable, biodynamic and local whenever possible.
The restaurant space itself offers a study in strategic reuse: Ember’s 2009 remodel of a 1914 home preserved the Victorian stained-glass window above a contemporary room featuring a curved bar. And local paintings and sculpture from Stephanie Sadler’s Teal Gallery in Breckenridge punctuate the understated décor with a dose of community character.
“A successful restaurant takes ethics,” Boshaw explains. “We try to take care of everything leaving, not just what’s coming in.” To-go boxes made from recycled materials and food scrap and container recycling programs are essential elements of this approach. But the green philosophy is most evident in the fare, with a variety of produce from Grant Family Farms’ community-supported agriculture partnership. As a natural consequence of using organic local foodstuffs, Ember specializes in seasonal menus. “When the vegetables are ready, that’s when we’ll implement them on the menu,” Boshaw says.
Of course, all this focus on the local and the seasonal means that summer and early fall are party time at Ember. Friday nights in the warm season often bring luaus on the Adams Street deck, featuring whole roasted Colorado pig. Alfresco weekend lunches are a Breckenridge must-do, topped off with house-made ice cream imbued with summer flavors. Moreover, with a staff populated by local industry veterans, Boshaw seems to understand that sustainable communities refer to more than just food-delivery systems.
Frisco chef and restaurateur Vinny Monarca is a fan of Ember, and he cites two other Breckenridge eateries for their dedication to local quality: Modis and Matt Fackler’s Relish. But while Monarca loves contemporary international cuisine, he describes his own cooking as “more old-fashioned,” strongly influenced by his Italian heritage. Vinny’s is a hands-on, local favorite kind of place, possibly the only place in Frisco to find a high-quality late-night dinner—because Monarca himself is hard at work in the kitchen.
The chef sources many of the same products as Ember, including produce and protein from the Grant Family Farms CSA, which also delivers family-size shares to local neighborhoods. He insists on hormone-free meats, shuns farm-raised fish and is more than happy to spend extra money on organic. “I am trying to make good, handcrafted food,” Monarca explains. “Everything is made from scratch. There’s no pre-fab.” Summer dining on the patio courtyard enhances the flavors of organic heirloom tomatoes, organic salad greens and wines from the central Colorado community of Paonia.
Reflecting the tradition of harvest abundance, Vinny’s offers generous portions, whether an exceptional steak or a serving of vegetables. And Monarca doesn’t see using seasonal foods as limiting: in his work as a personal chef focusing on vegetarian cuisine, he has developed the creativity to accommodate diverse appetites. Because in the end, eating great food is all about celebrating community, which may be why Vinny’s chef often emerges from his kitchen to chat with guests.
The combination of exceptional cuisine, outstanding service and a historic ranch homestead is just one of the distinctions of the Zagat-rated Keystone Ranch restaurant. And increasingly, the pursuit of the highest culinary standards entails the freshness and low carbon footprint of locally sourced provisions.
Scott Radek, Keystone Hospitality’s executive chef, oversees operations at the resort’s many restaurants. So he’s necessarily immersed in the totality of guests’ experience, constantly refining a level of coordination that longtime waiter John Grugel likens to that of a fine Swiss watch, with each precision piece performing its appropriate task in fluid perfection. Nevertheless, he’s developed a deep appreciation for how the Ranch’s chef, Jason Kassib, specializes in free-range game that is natural, local and organic.
“He puts his own spin on what he does,” Radek says of Kassib. “He uses top, high-end products, specialty meats from small, artisan purveyors.” The connection between chef and primary provisioner reminds Radek of his past experiences at New Mexico resorts, where local farmers would tailor their plantings to area chefs’ explicit requests.
As Keystone Ranch’s embrace of the trend suggests, the strongest inducement behind the move toward local, sustainable ingredients is, quite simply, quality. The best-tasting, healthiest and freshest foods keep motivating chefs, who have always preferred the most delicious food to highlight their talents. As Grugel puts it, “Organic simply tastes better.” The fact that it may be better for all of us in a variety of ecological and philosophical ways is just icing—local, hormone-free, organic icing—on the cake.
Rachel Meisler makes her home in Breckenridge, where she savors eating and drinking at the local hangouts with her friends. She practices Nordic skiing, cycling, yoga, teaching and creating art.