An ‘epicurean journey’ through the state of Colorado encourages diners to think about the origins of their food
In the Roaring Fork Valley and well beyond it, farm-to-table restaurants are telling stories about the meals they serve, in hopes that diners will leave with a greater appreciation for the people who grew that food and for the land that it came from.
The concept isn't new — one of the earliest versions, Chez Panisse, opened more than 50 years ago in California — but it continues to earn awards and recognition, both for flavor and the ideas behind it. In this first story of a three-part series, reporter Kaya Williams visits one of those farm-to-table concepts in Aspen and decides to dig deeper into the purpose and impact of it all.
It all begins with an invitation to dinner — the kind of meal you can’t stop thinking about or talking about or comparing other meals to — because it’s surprising. And innovative. Like art on a plate, as pleasing to the eye as it is to the palate.
“This dish represents an edible landscape,” the server tells us as he serves one of several dessert courses. There’s a mushroom-shaped truffle, filled with morel-flavored mousse; a porcini mushroom-flavored ice cream, and a porcini chocolate caramel, are buried under a pine granita; rosehip, and rose leaf, top the dish.
I’m at Prospect, the fine-dining restaurant inside the Hotel Jerome, and my plate looks like the forest floor, just after one of those early-season snowfalls that makes the earth a little crunchier and the smells of the woods a little richer. And eating it feels like an act of foraging: Each component of the plate is a new surprise, savory as much as it is sweet.
Over the course of several hours, we’ll taste nearly a dozen dishes that evoke our surroundings: Another course, with beef from Montrose, rests on top of a tree branch — local spruce. Chicken from Paonia gets topped with marigold flowers. A fish course, with trout from the San Luis Valley, gets served on a clear plate that rests over a bed of pebbles, as if my dinner were still swimming in a cold mountain stream.
“I don't think of myself as an artist, per se, but I just love cooking good food, and I think we eat with our eyes,” Chef Connor Holdren says in an interview several weeks later.
He’s one of the cooks behind this visual feast, which tastes just as fresh and decadent as it looks. It’s part of a new concept at Prospect, where they’re ditching a la carte pastas and oysters and leaning into a locally-sourced tasting menu instead. While Prospect has long featured ingredients from nearby growers, the new menu is hyperfocused on food from Colorado — especially in the Roaring Fork and North Fork valleys.
“I think people like that, knowing where their food (comes from) — and it's not so much about knowing the exact you know, spec sheet on the food, but it's also just knowing, ‘This came from this region, I'm eating locally, I'm not getting something that's been grown halfway across the world and flown in,’” Holdren says.
Holdren, a young, sharp, tattooed cook from Napa, developed the idea with pastry chef Ben Kunert — less tattoos, more European kitchen vibes. Together, they spent months meeting with farmers and designing the menu before the concept debuted this winter.
I spoke with the two of them at the Hotel Jerome a few weeks after my dinner, because I wanted to know more about the philosophy and the sourcing and the artistry of the meal.
Kunert says it’s about educating the diner on the story behind their food — and helping people feel more in touch with their surroundings.
“When I first moved into this valley, culinary-wise, … it looked very bleak. I thought, ‘Okay, well, you know, you have a few peaches in summer, and that's pretty much it. Right?’” he says. “But digging down into the subject and really connecting with local growers, it really opened up my eyes, where I said, ‘Oh wow, this is a truly amazing spot. I mean, you know, you just have to dig underneath the surface to find really amazing product.’"
Even the wine pairings at Prospect come from Colorado — which you don’t see very often in swanky restaurants like this one. The focus is usually on cabernet from California, and champagne from France, not mead from Idaho Springs, or chardonnay from Gunnison.
Christel Stiver is the wine director here.
“You can make wine in so many other places, but really to like, lay your roots down and build a winery (at) 7,000 feet altitude, it takes a lot of guts and (grit), you know?,” she says. And as the sommeliers pour a taste of each drink for diners, “that's also the story that we're telling.”
This tasting menu is billed as an “epicurean journey” through the state of Colorado that aims to “tell the story of our land.”
And while the dishes do resemble the mountains and valleys nearby, Holdren says it’s about more than “eating with your eyes,” or even your mouth.
“Well, you're eating with your mind at that point. … You're making connections,” he says. “And so I think it's more of an experience than just, ‘I ordered this, I got this and it tastes good.’”
I am, admittedly, the target demographic for “eating with your mind.” I studied culinary history in college and used to write a food column for one of the local papers; I own more than 50 books about cooking and eating.
I tend to seek these stories out.
So when I got an invite to this preview dinner at Prospect back in November — kind of like a dress rehearsal before more paying customers fill the seats — I was intrigued. Along with some other journalists and community members, the restaurant had invited a lot of the farmers and winemakers who helped produce our meal.
And all night, I’d been asking our servers questions about the dinner: What’s that branch on my plate? Where exactly did those onions come from? Are those all red McClure potatoes?
After a while, I started to feel like the characters in that one "Portlandia" sketch, where a couple goes to dinner and asks the server about the chicken on the menu.
“This is local?” Fred Armisen’s character asks.
The server confirms: “Yes, absolutely.”
Then, a follow up, from Carrie Brownstein’s character: “Is that USDA organic, or Oregon organic, or Portland organic?”
“It’s just all across the board organic.”
A few moments later, the server returns to the table with more information on the chicken (his name is Colin) and Armisen and Brownstein ask if the bird had a healthy social life, with “other chickens as friends.”
“I don’t know if I can speak to that level of intimate knowledge about him,” the server confesses — but assures, as well, that the folks at the farm “do a lot to make sure that their chickens are very happy.”
The sketch came out about 13 years ago. And it’s riffing on the farm-to-table concept that has become ubiquitous in contemporary fine dining — this whole idea that you should know where the chicken came from, and whether it lived a full and joyful life before it got roasted and served on your plate.
And while it might be a joke to ask if the chicken had friends, knowing the story behind a meal is kind of an expectation these days. Restaurants that prioritize local ingredients and seasonal menus are dominating best-of lists, from the James Beard Awards to the Michelin Guide.
Prospect is one of four Aspen restaurants featured in the Colorado Michelin Guide; all of them sourced from nearby farms.
When I asked a waiter at Prospect about the origins of some onions, he returned with a label from the delivery bag.
And when it was time for a “bread and butter” course, with bread made from Ute Mountain blue cornmeal and three kinds of butter, the server talked of inspiration from the Native American tribe who inhabited this region for centuries.
Still, I wanted to hear more from the farmers themselves.
If you remember from that "Portlandia" episode, the diners don’t just get a spec sheet on the chicken farm, they leave their table to check it out.
And that’s exactly what I did — after I finished my meal.
This story is the first in a three-part series, titled “Dig In: Colorado’s Farm-to-Table Ecosystem.” In part two, Kaya Williams heads from the table to the farm to learn more from the people who help produce Colorado’s agricultural bounty.