I’m a professional cook who ran one kitchen well enough to receive national accolades and honors as well as rave reviews. Now I oversee four kitchens, one of which is in Denver, the others in Taos, New Mexico. It’s a hell of a challenge. Can I run four kitchens as well as I ran one? I’m not sure. I do know this: ingredients, timing, and technique dictate the quality of a meal. Timing and technique can be learned, therefore they can be taught to the members of my kitchen brigades. But as for the ingredients . . .
These days all the large food companies have handsome food, but they still deliver by long-distance semis and the opening and closing of those truck doors cause microclimate changes along the route from farm, to warehouse, to restaurant door. The result is stressed fruits and vegetables with taste undertones that are reminiscent of water from the backyard faucet. These companies’ default solution is to deliver under-ripe products, which lowers their liability for losses but increases the likelihood of chefs serving foods with underdeveloped flavors and getting bad reviews.
Some years ago I decided that to improve the quality of food in my restaurant I would buy from local farmers, where there’s rarely a middleman and specifications are more likely to be met. By 2006, I came very close to going out of business and still carry the financial liabilities from those years. Nowadays it is the home chef who sets the price of farm-to-plate food, not the professional cook who must charge enough of a markup to cover normal operating costs. My latest solution has been to grow my own herbs, vegetables, and fruits. I’m in the fortunate position to be partners with a ranching family that has plenty of space for growing fruits and vegetables. At the very least I can stop paying for the marketing expenses and delivery fees of those large food companies. And the best part is that I can gain some control over the quality of my ingredients while taking responsibility for the growing and harvesting of the food I serve.
The next logical step seemed obvious: cattle farming. I’ve known people who looked a cow in the eye, had an ah-ha moment, and stopped eating meat forever. If I were to look a cow in the eye, would I have my own ah-ha moment?
“The best cow taste good,” cowboy Dennis Johnson told me last August on the day we brought six female Blonde d’Aquitaine calves from San Luis to Taos. In San Luis, the oldest cow town in Colorado, they’d been living on mother’s milk and timothy grass. Not a bad life, for a cow. Not a bad life, period. And their life in Taos was pretty good, too: sunrises over Taos Mountain, days of grazing, spectacular sunsets. Nope, not a bad life for a cow. Until that frigid deep-winter day, when before sunrise I helped march them back north, this time to Romeo, Colorado, to be harvested. I couldn’t help but lift my hat, scratch my head, and ask myself what I was doing in a kill room. To make my peace with the slaughter of an animal for my benefit? Watching USDA-supervised professionals while they are processing a fellow mammal can be shocking, and far more poignant than wrenching two carrots entwined like lovers out of the dark soil.
The memory of the kill room has become like the aftereffects of a powerful movie, removed but present. With the beautiful but indifferent landscape of southern Colorado as a backdrop, the kill-pen door thundered closed behind our cow. Neck stretched, lips forward, nostrils open—she looked much like we do, as we seek out food on our forks. I tried to lay my palm on her and give thanks. But she shied away, leaving my hand empty and the blessing incomplete. Soon she’d been knocked out and slaughtered, concluding the journey from living being to ingredient. My fellow chefs and I drove home in silence. Gradually, over the two weeks we wait for the meat to dry age, we started to talk about the matter-of-factness of the processing, especially the removal of the head, skin, and organs.
Soon it was time to finish dressing the carcasses. On one side of Mel’s butcher shop, Chef Sophia uses the ban saw to cut T-bones for one of our kitchens in Taos, while I help grind 20 percent of our cow’s fat into our burgers for Denver. I resisted the urge to eat a raw handful. Then it dawns on me why I was there: inspiration. The deeper a chef engages in the process—feeding, growing; observing harvesting and butchering; handling, cooking, and plating—the greater the chance of finding inspiration, which is the fuel necessary for a life spent in the kitchen. It brings expression and a feeling of freedom, a transformation from cook to culinary artist. It gives respect to that which dies so that you may bring pleasure to the living. Kind of strange and a little uncomfortable to think about, but I suppose that is what I must convey to my brigades, a phrase “the proof is in the pudding.” I can say it has made me more determined than ever to use as much of the cow as possible, to value the off cuts as much as the prime cuts, to value the process as the means for our culinary inspiration, to give a life spent in the kitchen meaning.