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Good Food Begins at Home 

The Chefs Collaborative promotes sustainable, sensational cuisine

The packaging reads, "With your busy lifestyle, isn't it good to know that some things are still simple? The timeless recipes of Pepperidge Farm Homestyle Cookies are just that. They're the simple, comforting and familiar cookies that taste like they came right from Mom's cookie jar."

Come on, Pepperidge Farm. Despite the down-home hype, these cookies, like so many other staples in my pantry, are from food conglomerates larger than AT&T in the old days. Nobody, especially nobody's mom, baked those cookies.

So much of our diet we mindlessly eat. The apples in the fridge grew where? The eggs in our breakfast were laid where? And the bacon with them -- what's the source of that protein source?

The last meal I had in a favorite restaurant: Where did the salad greens, the perfectly blanched asparagus, the baked salmon, the roasted potatoes come from? Does it matter that I don't know?

Many chefs nationwide think so. About 1,500 professional restaurateurs belong to the Chefs Collaborative, self-described on their Web site as "a network of chefs and members of the food community across the U.S. who promote sustainable cuisine by teaching children, supporting local farmers, educating each other, and inspiring their customers to choose clean, healthy foods."

And clean, healthy foods means knowing and protecting their source. As one of the principles of the Chefs Collaborative states, "Good food begins with unpolluted air, land and water, environmentally sustainable farming and fishing, and humane animal husbandry."

Two years ago Chris Adrian of La Petite Maison and Marcus Guiliano, formerly of Walter's Bistro, thought it a good idea to get Colorado Springs involved in the Colorado chapter. Conversations with Department of Agriculture representatives, local farmers and fellow chefs followed, and today about a dozen of our area's finest chefs -- like Brent Beavers of Sencha, Phantom Canyon's Ketil Larsen, and Chip Johnson, formerly at the Craftwood Inn and now at the Briarhurst Manor -- are members.

One of the essential tenets of the Collaborative is education of its members and customers. Annual retreats for members have highlighted speakers like Wes Jackson of The Land Institute, the penultimate experiment in sustainable, organic farming, and Nell Newman of Newman's Own Organic Foods. The Collaborative newsletter and Web site contain articles like Tips for Reducing, Re-using and Recycling in your Restaurant (with significant applicability to our home kitchens) and Tips for Making Food Donations to the Hungry.

In turn, our local Collaborative members, like John Broening of Primitivo, have offered cooking classes featuring dishes built around produce purchased during an early morning visit to the Farmers' Market. During a recent Home and Garden Show, they held cooking demonstrations and conducted food seminars featuring Colorado lamb and farm-raised bass, Colorado potatoes and greens.

Hand-in-hand with educational outreach efforts is the need to establish ties with local growers. This enables chefs to support efforts to protect and maintain heirloom varieties of vegetables, to know the stories behind the tastes, and to support small farms where produce is grown with integrity instead of chemicals.

Eric Schlosser's recent book, Fast Food Nation, featured Colorado Springs as ground zero of fast-food society, a truism any stretch of Academy Boulevard will confirm. It is not without significance that clustered around most high schools and filling the food courts of shopping malls are fast-food establishments, contributing steadily to the poor nutritional health and obesity of many Americans.

As Chris Adrian maintains, "Food has gotten away from us ... everyone in the world should know where their food comes from." For restaurateurs, that means knowing one's food sources personally and dealing with purveyors who raise pastured meat, process food minimally, provide fish that is either farm-raised or fished with minimal degradation to the ocean environment.

What does that mean for the restaurant diner? Extraordinary dishes with innovative preparation and lively fresh tastes. At La Petite Maison, for example, you might begin with a Terrine of seasonal, local vegetables with Haystack Mountain goat cheese. Move on to a salad of organic mesclun greens, or a spinach salad dressed with a vinaigrette flavored with organically grown Applewood bacon.

For your main course, consider Manitou Beef tenderloin. G&C Packing, a West Side meat packer who buys grass-fed beef raised on small ranches, is conducting the USDA-approved Manitou Beef Project. The meat is processed using a technique called cardiovascular cold rinsing that tenderizes by removing the lactic acid that tends to toughen meat. G&C's owner, Frank Grindinger, calls the process "the most significant advance in meat processing in the last 10 years." The beef is raised more naturally, the tenderizing process is less invasive, and you reap the health benefits.

La Petite Maison offers Copper River Salmon, wild Alaskan salmon purchased from Ecofish, a New Hampshire--based company that donates 25 percent of its profits to marine conservation. The salmon, Vacupak-frozen on the boat as soon as it is caught, arrives at the restaurant -- and on your plate -- in the best condition possible.

Providing locally grown, seasonally fresh food to customers presents some creative challenges to chefs. Colorado's growing season is short and weather conditions are often unpredictable. Our palates are jaded; we're accustomed to asparagus all year round, to halibut on demand. With mass production, however, have come some dubious compromises, among them indifference to the future of our oceans, our fields, our nutritional well-being. The Chefs Collaborative is fighting that complacency by promoting a sustainable cuisine that cares for both our health and our environment.

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