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Organic Chemistry 

Chefs join forces to promote fresh local and organic food sources

It's the kind of assignment that makes the rest of a reporter's job -- lengthy council meetings, confrontational interviews, endless court records -- seem utterly worthwhile.

A group of the area's top local chefs was offering a ten-course meal as a fund-raiser for local organic food producers who might want to apply for official organic certification from the state agriculture department.

My boss couldn't make it so she asked if I could cover the event.

"I think I could handle that," I said, running back to my phone so I could cancel my interview with Bruce Springsteen -- scheduled for the same time as the aforementioned feast (not!).

More broadly, the dinner aimed to bolster a growing cooperative of Colorado chefs trying to encourage a partnership with local organic food producers.

Though I'm hardly a culinary expert, I do know a little about organic farming, its challenges and rewards. One of the big hurdles facing most farmers, I've been told, is finding direct markets for their produce, which organic producers generally grow in small quantities on small acreages.

A partnership between chefs and growers, said Marcus Guiliano, who organized the event, gives reliable, good-paying customers to farmers, while the chefs are able to help build up a more steady supply of fresh in-season foods.

"I pretty much buy whatever local products I can get my hands on," said Guiliano, executive chef and partner in Walter's Bistro, on South 8th Street in the shopping center that houses the World Gym. "There just aren't enough organic growers around to meet our needs. I tell some of [the growers] to just bring it down, I'll buy it."

But because some growers have not forged relationships with chefs such as Guiliano, the fund-raiser was a chance to bring restaurant patrons and restaurateurs together with local food growers such as rancher Jay Frost, whose family owns a large ranch south of Fountain.

"This is a real opportunity for a new partnership with Colorado producers and the chefs," said state Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament, a rancher and former Republican state legislator who attended the dinner both to sample the fine cuisine and promote the endeavor as part of the state's "Colorado Proud" program. That program was set up to encourage Coloradans to buy food produced in-state.

If anyone needed proof that Colorado offered world-class specialty foodstuffs, this meal sealed the case. Each course was absolutely delicious and beautifully prepared. The diverse menu, which included lamb, ostrich, goat cheeses, mushrooms and fish, was a testament to the range of foods produced within state borders.

I don't have the space here to describe each course, but here are a few highlights. The procession began with a timbale of local winter squash prepared by Denver chef Carrie Balkcom. The squash was accompanied by a wonderful, smoked Colorado trout, sided with apple and cherry chutney.

Next, Giovanna Fenati, the owner of Caf Giovanna, followed up with an unbelievably scrumptious purple gnocchi, which in turn was followed by a Shiitake mushroom consomme from Phantom Canyon chef Ketil Larson.

Then came Rocky Mountain tilapia from Primitivo chef John Broening, followed by a macadamia-crusted high-plains ostrich from Chip Johnson, chef at the Craftwood Inn.

Subsequent courses were just as creative, delicious and beautifully presented. They were also accompanied by brief explanations from the chefs who followed the all-Colorado theme of the evening down to the melon chutneys, goat cheeses, and apple and champagne sorbets that came later in the meal.

For his part, Guiliano prepared a leg of lamb in a bed of Anasazi beans from Lone Cottonwood farms, the first-year operation of local organic grower Rob Gordon.

The lamb itself, a lean, juicy and wonderfully tender cut, came from San Luis Valley rancher Cherry Haugen, who wore a large Stetson hat throughout the three-hour dinner.

"They are totally forage fed," Haugen said of her lambs, "which means they never get any grain or antibiotics or steroids. What I try to do is have a very high-quality lamb that is very lean and mean."

The philosophy pays off, said Haugen, who maintains a consistent back order for her sheep, which she sells directly to consumers, restaurants and those who drop by her barbecue stand at Colorado county fairs.

Haugen said she supports the chefs' efforts because she wants to help regional growers find direct markets for range-fed products. But she's not particularly interested in getting her ranch certified as organic because she's wary of external interference in her business. "I have not worked toward organic certification, because I don't want anyone coming in telling me how to produce my lambs," said Haugen, adding that she prefers to simply explain to people how she raises her animals, then lets them decide whether or not to buy.

Most participants at the dinner expressed hope that the kind of collaboration being promoted at Walter's Bistro will result in more masterpieces of locally grown produce.

Personally, I hope that some of the area's less elite restaurants also get on board so that the unfortunate and somewhat undeserved connection between the word "organic" and "expensive" will begin to dissipate.

As a penny pinching foe of unwarranted chemical inputs in my food, I often find organic produce at area markets selling for less than the non-organic stuff at King Soopers.

But any additional public linking between organic farming and the image of affluent, Volvo-driving environmentalists is perhaps a small price to pay if all this helps promote a larger market for locally grown organic foods.

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