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“Farm Fork Food”

The story of Black Cat Farm, and Chef Eric Skokan's journey from chef to farmer

Eric Skokan at Black Cat FarmInterview by Jeffrey Steen | Managing Editor

Of the many iconic restaurants in Boulder, Black Cat is one of the finest. Unassuming and cozy, the restaurant has wowed us for years with its creative take on Front Range cuisine. But things have changed a bit since the doors first opened, and Chef/Owner Eric Skokan recently wrote a cookbook to show us how the restaurant has evolved. We had an opportunity to join him between harvests to chat about these changes, the history of the restaurant, the building of the Black Cat farm, and what really matters to the food-loving Colorado community.

Black Cat opened its doors in 2006 as a vehicle for bringing together the best in Front Range ingredients. What led up to the creation of the concept?

Opening a nice restaurant has been a career goal of mine since college. When my wife Jill and I built the restaurant, we wrote down a list of all of our hopes and dreams, and decided to make it the place we want to go to dinner—an open kitchen, comfortable seating, and a dynamic dining room all coupled with fresh, seasonal food.

What was the career that led up to it?

I started doing a lot of standard cooking jobs in college. Regardless of how horrible the particular job was, I loved being in the kitchen. I was the guacamole guy at one place, the prime rib and french fry guy at another. I never wore a chef’s coat—just t-shirts. In my third year of school, it dawned on me that I might want to be a chef—you know, instead of going to law school. So, I took a year off, went to the best restaurant in town, and asked the chef for a job as an apprentice. He took me on, and after a while I got a basic position—paying a whopping $11,000 per year. By the time I finished my stay at the restaurant, though, I was a sous chef. From there, I bounced around a bit—DC, San Francisco, and finally, Colorado.

Why Colorado? 

It’s a funny story, really. I came out one summer just to enjoy the state—and I stayed. Two things hooked me. When I arrived, it was a beautiful spring day—65 degrees and sunny. The next day, it was snowing. When I walked out into that snow, I experienced an intense still and quiet. It was like nothing I had known before—simply beautiful. The other reason I stayed was the people. The quality of their lives, and the effort they put into sharing and maintaining that, is so high here. It’s amazing, and creates a very special community.

Let’s jump to the farm, since that figures into the Black Cat community so prominently. When and how did it come to be?

When Black Cat opened in 2006, the “farm” was nothing more than a 15×25 kitchen garden. I had no expectation that I would be a farmer. I just wanted a place to grow some herbs that I could sprinkle on my dishes. It turned out, though, that gardening was a huge stress-reliever for me—especially during the months after opening. I’m telling you, anyone opening a restaurant should plant a garden as a way to manage their stress. Get out there in the morning in a t-shirt and slippers and tend to it. There’s nothing better.

When did it become something more substantial?

Over the course of the first two years, it got up to a third of an acre. Friends and neighbors would come by and ask about it, knowing it had become a serious part of the restaurant. Shortly thereafter, a friend let us use a big section of a lot he had for additional gardening, which really allowed us to ramp-up production. In fact, there was a period of time that September when almost everything in the dining room came from the garden. That was an eye-opener. Jill and I started seriously talking about expanding at that point, and the next year, we leased five-and-a-half acres from the county and started planting. But it was big-time farming then—we bought a tractor, we figured out irrigation, we mapped crop rotation. The whole nine yards. As time went on, we leased more land until we ended up at our current size —130 acres.

Which means you can really grow everything for the restaurant.

Just about everything. If there’s an ingredient that grows in Colorado, we’ve tried it and are growing it or decided it’s too difficult to handle. We’ve got staples, of course: arugula, tomatoes, green beans, lettuce. We also grow some stuff that goes a step beyond and figures more prominently in Black Cat dishes—carrots, celery, onions. We have 11,000 pounds of onion in the barn right now. Then we grow dry beans and grains, corn for our polenta (6,000-7,000 pounds worth), sesame seeds, Chinese lettuce (celtuce), and other crazy crops. To add to that, we raise animals like hogs, sheep, chicken, turkey, and cattle for beef.

Not that that’s not enough, but is there anything you’d still like to try?

I’ve been thinking about doing squab. We’ll see.

Last year was a rough one for many in Colorado, and word has it your farm suffered pretty significant damage. What were the short and longterm effects? What have you done to bring it back to life?

Other people got hit worse than us, but we sure got whacked. We lost roughly $58,000 worth of product. It was particularly tough because prior to that we had enjoyed a great year and thought we’d break even. Then the flood happened.

To boot, we got no help from federal or state disaster funds. We are a very run-of-the-mill, average American farm, and farms like ours generally fall through holes in the system. There are safety nets like crop insurance, but they’re so complicated and expensive—with premiums levied for each crop—that it doesn’t make sense for us.

So, yes, the flood did some damage. But I tell you, the community came together to save us. It was like being in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” For several days after the flood, the dining room was empty. It was painful. Then word got out, the restaurant filled up, and we got back to work so we could continue taking care of people. That’s why we love this place—it’s the people that make it special.

"Farm Fork Food"

“Farm Fork Food” is touted as a way to merge setting, emphasis on great ingredients, and simple dishes. Why did you decide to write a cookbook now?

The idea for the cookbook came from the Boulder Farmers’ Market and conversations I’ve had with guests while selling produce. Jill and I feel like we need to be at that market every week. It’s our chance to have real conversations with customers. It’s such a casual environment, that they can easily give us honest feedback and share ideas.

At the same time, we challenge customers with what we grow and sell. They often don’t know what to do with our ingredients, and the market is my time to teach them and share recipes. I love that. I love it so much, in fact, that it seemed right to bring it together in a book—an explanation of who we are and what we are about, driven by a desire to teach the art of cooking. The book includes great cooking tips, ingredient explanations, background stories about the farm, and such, but the recipes are also great showpieces for Front Range ingredients.

Many cookbooks for high-end restaurants boast recipes that are wonderful to look at, but difficult to source for and/or make. Is this cookbook designed to tell a story more than to provide recipes?

You know, I had long conversations with my editor about this before the book was written, when I was still doing outlines about goals. We could easily see this as the ideal Front Range cookbook, but a useless coffee table book everywhere else in the country. It’s geared toward Front Range ingredients, after all. So we created a filter. We added stories and narratives, and recipes for a broader audience. It’s a story of us through our recipes and farm, but we broaden the perspective to include more accessible dishes for non-Coloradans.

How would you describe the food showcased in the cookbook? Has it changed at all since the opening of Black Cat?

The food is still my palate, but a lot has changed at Black Cat since 2006 and the cookbook reflects that. In 2006, inspiration might have come from a funny turn of phrase like “Duck, Duck Goose” or the reinterpretation of an old classic. Now, the inspiration comes from what we’re growing. We walk through the rows of planted tomatoes, for example, and look at some beautiful ones just ripening, then create a dish to highlight them. We let the produce do the work—and shine. Getting out of the way like that, that’s brave. It’s not about me anymore, it’s about the ingredients. And less is always more. I liken it to surfing. People who are good at surfing let the waves do the work. That’s what we do with the farm—we let it push us along as cooks.

Initially, the outline was based on dishes in the restaurant. Those can be complicated. So, there was a phase of rewriting recipes for home cooks and peeling things back. There are still a couple of “aspirational” recipes in the book, but for the most part, we’ve tried to keep things accessible.

There are scads of farm-to-table restaurants around these days. Would you still call what you’re doing ground-breaking?

Absolutely. I don’t know many restaurants or chefs that commit to the kind of simple cooking with top-notch, seasonal ingredients that we do. We change the menu every day because we have to—the daily farm harvest dictates it. Last year, there were two days we didn’t change the menu and it shocked people.

Can we expect more cookbook goodness from Chef Skokan in the future?

If you had asked me about multiple cookbooks before I started working on “Farm Fork Food,” I would have said no. But I enjoyed the process and grew both as a person and a writer. Now I’m thinking about what the next book will look like—probably lighter on recipes and heavier on narrative. I’d like to go deeper into the story of the farm and the things that make it tick.

As a last bite, tell us which recipe or part of the cookbook shines brightest for you.

When I finished the book in the spring, it was quite awhile before I got to see it again. The final hard copy was shipped to me recently and I stayed up all night reading it. It was wonderful—seeing recipes I hadn’t seen in months and falling in love with them all over again. But the best part was stumbling across a forgotten passage on winter (page 162). It gave me goosebumps. The description of the animals, of brushing snow off rows of greens and working to stay warm in the blustery cold. It just captures a lot of what happens on the farm, and why I enjoy farming so much.

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Chef Eric Skokan’s new cookbook, “Farm Fork Food,” is available in bookstores beginning on October 21. If you’d like to enjoy a meal at Black Cat, start by perusing the most recent menu at blackcatboulder.com. The Black Cat Farm is also open for visits seven days a week, and offers guided farm tours for large parties. As Skokan disclaims, however: “You might end up eating a lot of tomatoes.”