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Denver's Farm-to-Table Movement Outlasts the Trend

Panzano's Executive Chef Elise Wiggins butchers a pig.

Sausages made in-house at Panzano's are plated for breakfast.

Panzano's Executive Chef Elise Wiggins takes out the ribs of a pig.

Panzano's dining area.

Panzano's Executive Chef Elise Wiggins carries a butchered and cured pig that will be baked and served as suckling porchetta.

Panzano's Executive Chef Elise Wiggins plates breakfast.

During the last few years, there’s been an increased emphasis on using local products and sustainable practices in Denver restaurants. Unlike other cities, Denver has brought these practices all the way up the food chain from fast food to fine dining. 
When Elise Wiggins joined Panzano’s as executive chef in 2004, she started looking for a farmer who would raise cattle for her so she could use the entire cow for the Northern Italian cuisine she dishes up at the restaurant that is now a local favorite.

It took three years to find a willing rancher, who founded Bear Mountain Ranch near Genesse, to raise cattle for the restaurant.

“I wanted to use the whole animal, rather than just order strip steaks,” Wiggins says. “I hate the idea of butchering an animal just for a certain part. The rest of the animal is wasted.”Panzano's Executive Chef Elise Wiggins takes out the ribs of a pig.

It’s also the way the Italians butcher their cattle and hogs, says Wiggins, who studied the art under Dario Cecchini in Panzano, Italy. The practice in the United States has been to discard a cow from mid-thigh down because of the perception that tendons, ligaments and connective tissue are unusable. However, Wiggins learned that a cow’s lower leg can be used to make delicious burgers.

“It’s lean and there’s not a lot of fat,” Wiggins says. “But the tendons have so much gelatin, and that provides moisture, making the burgers tender and juicy.”

Wiggins also uses as many locally grown produce as possible, including vegetables she grows at her Stapleton home.

“The challenging part is trying to turn around the publics’s idea of what they’re supposed to eat and when they’re supposed to eat it,” she says. “I just can’t put tomatoes in salads right now.”

But if someone just has to have a margherita pizza or cherry toppings in the middle of winter, Wiggins has a solution -- semi-dried Roma tomatoes preserved in a vinaigrette.

“Last year when cherries were in season, I got so many and preserved them in sugar and liquor and it held throughout the year,” she says. “We’re trying to be smarter at Panzano’s, but there’s no way I can give you a fresh cherry in the middle of winter.”

During the last five-to-seven years, there’s been an increasing emphasis on using local products and sustainable practices in Denver restaurants, says John Imbergamo, a Denver restaurant consultant. And it appears to be more important to Colorado diners, who generally have a higher disposable income than people in other states.

“I think our Colorado lifestyle and the fact that we eat out as often as we do lends itself to a stronger emphasis on local and sustainable,” Imbergamo says. “It can be more expensive to be local and sustainable. In a lot of cities the only people who can pull off local and sustainable are the fine dining establishments, but in Denver we have it all the way down to fast casual.”

From Seed-to-Table
Colorado’s short growing season is a challenge for many chefs touting the farm-to-table concept.

“The chefs I deal with are picking the best product. If they can get it locally and it’s fresh, they will," says Restaurant Consultant John Imbergamo.
“Most chefs I know who profess farm-to-table capabilities in their restaurants are doing it when they can, but not necessarily all the time in terms of local produce,” Imbergamo says. “The chefs I deal with are picking the best product. If they can get it locally and it’s fresh, they will.”

Touting farm-to-table practices is a good marketing tool for restaurants and for a while, it was a way for an eatery to distinguish itself from competitors. But with so many jumping on the bandwagon in the last few years, that is no longer the case. 

The trend during the last five years which has allowed a restaurant to set itself apart, is getting into the farm business.

Case in point is Max MacKissock of Squeaky Bean, who started his own farm about a year ago near the intersection of Colfax and Kipling about 10 minutes from the restaurant at 1500 Wynkoop in LoDo.

“Our focus is to get the best-quality products we can,” MacKissock says. “We have a farm and a garden, but we use products from elsewhere as well. To live in Colorado and limit yourself to farm-to-table, you’d be lying. We love to be sustainable, but it’s more about having availability to the best products possible.”

The Squeaky Bean’s farm has two full-time employees and restaurant workers often spend a few days a week helping out.

“To use the best-quality product is always more expensive,” MacKissock says. “But to do the farm, it’s almost a break-even deal. You have to pay for equipment, labor, upkeep, seeds and starter plants.”

MacKissock and Wiggins both use sustainable practices throughout their restaurants, including composting and recycling.

“Every drop of vegetable scrap from the kitchen goes to Happy Farms north of Commerce City, which feeds pigs that become our pigs down the road,” MacKissock says. “They’re eating the high-quality trim from our vegetables.”

A biodiesel company in Boulder converts Panzano’s compost into fuel, says Wiggins, who also makes sure all of the containers in her kitchen are metal so they last forever. She also only uses recyclable to-go containers that are made from corn products.

Sausages made in-house at Panzano's are plated for breakfast.Escaping the Trend
While Squeaky Bean and Panzano’s do as much as they can to be environmentally responsible, there are many restaurants purporting to be green or farm-to-table that really aren’t, says Imbergamo.

“There is a bit of greenwashing going on where people talk a big game, but if you dig through their dumpsters, there’s a whole lot of Sysco boxes out there,” he says.

The trend toward farm-to-table has flattened during the last few years, moving almost exclusively from fine-dining establishments to fast-casual chains, Imbergamo said. Denver-based Chipotle was among the first fast-casual restaurants to adopt the farm-to-table concept.

“At some point, you’re going to find Denny’s doing local oatmeal,” Imbergamo says. “That’s the end of a trend.”

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn

Read more articles by Margaret Jackson.

Margaret is a veteran Denver real estate reporter and can be contacted here.
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