Practicing Sustainability at the Blue Star
Surprisingly enough, a great many cooks and chefs remain completely disconnected from the processes that food goes through to arrive at a restaurant. They have the ability to do amazing things with it, but sadly, their understanding of food ends there. Fortunately, a greater understanding of food origins is trending in Colorado Springs, and this syncs well with the greater support restaurants are showing for regional businesses.
Corner Post Meats in Black Forest, Colorado stands as a beautiful example of the melding of farmers and chefs who are creating a truly sustainable system with education and an unrivaled brand of meats. Quality of product endures as an essential component in the competitive world of restaurants. Chefs actively seek new and innovative products as part of their daily life. One thing all chefs know is that quality means flavor, and flavor means customers. I work at the Blue Star, an independently owned Colorado Springs restaurant. We enjoy using the products of other local businesses and proudly say that we strive to make this a part of our restaurant’s philosophy. Last summer, we met Adrienne Larrew and Dan Lorenz of Corner Post Meats. They introduced us to some samples of their grass-fed beef. While we were solidly impressed with their product, what made us consider pursuing a working relationship with them was their farming practices.
Adrienne and Dan recently acquired 1,600 acres in Black Forest and implemented an older and seldom used farming practice known as “rotational grazing.” This process involves moving livestock to specific areas of pasture to allow vegetation to regenerate. The distribution of herds prevents overgrazing of areas that can lead to degradation of the property while under grazed areas will result in competitive weeds and a weakened environment. Rotational grazing allows farmers to control the foraging of livestock by placing them in peak growth areas that contain elevated nutritional content. As sensible as this form of farming sounds, it isn’t widely seen because it requires a more active role from the farmers, along with a higher start-up cost for mobile fencing and water.
Excited with our new samples of beef products, we decided to consider using the farm as a purveyor. This consideration came with a myriad of concerns. As with using any small supplier, Corner Post’s ability to meet our consumption demands concerned us. Probably every restaurant that has used a small local business has a story about how they ended up returning to a large distributor because they could meet the demand of the business, and we were no different. A lack of trust forms between established companies and newer companies that could possibly offer a working relationship. This often results in the jaded businesses refusing to give emerging companies any serious thought, regardless of product quality or business practices. Struggling local establishments fall to the wayside and that lack of willingness to try to build community persists.
Restaurants struggle with consistency in product on a daily basis, and this was a point of concern for us as well. Would Corner Post be able to provide us the same quality of meat from one delivery to the next? New and small businesses often struggle in this area, which can result in a loss of customers. Unfortunately, no matter how wonderful a product is, the vendor who delivers will be the vendor who stays in business.
Although we were thrilled with Adrienne’s and Dan’s philosophies and practices, why wasn’t that enough to get more restaurants to buy a superior product that customers would enjoy? We had to first and foremost contemplate the success of the Blue Star. Our thought process began with the consideration of how efficiently we could manage resources before moving forward. Our main area of concern started with the purchasing of whole hogs. While individual cuts of meats, such as loins, shanks or belly, cost less overall when purchased as a whole animal, we had to make sure we had outlets for the entire product. Essentially, it becomes wasteful to purchase whole animals if a kitchen only utilizes a portion of the product, resulting in the reason so few restaurants continue practicing the art of butchery. Additionally, we weighed the issue of skill and the time it takes to fabricate, or break down, a whole animal into usable cuts. If the labor cost is too great, then again this process wouldn’t be profitable. Thus, our ability to successfully plan and implement training programs would determine a viable partnership with Corner Post Farms.
A willingness from both parties to enter into this working relationship led us to take the chance and move forward. Adrienne personally delivered our first two hogs, and the anticipation from the cooks penetrated the everyday norms of the restaurant. Being only one of two people who had ever worked with whole animals, I looked forward to helping my line cooks master a new and invaluable skill. Learning the anatomy and physiology of pigs might seem unimportant to some when it comes to cooking, but it really does help. Applying certain cooking techniques like braising, searing, or grilling to specific cuts of meat becomes easier to grasp when one can see the animal as a whole and understand the toughness of certain muscles because of location and usage by the animal.
The trial period certainly included a learning curve. Storage and utilization of the complete animal was a bigger issue than the training itself. Luckily, we have several sister properties that we could use as outlets for some of the products. This was the moment when we began to incorporate ourselves as part of a sustainable solution. All of the cooks, myself included, began to fully understand the concept and implications of sustainable farming, which consists of farming techniques that protect the health and welfare of the animals, the environment, and human communities. Having the knowledge of a practice and actually being a part of that practice in order to make a difference opened us all up to a deeper level of understanding and satisfaction.
We support using whole hogs because doing so reduces waste. We roast bones to make stocks for soups and sauces, grind scrap meat for sausages, and render fat into lard for use in frying. In some cases, we create menu items off of the products that we have on hand, while most restaurants write menus based on the items that they wish to purchase. This encourages creativity and spurs us to think innovatively while cross utilizing products. Several of us have even experimented with using the lard to make candles that our Dining Room could put into rotation.
Having alleviated many of our initial concerns, we forged a cyclical relationship with Corner Post Meats. Starting simply, we began to save produce scraps from our garden, and other purveyors for the farm would pick them up several times a week. The produce scrap went towards supplementing the pigs’ diets. We maintain a business partnership with Bristol Brewing Company, and the spent grain from the brewing process goes to the farm for spreading and use as compost on the fields. The brewery uses our meat to make brats and stews that people eat while they drink beer, which creates spent grain for the farm. Moreover, the Corner Post Pork we serve in our restaurant creates more vegetable scraps that in turn go to the pigs.
In describing this efficient cycle, a fellow chef stated, “It kind of seems like this is the way things are supposed to be. It just makes sense.” This may seem insignificant, but it holds meaning to a culinarian. The immeasurable value in seeing this, and the pride that our staff has as part of this process and sense of community, can be felt and transmitted to our guests’ experiences. Throughout the profession, culinarians have drifted too far from the basics. Seldom is there a chance to share this knowledge with employees, and I feel rewarded for helping to educate and develop my cooks’ career futures.
Allowing cooks and staff to participate in this program works to form community connections and build career networks. Knowledge of food sources and nutrition continues to be an emerging area of focus, not only for chefs, but also for the average citizen. Access to information elicits an interest in food production, which remains a subject in need of more attention. During the summer, the restaurant cultivates 30 raised garden beds that produce vegetable, fruits, and flowers. Staff members tend to the plot, witness the amount of labor invested into such a small area, and enjoy the rewards of their efforts.
Few chefs can say they went and hand fed and petted the animals they work with. We toured the farm in May of 2015 and imparted an eye-opening experience for the majority of our staff. Servers and bartenders joined us as well, and those who felt uneasy about seeing the animals that they could possibly eat immediately understood the farm’s unique function. Those sad about the future of the pigs no longer felt that way when they saw the lifestyle these animals had, running and playing among trees and grass. Here, there were no cages and diseases so often associated with pork. To this day, diners love hearing these stories, and now the staff can offer firsthand accounts of their quality experiences.
The people of Black Forest noticed the impact that Corner Post had on the area after the devastating fire of 2013 that destroyed over 500 homes, burned over 14,000 acres, and was declared the most destructive fire in the state’s history. Visible differences existed in locations where the penned pigs grazed and the areas had yet to be pastured. The pigs’ activity of rooting through the underbrush and dirt, as well as their manure becoming a fertilizer, caused the vegetation in those areas to thrive. Once-burned and now-grazed areas of land were indistinguishable from those that the fire had not touched, and the speed of recovery was remarkable. The impact of the farming practices continues to solidify the farm’s undeniable contributions to their neighbors. Concerning sustainability, Corner Post is in a position to leave the area better than they found it. They have given back to the environment and the community, and in the process, they have some happy animals.
Currently pursuing a Culinary Nutrition and Dietitian degree, Ruthie Poole holds a culinary degree and is working as a chef in Colorado Springs, CO. Originally from the East Coast, she has taught healthy cooking and natural food classes at hospitals and schools and hopes to continue to educate others on the importance of preventative health care through food.