In 1999, when Chef Alex Seidel first set foot in Colorado, the state was better known as a destination for backpackers, climbers and skiers rather than aficionados of food and drink. But in the last five years—as Denver and Boulder have perhaps eclipsed Aspen as the most buzzed-about towns in the Rocky Mountain State—Seidel has found himself at the center of a rapidly expanding restaurant scene, serving recent transplants from such food meccas as New York, San Francisco, and beyond.
Folks on the coasts may not know his name, but they likely have heard of the James Beard Foundation. This spring, Seidel took home the JBF award for Best Chef Southwest, staking a claim not only for his personal legacy, but for the city of Denver at large. In fact, the groundwork laid by local chefs like Seidel has led to an influx in high-profile restaurateurs from other cities. Alon Shaya of New Orleans recently opened a Middle-Eastern concept, Safta, in downtown’s new Source Hotel. Austin’s Tyson Cole will be opening a Curtis Park location of Uchi any day now. Even Ludo Lefebvre, the famous L.A. Frenchman, is rumored to be looking at local spaces.
If they build it, the crowds will most certainly come. But Denver diners may not realize that without the efforts of restaurateurs like Seidel, these chefs wouldn’t have resources to pull from. “When I first opened Fruition in 2007, there was only one pig farm in the whole state. I literally had the farmer ask me to meet him on the side of the road outside Fort Collins,” Seidel laughs. “Even with the agricultural business we do have here, not much of the product stays in Colorado. So for chefs who want to connect with ingredients, we’ve had to build the infrastructure ourselves.”
Since opening Fruition—a twelve-year-old favorite of Denver locals—all of Seidel’s businesses have contributed directly to that infrastructure, seeking less to create new restaurant concepts than to provide higher quality local products. His second project is Fruition Farms Creamery in Larkspur, Colorado, which not only provides local produce, pork and dairy products to his restaurant, but also ships award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses to regional Whole Foods locations and several local restaurants. The third is Mercantile Dining & Provision, an all-day bistro and gourmet market in Denver’s newly remodeled Union Station. Then there’s Füdmill, a commercial bakery churning out some of the city’s most exceptional viennoiserie, pastry and desserts. And next on the horizon is Chook, an approachable roast chicken concept slated to open in fall of 2018.
When it comes to sourcing, Seidel can speak at length about Colorado’s high altitude challenges. “How long has the fishing industry been on the East Coast? Forever. And the West Coast is the same way with fresh produce and general agriculture. At the turn of the century here, we had cattle farmers and shepherds literally having gunfights over the land, but in our high desert climate, traditional farming can be a challenge,” he says. “At Fruition Farms, we just had a crop of squash destroyed by hail last week, and even when we grow under a hoop house, we’ve seen those structures torn apart by wind.”
With that being said, Seidel is the first to celebrate the existing resources he does have in the Rockies. Some of the country’s best fruit comes from the Western Slope—try a Palisade peach, if you need proof—and Seidel has been able to forge distribution relationships with responsible cattle farmers in nearby Kansas. Grain is also abundant, as is the signature sunshine that warms the state more than three hundred days a year. Yet when it comes to sheep’s milk cheese, Colorado didn’t have a single purveyor until the opening of Fruition Farms Creamery.
“Traditionally, American sheep were raised for their meat; and when European dairy sheep were brought over, they were crossbred, creating an animal which yielded much less milk—hence a more expensive product,” Seidel explains. “But sheep’s milk is dense with nutrition, naturally homogenized, and easier to digest for people with lactose sensitivity. Some of the best cheeses in the world are made with this milk; we wanted to bring that to Colorado.”
To kickstart the project, Seidel and a Fruition sous chef, Jimmy Warren, attended the Dairy Sheep Association of North America’s national symposium in upstate New York. With the mentorship and guidance of individuals who have developed the domestic market since the 1990s, the pair spent a few years personally milking and tending a herd at their property at Larkspur. As their cheesemaking improved and demand increased, they transitioned to focusing on production, in partnership with a local sheep farmer. In 2017—eight years after the project began—the creamery won two American Cheese Society awards for their sheep’s milk feta and ricotta.
Today, Warren focuses full-time on production as the sole cheesemaker at the farm. By his own description, the ingredients are minimal—milk, rennet, salt—so the process is all about controlling variables. Even a change as small as the size or material of his molds will prompt a reworking of his base recipe. “The subtlety of the work means that it’s hard to turn it over to somebody else—to go, look, I’ve made this cheese, now you make it,” Warren notes. Similar to the work of a bread artisan, the intangible markers of smell or texture become the sign posts in an elusive art that changes with each and every batch.
Outside at the farm, Ilse Meyer tends to the hoop houses, where cucumber and tomato vines climb tidily skyward and lettuces grow in remarkably orderly rows. From peppery Italian arugula to red veined sorrel and periwinkle borage flowers, each cluster of color represents a core ingredient in Chef Seidel’s spectrum of flavors—and for his Denver-based chefs, regular trips to the farm provide invaluable perspective. Yet without the restaurants, Seidel says the farm would not be a sustainable operation. “I pay the cheesemaker out of one restaurant and the grower out of another. The businesses support this farm, but it is worth it to have our chefs care for the pigs we use for Mercantile’s charcuterie or pick the tomatoes that we’ll cook all summer long,” he says. “Understanding the plight of farmers gives us a different appreciation of our ingredients.”
As he continues to wage an uphill battle for better local agriculture, Seidel’s next target has become the poultry industry. There currently aren’t any hatcheries in Colorado, nor are there large-scale processors. “When the quoted cost for processing one chicken is $8.50, it’s no wonder they are forced to charge $18 a bird,” Seidel explains. With Chook, the goal is to provide a family of four with a high quality roasted chicken and sides for less than $40. In order to do that with local birds, Seidel will have to prove market demand through the restaurant, then find agricultural partners to invest in developing the groundwork.
“This is why when people ask me to define ‘Colorado cuisine,’ I feel like we’re not there yet,” Seidel states. “What we’re doing with all these efforts is laying the foundation for what it could be. Having multiple businesses was never my goal, and I’ve turned down many other opportunities. With Mercantile, we opened expressly to create a transparent platform for our producer relationships, to provide access—through our open kitchen—to things we couldn’t share through the small space we have at Fruition.”
Beyond better ingredients, what Seidel has also developed is a platform for the next generation of chefs and food professionals. With a team of more than 120 individuals contributing to daily operations—not to mention those he will hire at Chook—he’s providing far more than a paycheck. Just ask Warren, the chef-turned-award-winning cheesemaker. As he tells it, “We didn’t have any experience when we started doing this. It’s just now, after eight years, that I feel like I’m starting to know what I’m doing.”
It’s that kind far-reaching vision that helps make a great restaurant city—for both current Coloradans and the growing number of transplants seeking a home near the mountains.