Local restaurants embrace farm-to-table concept with on-site gardens
By Melanie Wong
Photo by Billy Doran
Caption: Sonnenalp Resort Executive Chef Steven Topple tends to the hotel's on-site herb garden.
Tucked away on the grounds of some of the valley’s swankiest hotels and most popular restaurants, you’ll find something much more down-to-earth – literally.
An increasing number of restaurants are beginning to grow their own vegetable gardens, allowing chefs to serve diners the freshest bounty, homegrown just steps away.
At Sonnenalp Resort in Vail Village, Executive Chef Steve Topple has several gardens hidden on the hotel grounds. Some, such as the lavender and wheatgrass plants, are in plain sight, camouflaged amongst the landscaping right next to the swimming pool. Another herb garden sits near the river on the hotel’s back lawn. Pre-grown heirloom tomatoes, which often need to start growing in a greenhouse around these parts, are on their way from a Gypsum farm and will soon line the pathway to the pool and deck.
The main vegetable garden, a larger plot, is tucked away in the hotel’s courtyard, with rows lined with hand-written markers that say, “Portuguese lettuce,” “yellow beets” and “arugula.” The garden is sizeable, and Topple says if the season goes well, the main garden may get even bigger next year.
“Our (resort) owner, Johannes Faessler, was really excited when I said I wanted to do this because he believes in using what we have right here locally, and this went perfectly with that,” Topple says.
He has a pretty ambitious plan for a first-year garden, and it’s not at every meal that your chef has both grown and prepared your food. Topple is planning a series of “Gather at the Garden” dinners – the meals will be hosted along the riverside at the hotel and use local ingredients and produce from the gardens, as well as wine from Colorado wineries. The first dinner is Thursday, June 28.
Topple’s ultimate goal is not only to grow enough to supply all of the resort’s five restaurants (Ludwig’s, Bully Ranch, Swiss Chalet, King’s Club and Balata in Edwards), but to supply the hotel spa with herbs as well.
“I had a huge garden in high school and I’ve always wanted to do something like this at a restaurant,” Topple says.
The kiddie-pool sized herb garden has all the staples, such as tarragon, chives and oregano, as well as rarer specimens, such as borage, a German herb Topple says he’s excited to use in soups. The larger garden, which is just seeing its first sprouts, is looking good as well.
Topple proudly points to the robust-looking Swiss chard, and motions to where the fingerling potatoes are growing.
“There’s a huge reward in growing it,” Topple says. “I know it’s cliché and everyone is doing farm-to-table right now, but the thing is, we actually are able to do that all right here at the resort.”
Chefs get green thumbs
Further down-valley in Avon, a new chef to the area, John Calloway, is putting down roots with a garden at the Westin Riverfront Resort. He and others at Cima, the hotel restaurant, have taken over two small plots on the hotel grounds.
The Westin’s garden, which is in view from Cima’s deck and steps from the river recreation path, has a variety of herbs, including chervil, fennel and cilantro, along with budding cauliflower, arugula, mustard greens, peas, red Russian kale and a variety of beets.
Calloway says he’s looking forward to incorporating the vegetables, especially the array of leafy greens, into Cima salads.
“You tend to see the same greens in salads over and over, and I love using different veggies in salads,” he says.
Calloway says the garden was started a few years ago by the restaurant’s former chef and some employees, and the current staff was eager to keep it going. The plants went into the ground in May, helped by the warm weather and a watering system. The Westin garden is a bit of a team effort – kitchen manager and experienced gardener Jose Calvo spearheaded the gardening effort, and now the servers and kitchen staff pitch in to take care of the plants.
“The advantage is the flavor,” Calloway says. “It’s coming right out of the ground. There’s the pride part, too – it’s the enjoyment of coming out here and picking the stuff and serving it.
Cima and the Sonnenalp aren’t the only ones growing locally. Others, such as Beano’s Cabin and the Mirabelle at Beaver Creek, also have on-site gardens. Not that there aren’t challenges to doing so in the mountains – restaurants in more rustic settings need to ward off deer and other critters, and the costs and watering can be inhibitive for smaller restaurants.
Café Milano in Edwards had a garden growing on their outdoor patio until this year, when owners decided the cost and time to care for it was too much, and went with a smaller selection of herbs instead.
Still others, who don’t have the room on the restaurant grounds, have plots at community gardens, such as the budding plot in EagleVail.
“In the winter, we get our things shipped from all over,” Calloway says, “But it’s nice to have this right here for the summer.”