Slowly and quietly, like a tiny green shoot pushing through dark soil, Utah’s food scene has been blossoming over the past few years. Where once there were only a few booths at the Downtown Farmer’s Market in Salt Lake City, now there are hundreds, with dozens more markets taking over corner lots in neighborhoods and cities outside the capital. Many vendors who got their start selling bundles of arugula at the Saturday market now stock the kitchens of numerous restaurants.Alex Nabaum
A decade ago, Utah only had a handful of “go-to” restaurants where one could be confident about getting a top quality meal. Going out was an exercise in reliability, but picking a place to dine was more “type of food” driven than experience focused where a patron could select a place to dine based on the promise of unexpected deliciousness. And nowhere was “local” emphasized on the menu.
But times have changed, says Seth Winterton, deputy director of marketing for Utah’s Own, the organization under the Utah Department of Agriculture that promotes Utah’s homegrown products. Winterton says Utah is entering a new era of culinary tourism and the driving force is local food.
“Utah is now known for artisan cheese, beer, milling, grass-fed beef—it’s changed so much over the past few years.”
The change is bringing world-class chefs back to Utah, such as Ryan Lowder of The Copper Onion and Plum Alley, and Chef Tosh of Naked Fish. Both chefs use local ingredients at their award-winning restaurants. It is also attracting investors to the boutique restaurant and bar business. One example is Ty Burrell of TV series “Modern Family” who was recently featured in Food & Wine magazine with Utah-based star Chef Viet Pham (who beat Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America”) promoting their new artisanal sausage and craft beer bar opening in downtown Salt Lake City.
The dining scene in Utah today is here in part because of the availability and quality of local Utah products and, hence, the creativity this allows chefs, says Winterton. The relationship between producer, chef and consumer is symbiotic. If consumers were not willing to pay extra for locally produced food sources and imaginatively produced dishes, then this relationship wouldn’t work. The result yields unique dining opportunities and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
And that’s what it’s all about—food that tastes good. When creative chefs have access to fresh, seasonal, inspiring products, the result is a local food revolution.
A Time and a Place
One chef who embodies this notion of “evolving food” is Bowman Brown, owner of Forage and among Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2011. The accolades have only piled up since then, and so have Brown’s epiphanies when it comes to using local products.
“When we opened we had a different vision than we have now,” he says. “Not having spent a career here, I didn’t yet understand what it could become, how much we could use local resources.”
Brown changes the Forage menu almost every day depending on the season and the foods he can get his hands on, which means that on any given night, a diner could taste completely different dishes than a guest the night before. “It’s a one-of-a-kind experience, never to be duplicated,” Brown says. “It’s food that speaks to a specific time and place.”
First and foremost, Bowman emphasizes, the food has to be good. It’s nice to have high ideals when it comes to local products, but those products must still deliver the flavors. This is where local chefs have no problems and are, in fact, continuously surprised and delighted by the quality of Utah’s products.
Ryker Brown (no relation) is corporate executive chef for Heirloom Group, headquartered in Provo, where he oversees the award-winning restaurant Communal and Pizzeria 712. He has worked in fine dining establishments around the West, with access to products from all over the world. He says Utah’s products stand up to any he’s tried.
“The cheese makers alone are superior to any I have seen. Their cheeses are just as good as cheeses from anywhere,” Brown says. “Rockhill Creamery produces an unbelievable Gruyere that can stand up to anything that comes from Europe. Snowy Mountain puts out a Mount Timpanogos blue that is simply amazing.”
Snowy Mountain Sheep Creamery is located in northern Utah, in Eden, where the East Freesian and Icelandic dairy sheep graze in high mountain pastures. Established in 2010 as the first dairy sheep operation in the state of Utah, Snowy Mountain produces a number of artisan soft cheeses as well as lamb meat.
The focus at Communal is to build lasting relationships with local farmers, purveyors and artisans and to use only the highest-quality ingredients in its meals. People know this, Brown says, and eat at Communal because of it. But when it comes down to it, “our guests are looking for taste,” he says, not just local—and not just organic for that matter. Another of Brown’s favorite farms is “not organic, but I still support him because his products are superior. I’d rather have fresh, local products than organic tomatoes from a greenhouse in Canada.”
Farm to Table
Chefs are always on the hunt for new and different local products, which they sometimes find in their own backyards—or in the case of The Tin Angel, across the street. The Tin Angel is a small, eclectic restaurant perched across from Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City, home of the now enormous Downtown Farmer’s Market. In 2007, when Chef Jerry Liedtke opened The Tin Angel with his wife, Kestrel, and their best friend, Robin, he wanted to create food with a strong emphasis on locally sourced foods and found many of them at the budding market.
“The farmer’s markets are often home to a wide range of wonderfully aromatic, interesting, beautiful to look at, touch—and eat—ingredients unavailable to us,” Liedtke says. “Since a meal is ultimately only as good as the ingredients used to build it, we are constantly seeking out those kinds of opportunities for quality.”
They were also seeking relationships with producers and became invested in the idea that they can all support one another and ultimately benefit the Utah economy. An example of this is when The Tin Angel folks met Julie Clifford of Clifford Farms. Liedtke explains, “We began buying eggs from her many years ago, when her farm couldn’t handle our demand; we were buying from her in regular 12-packs as opposed to the cases we needed. We continued to buy from her and rave about her and promote her and her business grew. It wasn’t long before we were able to transition to using her wonderful eggs exclusively and she was able to deliver the cases we need. This has been a directly impactful, long-term business relationship that has immeasurably benefitted her, her employees, as well as us and our quality level.”
Stories like these are not uncommon. Pago, in the hip 9th and 9th neighborhood of Salt Lake City, opened in 2009 with a “farm-to-table” mission and a clear vision of highlighting local and artisan foods. Owner Scott Evans is passionate about finding and featuring new artisans, so much so that he calls Pago a “love letter to local foods.”
The food that Chef Phelix Gardner prepares clearly embraces that love as the restaurant has almost a cult-like clientele and has been recognized several times by national publications, including The New York Times, Food & Wine Magazine, The Washington Post, Bon Appétit and others.
Over the years, Evans and his team have helped numerous producers get established, not only by buying their products for Pago, but by introducing those products to other restaurants and helping them develop a strong consumer following. “As a restaurant group, we are very proud of the number of local businesses we financially support. We keep them in business as much as our regular customers keep us in business,” Evans says. “Dining at Pago and Finca [a sister restaurant featuring Spanish tapas and large plates] directly supports over 30 local Utah companies. We feel good about that.”
Evans points to numerous studies that show the benefits of buying local and supporting the circular farmer-restaurant-consumer connection. Among them is the premise that buying local keeps a higher percentage of money in the local community and reduces pollution through lessened transportation and packaging.
While the concept of making local foods the star on a restaurant menu is fairly new to Utah, it is nothing new to Log Haven’s Chef Dave Jones. In 1994, Jones moved to Utah from Northern California, from “Alice Waters’ country,” where the practice of running a restaurant off local foods had been in place for quite some time. Jones attended intense workshops in California cuisine and was directly influenced by Wolfgang Puck, Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton (of the original Spago).
“When I came to Utah, there wasn’t adequate supply of local foods for the restaurant,” says Jones, “nor the encouragement for this movement.” Jones says he wanted to buy locally, but couldn’t rely on the farmer’s market because there just wasn’t enough produce or variety. Today, Jones calls the abundance of Utah products a “luxury.”
“We are very enthusiastic about the movement, and it just gets bigger and better!” Jones says, noting two new farms he is thrilled to support, Frog Bench in Salt Lake City and Heirlooms & More in Bountiful. “Both are doing an incredible job.”
Jones is excited about the trout he is currently featuring on the Log Haven menu, farmed steelhead from Koosharem in central Utah. The way he describes the trout—how they hail from high-mountain, spring-fed waters and are hand-fed and produced in a sustainable manner that results in an amazing, clean-tasting, unique fish—makes a locavore’s mouth water.
These small, dedicated producers—the fish farmers, the cattlemen, the cheesemakers—are integral to the success of many of Utah’s best and brightest chefs. Without the honey, the pork belly, the feta and the mushrooms, talented chefs would not be wowing local foodies, and these foodies wouldn’t be flocking to The Copper Onion, Em’s, Zucca, Sage’s, Eva, Talisker—the hottest restaurants from border to border—and posting madly about their experiences.
It all starts with the land, with the farmer, with the soul of the food.
One person who truly understands this relationship and lives by the philosophy is Blake Spalding of Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah. Along with Jen Castle, the duo has turned a corner of isolated canyon country into an international dining destination.
When the grill opened in 2000, the partners stated a mission to embrace local foods. The only problem: Boulder rests at 6,000 feet, accessible by scenic byways that are stunningly beautiful but verge on treacherous. The growing season is short and resources limited. But these reasons are, in part, why Spalding and Castle moved there.
“At the time, ‘special’ or ‘fancy’ food had to be from far away,” Spalding recalls about the 1990s culinary scene. “People wanted Maine lobster in L.A. or New Zealand mussels in New York. What a huge carbon footprint! Abundance and freshness were not seen as special.”
Today, Hell’s Backbone is a mecca for dishes created from the restaurant’s own farms, from other small farms in Boulder, as well as local products from around the state. En route to and from Utah’s national parks, travelers from around the world make the trip to Hell’s Backbone to experience the “place,” not just to eat.
“It is important to be proud of your own food,” Spalding says. “If you travel to Italy, you would never be served French jam or Spanish ham. They want you to eat what they grew and what they made.”
Food grown, nourished and made by local hands is powerful, Spalding says. “You literally take that place into your body. Boulder is an extremely special place in an extraordinary landscape.”
The Right Mix
Actor Ty Burrell and Star Chef Viet Pham Partner in the Kitchen
When “Modern Family” dad Ty Burrell stepped into Viet Pham’s Utah-based award-winning restaurant Forage, he was immediately blown away. “It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had,” said Burrell to Food & Wine magazine writer Pamela Kaufman. Burrell was so impressed, he approached Pham about starting something totally new in Utah—an artisanal sausage and craft beer restaurant. Dubbed Beer Bar, the restaurant will be co-owned by Burrell; Pham, who defeated Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America” and was named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in 2011, will oversee the menu. Slated to open in spring 2014, Beer Bar will serve Pham’s overloaded brat Reuben sandwiches complemented with one of the eatery’s 150 “new concept” signature beer cocktails.
Favorite Local Foods
from Locals’ Favorite Chefs
La Nay Ferme
Pleasant Creek Ranch
Meyer’s: Certified Piedmontese all natural beef
Heirlooms & More
Creminelli Fine Meats
Caputo’s Blossom Hills
Green River Produce
Ballard Hog Farm
Mountain View Mushrooms
Slide Ridge Honey
Shepherd’s Goat Dairy
Gold Creek Farms
Red Barn Cider Mill
Snowy Mountain Creamery
Morgan Valley Lamb
Caffe Ibis Coffee
Charming Beard Coffee