=" /> The Mile High Eater: Sep 24, 2008

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Going Green With Black Cat chef Eric Skokan

Going Green with Eric Skokan of the Black Cat
a interview with Eric Skokan

Hi all,

We were fortunate enough to be invited out to meet Chef Eric Skokan of the Black Cat in Boulder and spend some time talking with him about his cooking and his garden. For those of you that don’t know, in the summer 80% of the produce used in the meals at the Black Cat come from Chef Eric’s garden and even in the winter you can expect something on your plate to have come from there, which is a pretty darn cool thing in this age of shipping in everything from hundreds of miles away.

When I first walked up, Chef Skokan was busy tending his garden, with his son Avery following around. As we talked and walked around, Chef Eric would pick a little something here and there for all of us to try, such as pole beans, pepper cress and a couple bright red strawberries, which his son was very happy to see. And to be completely honest, so was I as it was very sweet and juicy. After a little while his wife and older son came around the corner from picking some fresh grapes, which I also got to sample. The dark ones had a taste that was just out of this world and the lucky chickens in the back yard were busy having a field day with some of them that they had dropped inside the pen.

Chef Skokan

The front garden and Avery

Inside the chicken coop, which he tends to move around the yard a bit to even out the use of the land he has, there are enough chickens to hopefully provide all the eggs for the restaurant. There are even 2 quails that he uses just for the eggs. He mentioned that one thing he really liked about raising the chickens is the circle they formed with the restaurant. He brings scraps form the kitchen back to feed the chickens who in turn lay eggs for the restaurant and of course do what chickens do on the ground, which is composted up with other items and then is used to fertilize the garden which grows the food that will end up being scraps for their food!


I asked Chef Skokan a few questions which I will list below with his answers.

1. What attracted you to cooking?

When I asked him this question he told me he had always been interested in gardening and cooking from a young age and it was just following his love that lead him into it. But, after talking to him for a bit, another story came out that I would like to share here. At 22 years of age he was in school to become a lawyer and as time went on he found himself really not liking going to school but really loving going to work at the restaurant job he had at the time and finally decided that it was more important to do what he loved and since then has been in the fortunate position to be able to go to a job he loves ever since. And let me tell you, you can taste that love of cooking and the love of gardening in every bite of the food you have at the Black Cat.

2. What is the philosophy behind your cooking, or in your kitchen?

Cooking is all about taking care of people and that comes first. I don’t do tall food that is beautiful to look at but darn near impossible to figure how to eat and I think that bringing in the produce from my garden and reducing the waste we produce also is a way of taking care of people.

3. What is the biggest influence on the way you cook?

What is in season! As the year goes on I try to spotlight the things that are in season on my dishes. For example, peaches. I only use peaches a few months a year and then you won’t see them again for months and months. But, that first sweet piece that comes back into the kitchen makes that meal even more special. Another large influence is the person he trained under and in particular an incident that happened where he had, to put it bluntly, screwed up a parsnip soup. He went to the chef and said he thought he could fix it by adding more heavy cream and butter. He was told not to. When he asked why, he was told that it is the easy way out and anyone can make something taste better by dumping in cream, but a great chef can do it without. He took this to heart and to this day in his cooking he finishes the cooking process with cream and butter when it is needed, and does not begin with them so the dish can stand on its own with out them and just explode when he does add it at the end.

Second garden

4. Is there a chef living today you would like to work with?

Jean George Vongerichten. Because he has done so much innovative work with French cuisine and getting away from the heavy cream and butter.

5. Is there a particular ingredient you like to cook with more than others?

Every first item that comes, the first tomato, the first bean, but even more the first fresh wild herbs that pop up in the spring because that just gives the feel that we have made it through the winter and the spring and summer is coming with its bounty of flavors.

6. If stuck on a desert isle and you could have only one thing to eat fort he rest of your life what would it be.

Eric went back and forth between good bread and a good risotto and finally decided on the risotto.

7. What 2 restaurants would you suggest to visit besides your own in Colorado?

Frasca Food and Wine (www.frascafoodandwine.com) which he credits with being one of the best restaurants as far as service goes in Colorado and secondly Pupusas Sabor Hispano also in Boulder which serves Salvadoran and Mexican fare which he says is heads and tails above all its competition!

8. What do you do for produce in the winter months?

To this he quickly answered, lament! But he does manage to get produce as late as December from his outside garden and he does some small things inside his garage with grow lights year round.

9. Why did you decide to provide produce from your garden and why not just hire a local farmer to do it for you?

To answer the first question, he used to chef at another Colorado restaurant and seeing it be a “factory” with three or more pallets of food shipped in everyday and a pallet of flattened boxes going out and all the other waste and that was the driving force for his producing his own garden as well as his love for gardening. For the second question he says he is a very hands on person and loves gardening almost as much as he loves cooking and doing the garden lets him experiment and see what works here in Colorado and what does not, as well as to play with those ingredients in different meals to see what flavors he can come up with.

10. You have a vegan and vegetarian tasting menu. What kind of challenges does that bring?

With most restaurants it would be a real problem but with the way I cook almost all my meals start out as vegetarian and I don’t add such items as cream or butter or even the meat items till later, so it is very easy for me to have a great tasting vegan/vegetarian tasting.

11. Would you be willing to share a recipe with us?

Of course! After you come by and eat at the restaurant, let me know which dish you liked the most and I will share the recipe.

12. What do you see for yourself in the future?

I have leased a 10 acre plot for gardening starting next year and am going to bury a storage trailer out there as well to use as cold storage. Hopefully using this and the extra land I will be able to provide more and more produce for the restaurant later and later into the year.

We strolled around a bit more and talked food and dining and about Colorado and then I took my leave knowing he had a full day in front of him. How he manages to run that garden and his kitchen and provide such high quality food, I have no idea, but I am glad we have him. He did mention something about his tasting menu. If you have read my posting about the Black Cat previously you will know that Barb and I came out of that meal stuffed to the gills and he told me the reason. The reason he puts so much food out there for a tasting menu is because two times in the past few years he had people say that they were still hungry after the meal. To him that is a crime, so he wants to make sure that no one ever feels they have to go eat somewhere else after they finish a meal at his restaurant.

One of the final things I asked Chef Skokan about was the name of his restaurant. Originally it was to be named flying saucers (picture a chef tossing saucers around), but they had so many problems with construction that one day while Eric was commenting to his wife that maybe it was a bad idea to open up a place on 13th street and it was commented that this place may be a "black cat" and the name stuck.

I am going to break this into 2 parts. The second part will include our experiences and pictures from our recent meal there and the recipe from Chef Skokan. One last thing I would like to pass on is that in December, the Black Cat is going to have a 4course tasting menu where everything on it will have been raised within a hundred mile radius!

Thanks again for coming by and if you have any questions or comments please let us know, we would be happy to hear from you.

Barb and Jonathan