When you dine at Black Cat Bistro in Boulder, Colorado, you’re never sure what you’ll find on the menu. Each day’s Tasting Menu dishes are a mélange of the chef’s imagination and skill and what was plucked on the farm that day. Summertime might mean Beet Carpaccio or Cured Trout with Potato Crisps. During the colder months you could find Winter Vegetable Gratin and Sheep’s Milk Cheesecake.
On a recent visit to Boulder I was lucky enough not only to enjoy the Chef’s Farm Tasting Menu at Black Cat but to have seven courses served by the chef himself, Eric Skokan. While he explained that the beautiful squash blossom appetizer he was serving me was picked that day, I asked from which farms he acquired his produce. “My farm—Black Cat Farm,” he responded casually. “My family and I live on it. We farm it every day.”
Now, from what I know about owning and running an upscale restaurant like Black Cat, it’s more than a full-time job; it’s grueling, exhausting work. But to run a farm as well . . . I asked him when he slept. “When I get a chance,” he said.
I went on to learn that his farm wasn’t some cute kitchen garden; it is a real farm with 130 acres of vegetables and 400 animals. Following an evening in which Skokan served our table course after course of intricate, fresh and delicious food, with his charming humble demeanor, I left, both having eaten well and with that sense of profound respect and excitement one gets after being in the presence of a truly inspired person doing exactly what he wants to be doing with his life. Here is his story.
Planting the Farmer Seed
For some kids a weekend processing and canning tomatoes would be torture. For the young Skokan, it was magical. “One weekend every year, all of the cousins, uncles, nieces and nephews—everyone—would head up to the New York family farm from Virginia for the tomato sauce weekend,” Skokan reminisces. “My job was to run this tomato grinder that my grandfather rigged up; the tomato juice and pulp would fall into a washbasin. There would be outdoor wood fires all across the yard, over which the sauce would slowly boil throughout the weekend. I think, in the end, my dad developed an appreciation for the convenience of the supermarket and I developed an appreciation for the joy of putting up tomato sauce on your own.”
The family also put up bushel after bushel of corn each summer. “We’d shuck like crazy, and then my mom would blanch it and freeze it in big chest freezers in our basement; they would go from empty to fully packed. So I grew up in that kind of household, and I loved it. At that time it didn’t seem like work; it seemed like this mystery, this wonderful celebration. I loved putting up the harvest every summer.”
The seed of a farmer and chef had been planted.
During his years as a college student majoring in history, wandering the archives and hallowed halls of the University of Virginia, you’d assume food would be pretty far from Skokan’s mind. But just as mesmerizing as getting his hands on Thomas Jefferson’s original documents was working his way through college at local restaurants.
“I was the guacamole guy in a taco place, and then I was the prime-rib and french-fry guy in another place. And along the way, I realized that I loved the working-my-way-through-college part much more than I loved the college part,” Skokan recalls.
Amid much hand wringing from his parents, Skokan took off his third year of college to cook. “I went to the best chef in town and said, ‘Hey! I want to work for you. I’ve cooked for a while and I think I know what I’m doing, but I really want to learn.’
“So I started as his apprentice and eventually ended up as his sous-chef; it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, but I grew quickly as a cook. Everything I thought I knew was thrown out and a new style of cooking, very detail oriented, very careful, very subtle, started from that point forward.”
Skokan did finish college (much to his parents’ relief); however, at that point the die was cast: “I knew I was going to be a chef. I thought about it all the time, and I loved it. I loved thinking about food, and living and breathing restaurants, cooking great food and taking care of guests.”
Adding Sustainability to the Recipe
Working at high-end restaurants postcollege, he gained significant knowledge and training; but it was a job at the famous organic restaurant Nora in Washington, DC, that turned Skokan on to sustainability in the kitchen. He remembers the restaurant’s butcher: “He worked sixty hours a week cutting and preparing meat cuts of all these different animals. It was intense, and I asked Nora about it and her thinking was very clear: ‘We are taking the life of this animal and it’s not okay to just pick one little bit and let the rest go. When you take the responsibility for something, you take all of the responsibility. You start at one end and you work your way to the other, and it’s our jobs as cooks to shine the spotlight on each of the cuts: to make everything just as good as the other.’
“I loved that. It was mind expanding—the extent to which she was willing to work harder than everybody else to not just make the food nutritious on the plate, not just take care of people in the dining room, but take care of the community as well.”
This thoughtfulness would remain with Skokan as a guiding force and is now reflected daily in his menus, where you’ll see all cuts from animals that are ethically raised in the pastures of his farm.
The Open Sign Goes Up
After almost ten years at the helm of the kitchen at a mountain resort outside Boulder (where he met his wife, Jill), Skokan was ready to open his own restaurant. That it would be a farm-to-table establishment was inspired by a trip to the Basque region of France.
“We stayed at this little inn, with a few rooms, at the foothills of the Pyrenees,” Skokan relates. “While dining, we watched as the owner, who was also the chef, would leave the kitchen to gather items from the garden and then return to cook with them.
“A few minutes later, out came these glorious dishes. She was a stunningly good cook and obviously had all these great ingredients as well. We talked with her a lot; in fact, we enjoyed it so much that we canceled our itinerary for the rest of the week and stayed there with her.”
The bones of the Black Cat Bistro were laid out on the Skokans’ return flight home from France. “On this series of American Airlines napkins, Jill and I sketched out the basic idea for the Black Cat: On the menu, there would be a connection to every ingredient listed. We would really think it through and you would know where each was sourced; we’d have a story to tell about everything.”
Restaurant Owner, Chef and . . . Farmer
The Skokans have remained true to this passion and their ideals. As the restaurant opened and the positive reviews came in, their kitchen garden grew. “I started gardening as a way of getting ingredients that I cared about onto the menu,” Skokan continues. “I didn’t realize it, but I love farming. I love growing things, and when you find something that you truly love doing, you tend to want to do a little bit more of it.”
As a result of “doing a little bit more of it,” the garden is now a 130-acre farm with 250 fruit and vegetable varieties and 400 animals, including Mulefoot pigs, Toulouse geese and Highland cattle. “Sometimes we’ll take a step back, but when we talk about it we can never imagine not farming anymore. It’s really a part of who we are and what we love doing; it’s part of the rhythm of our days and the rhythm of our year, and we love all of its parts.”
Skokan not only delights in farming, he loves tending the farm’s stand at the Boulder Farmers’ Market each Saturday. “It’s our time to connect in a very laid-back way with our restaurant patrons and shoppers,” he indicates. “It’s been invaluable to us in being good leaders in the community to have that time to hear the feedback, to learn and grow and think about what we do and in a completely different context, because the conversations that you have at the farmers’ market are fundamentally different than the ones that you have in the dining room.”
The Fruits of Labor
For eight years Black Cat Bistro has succeeded and grown. In July 2012, the Skokans opened a sister restaurant in Boulder—Bramble & Hare—and that same year they purchased their farm. The 1925 farmstead came with a dilapidated house, which they and their four children now call home, although it took a bit of work to get it there.
“It would have been perfect for a reality TV show; it’s been an absolute adventure,” muses Skokan. “No running water, no septic field, and the description of the electricity ranges from head scratcher to absolute garbage.” Sometimes they’d get help by trading pork cuts for plumbing work, but the bulk of the labor they did themselves.
Amid working the farm, running the restaurants and renovating the farmhouse, Skokan has also managed to write a cookbook, Farm Fork Food: A Year of Spectacular Recipes Inspired by Black Cat Farm (Kyle Books, 2014)—a gorgeous big book that pays tribute not just to his love of cooking but to his love of farming. The idea came from his Saturday mornings at the Boulder Farmers’ Market. “When I tend our farm stand each Saturday, my favorite part is the interaction with customers. They always have questions, and I’ve learned how much I enjoy both sharing and teaching. I love giving someone a tip on how to cook a different cut of meat or what to do with this interesting vegetable that they’ve read about but never seen or tasted before. So I decided to put these ideas together in a cookbook.”
How do they do it all: raise four kids, maintain a marriage, and run two restaurants and a farm? The Skokans are quick to credit their staff for their success, many of whom have been with them since the beginning. They also get help from a robust internship program.
Because the Skokans now have two restaurants and a farm, there are many opportunities for their interns. “There’s no one formula for interns; we try to leave the programs as flexible as possible. Some people are very interested in animals, and so they tend to work more with them. Some have a stronger interest in the vegetables and others are interested in cooking, and we feel it’s important for there to be a significant amount of crossover. The interns are all invited to the restaurant on Sunday for dinner, and they can see the culmination of the hard work that they’ve done during the week and how we take care of the guests. It’s really the thing that cements the meaning behind what we’re all trying to do,” Skokan explains.
Although doing everything the Skokans do is enough to make one’s head spin, for them it is simply their lives. “We don’t have a lot of down time. We don’t have a TV, and that helps. Vacations might be a day or two here or there. But we no longer feel like the restaurants and farm run us; now we are running them. And our work doesn’t feel like work; it’s just the rhythm of our days.”