Bradford Heap: One Chef’s Rise to the Non-GMO Challenge

by Radha Marcum

When a chef in Boulder, Colorado, declares his kitchen a GMO-free zone, it may seem like a no-brainer. After all, organic- and local-food-favoring Boulderites have been vocal in the non-GMO debate for many years. But to truly eliminate GMOs at the restaurant level is no easy task, says Bradford Heap, chef and owner of Salt Bistro in Boulder, Colorado, and Colterra in nearby Niwot. Nevertheless, in May of this year Heap joined several other Boulder chefs committed to non-GMO cooking, plunging headfirst into making his restaurants 100 percent GMO-free.

On behalf of Calmful Living, I met with Heap one sunny afternoon at Salt, over a light lunch salad harvested that morning from one of Heap’s partner farms. Heap proudly showed me several dozen heads of Little Gem lettuces soaking in a stainless-steel bin in the kitchen. “This is the first time we grew this variety,” says Heap. “Look! They’re incredible!” Indeed, the medium-bodied leaves were crisp and perfect with white balsamic and buttermilk dressing, garnished with shaved turnips and fresh tomatoes.

In contrast to the cool lettuce, Heap was fired up. “I’m really mad about GMOs. I have ten-year-old twins. I think our ability to sustain ourselves and future generations is being impeded by these big biotech companies.” Heap cites Michael Pollan’s books and ongoing social media presence, the documentary film The World According to Monsanto, and renowned Manhattan chef Tom Colicchio’s TEDx Talk “Vote Food” as primary influences on his decision to go GMO-free.

“I don’t know that GMOs are inherently bad; I’m not a scientist,” he continues. “But the way that the biotech companies go about creating and selling these seeds, controlling the market and promoting pesticide use, creating super-weeds and more pesticides, contributing to bee colony collapse disorder . . . I don’t want to support that with my restaurants.”

It’s not just about eliminating nonorganic corn and soy ingredients, some of the most obvious GMO offenders, Heap explains. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 70 percent of processed foods contain GMOs. He has to consider sneaky ingredients like sugar in sweetened beverages, often made from GMO sugar beets. “When I started looking into it, I realized that I had to go all in. I couldn’t just take some ingredients out and leave others.”

It became particularly challenging when he began to scrutinize what animals are fed, especially if pasture raised but grain finished, says Heap. His restaurants have always served humanely raised, grass-fed meats. “It was extremely difficult to source pork, chicken, beef, and chicken eggs from animals fed a clean, non-GMO diet.” Despite the surplus of grains in the US, most animal feed is imported, Heap points out, making it incredibly difficult to trace. Though not typically vegan, Heap was in the midst of a one-month commitment to vegan eating when we met.

How has he overcome these obstacles? Heap says he owes his success in sourcing clean, non-GMO meats, dairy and eggs to his strong network of local providers. “I’ve succeeded with the good relationships I’ve developed with farmers and producers who share these principles—Soul Patch, for example. My restaurant staff have been incredibly supportive. It has taken a lot of education, but they are fully on board.” Some people come into the restaurant just wanting a good-tasting burger, he says, and that is OK. “For those who want to know, we can help close the gap between what’s on their plate, why it tastes so good, and where it originated—the people involved in that process.”

Going non-GMO has meant a big price increase for some ingredients, such as eggs, which went up a full 25 percent. Nevertheless, there has been tremendous support for the move so far. “When I took GMOs on, even though I didn’t care so much about my image as a chef, I was worried that it would kill my business. But our profits were up 19 percent in June,” he reports.

Heap supports his organic suppliers not only by buying their produce but by going out and actually participating in farming—the planting, weeding, harvesting—several times a week. “There’s a deep humility to farming, to be physically out there; it’s tough. When you put a seed in the ground and nurture it, grow it, and see it to the table, that makes me feel successful. It’s so much bigger than ‘me,’” reflects Heap. “Growing foods and doing my part to raise awareness around GMOs gives me a greater purpose than just being a successful chef with several restaurants.”

Beyond simply choosing non-GMO-verified foods at our grocery store and, if possible, in the restaurants we frequent, Heap says that it’s imperative we use our voting power to influence what happens at the governmental level. “We need more accountability. We need to vote out of office those who support these big companies. Everyone should watch Tom Colicchio’s TEDx Talk and consider his scorecard for politicians. We need to unite around this one topic, to vote consistently,” he asserts.

“My restaurant is an example of how, with willpower, it is possible. We can go GMO-free,” Heap says emphatically. “We can eat healthily, humanely, seasonally, locally. You can do it!” he encourages.

To learn more about Bradford Heap, Salt Bistro and Colterra, visit www.saltboulderbistro.com and www.colterra.com.

Images: Kirsten Boyer Photography