By Radha Marcum, Senior Editor
It’s a chilly December day with streets full of packed snow. From a cozy, sunlit table, under an antique spoon chandelier, I watch as The Squeaky Bean fills with lunch-goers. Located in downtown Denver, The Squeaky Bean is no ordinary farm-to-table eatery. I’ve heard that Chef Chris MacGillivray’s seasonal vegetable dishes are unparalleled. I’m here to find out why.
Begun in 2009, The Squeaky Bean moved to its current location in Denver’s hip LoDo (lower downtown) neighborhood several years ago. A farm-to-table establishment from the beginning, co-owner Josh Olsen began farming a plot near the old location because “we didn’t have as many local vegetables available to us in 2009.” And just recently they rebranded to reflect their deepening roots—Squeaky Bean Farm and Table.
When the restaurant moved and began looking for a larger piece of land to farm, Olsen had a lucky connection. His brother happened to teach at Warren Tech, a career-prep charter high school with several acres of garden a few blocks from the restaurant’s new location. “The land was used for their horticulture program that did flower sales,” explains Olsen. Now the restaurant and school are working together to grow food, and they’re revitalizing that horticulture program to reintroduce it to the community.
The gardens provide an impressive 80 percent of the restaurant’s produce in summer, and continue to produce greens and veggies in rotating greenhouses during the winter. At the height of harvest, that means that diners eat vegetables that are less than 24 hours old, sometimes a mere 3 to 4 hours out of the field.
From Rich Soil to Big Flavor
Chef MacGillivray walks up to our table with an utterly beautiful plate of French heirloom winter squash “Carpaccio,” he announces. With its deep orange hue, dollops of soft white goat cheese, and nasturtium flowers, it’s almost too pretty to eat. We eat it. Its tangy, fresh vegetable flavor is as robust as its eye appeal.
“For the Carpaccio, we use French heirloom pumpkins grown on the farm,” explains MacGillivray, executive chef at The Squeaky Bean since May 2015. His care and creativity is evident in his explanation: “We slice them very thin. To that, we add savory pepita granola with curry spices, goat cheese mousse, a balsamic reduction, and spicy microgreens—nasturtium today.”
What’s his secret? “It’s all about the ingredients—the vegetables. The flavor starts with good soil. Soil is number one, two, and three!” After that, he adds that it’s about the care in picking, washing, and cooking. “I never want to mask the flavor, but heighten it.”
MacGillivray grew up in culinary Santa Fe and started his career in the kitchens of Ristra, Restaurant Martin, and the Loretto Inn and Spa, but he says that the best vegetables he ever tasted were at Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos, California. “The vegetables came from a biodynamic farm.” Ever since then, MacGillivray has paid close attention to his vegetables’ source. “It all comes back to the grower, the soil, and when that vegetable is planted . . . all of that has to do with how the vegetable tastes.”
“The more fertile the soil, the better the vegetables,” says Olsen. Soil has to be balanced, with magnesium, calcium, potassium, nitrogen, and phosphate, he explains. A good balance allows veggies to absorb nutrients better, which imparts more flavor, he says. “Jason at Aspen Moon [a partner farm]—he’s not growing vegetables; he’s tending the soil. The vegetables are offshoots of that soil.”
The winter is a challenge, MacGillivray and Olsen admit. “We get so used to the amazing harvest vegetables!” says Olsen. They still get beautiful greenhouse tomatoes, Chinese broccoli, and chard, MacGillivray adds, but they are anxiously anticipating the next growing season. “We’re still experimenting, but I’m passionate about it,” says Olsen. “When the restaurant staff and students plant, weed, and harvest, it creates a community. This restaurant is a community.”
The dedication to the soil pays off in the bright flavors of the vegetable-driven, though not strictly vegetarian, menu at The Squeaky Bean, which is considered to be one of Denver’s hottest restaurants.
Capture the best of what vegetables have to offer with these tips from Chef MacGillivray.
Find out more at The Squeaky Bean.