Food Matters: Farm to Fish
“Taylor is a food artist. His presentation is pretty damn creative. He takes a fish from Japan, and (nasturtium) flowers grown two months, and makes ’em taste good. He started when he was 18, when everyone else was in college. Have you seen him break down a fish? Not a lot of people have that skill. He’s in the 200,000-hour category, which not a lot of people are in their professions. And: the atmosphere of Maru isn’t stuffy. It lets people relax. Maru is a perfect example of top-quality chillness.”
A monster lives in Taylor Hale’s garden. It’s not a chipmunk — though there is one of those, with an insatiable appetite for fennel and cucumber. No, the rodent is outmatched by what the Maru chef-owner calls a “f—ing monstrosity,” which dominates one of his vegetable beds in Old Snowmass. It’s so intimidating that the pesky critter doesn’t dare touch it.
“The biggest red sorrel plant I’ve ever seen in my life!” Hale exclaims, pointing toward a 3-foot-tall spiky bush. Some of the leaves, which are bright green with blood-red ribs and veins, are 15 inches long and double the width of a samurai sword. Neighboring plants are one-third as bulky, and last year those were the biggest red sorrel plants Hale had ever seen.
“It’s crazy,” he continues, “I didn’t know there was such a thing as biennials. I didn’t plant that one (this year). It decided to come back.”
This is the third summer that Hale has cultivated a garden for Maru in raised beds he built from old garage doors and wooden barrels on the bucolic Snowmass Cottages property, just off Highway 82 and abutting the Roaring Fork River. Surprises abound. Feathery mizuna is thriving in the hot July sunshine. Bell peppers he planted this spring from seed are turning red, unexpectedly. Rouge d’Hiver (red romaine) lettuce, in contrast, needs a little more TLC. Japanese eggplant are slow to grow, too, possibly recovering from the shock of being spaced too closely.
Barrel plantings are lush with wild arugula, mint, rosemary, tall spires of tarragon and flat-leaf parsley the dark color of alpine evergreens. In another bed are chives with puffy purple blossoms, two kinds of thyme (German, lemon) and pineapple sage. Regrettably, a wasabi root from Eagle Crest Nursery didn’t survive last year.
Hale, who admits he’d never grown anything — “not even weed!” — until 2017, when he was living in a cabin here, never quite knows what will sprout up or thrive. Yet that’s the thrill of his new hobby.
The same might be said for diners awaiting a meal at 5-year-old Maru, where Hale decorates expertly sliced, raw Japanese fish with less traditional accouterments such as fruits, vegetables, herbs and greens from his garden.
“My new style is doing petite salads to top sashimi — a mixture of baby sorrel, purple basil, mizuna, kale, with the finest chiffonade chop, seasoned with sauces or mushrooms or orange wedges,” he says. “This year is about specific garnishes.”
Back at the giant sorrel plant, Hale plucks a large leaf and nibbles. The bigger sorrel grows, he explains, the more intensely bitter its flavor. So, he’ll use these freakishly long leaves as a backdrop, instead of something natural yet inedible, like bamboo leaf. I take a bite of some sorrel he hands me. Instantly my mouth puckers, as if I’d sipped a spoonful of lemon juice.
Meanwhile, Hale is chewing and guffawing. Even crazier: it’s clear that using the massive, astringent sorrel leaves on a hundred plates at Maru lunch and dinner won’t put a dent in this overgrown plant. So, he’s toying with other preparations.
“When you juice that up, it turns red,” he explains. “So I’ll make a really tangy red sorrel ponzu. Everybody loves ponzu … and you can enrich it with any other type of flavoring.” (Other popular variations are thickened by grilled, pureed Palisade peaches or tiny diced cubes of apple — a French knife technique called brunoise.)
As Hale’s mizuna, kale, and heirloom cherry tomatoes will explode in coming weeks, two or three nightly specials (in addition to 14 or so sashimi dishes on the main menu) will feature these garden-fresh ingredients.
“I’m using (produce) from here to make flavors I’ve never had before,” Hale says. “No one else is using this stuff or has this exact combination to put together. That’s why this is so cool.”
The farming ethos dovetails neatly with Hale’s philosophy toward sourcing fish near daily from Japan and with his training as a sushi chef (15 years at Kenichi before opening Maru with kitchen executive chef Peter Coyne in 2013).
“It applies so well to sushi, because you have to do so little if you’re using the best quality product,” Hale says. “Just like a beautiful piece of bluefin tuna: You just slice a piece — you don’t even need soy sauce. There’s enough natural flavor and goodness that you don’t mess with it.”
Similarly, regarding a tender baby green or a behemoth stalk of curly kale, Hale has an innate sense of how to best prepare something he’s tended by hand, “the same as I know what to do with a special fish I would order, like an akamutsu (Rosy seabass) or suzuki (Japanese seabass),” he shares. Coyne and Maru cooks receive deliveries of Hale’s yellow squash for tempura amuse-bouche, radishes for salads and herbs for poultry and meat. Together they brainstorm creative uses.
Of course, this translates to a garden variety of color at Maru — from the sushi bar in particular. Hale might place translucent slices of fluke atop a ribbon of plum jam, topped with candied grapefruit, sliced baby strawberries, shiso leaves, and Champagne vinegar. He’ll nestle bright-coral salmon on a blanket of avocado mousse with roasted mushrooms, sesame seeds and garden chives. White fish could be rolled in nori dust, which turns black with a quick sear, then drizzled with golden beet puree and that signature chiffonade “salad” of sorrel and purple basil.
“The whole reason I ever got into sushi — thinking back now — was for sure because of the colors,” Hale says. “Even a basic plate of nigiri — tuna, yellowtail, salmon — it’s three striking colors. When you cook tuna it turns from a beautiful showcase red to gray. Day-one bluefin tuna just gleams.”
While every ingredient picked from the chef’s Old Snowmass garden is unique (and means one less item for Hale to order from an outside purveyor), the real value is personal.
“Doing this kind of work,” he says, sweeping an arm toward his verdant raised plots, “is so relaxing. Especially in the chef game, where everything is frantic, so over-scrutinized. Just being here is so calming. I bet all chefs get stuck or burnt out, overworked, momentarily uninspired … but finding out inadvertently that you’re good at something pretty major on the scope of human existence — being able to grow your own food — is gratifying in a way that nothing else is.”
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