Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Keeping our food local |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Keeping our food local

Scott Condon, Linda Hayes and Amiee White Beazley
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Cover by Afton GroepperContributed photo

Tai Jacober got a notion in 1999 that beef eaters in the Carbondale area would appreciate knowing what ranches their meat was coming from and that the ranchers weren’t pumping the cows full of hormones and antibiotics.

Thirteen years have proven him correct.

Jacober bought two calves in 1999, raised them and sold the meat.

“Since then it’s been nonstop growth, basically,” he said.

The family business, Crystal River Meats, grew to 25 head of cattle, then 50 and so on. Today the operation is up to 800 head and still growing. Crystal River Meats sells beef to 40 restaurants in the Roaring Fork Valley and countless consumers who visit the company’s store in Carbondale or order online.

For Jacober, there’s really no mystery in why the concept has caught on. The average American eats food that has traveled at least 1,500 miles. Crystal River Meats raises all its cows within 30 miles of Carbondale, and the beef is processed within 100 miles. That means a significantly lower carbon footprint – the amount of fossil fuel consumption related to production of the food.

Some people appreciate that, Jacober said, and other consumers want to know their food producers so they can rest assured they are eating healthy. Grass-fed meat is nutritionally superior, the company’s website says. It provides omega and conjugated linoleic acid, which reduce heart disease, body fat and risk of cancer.

“There is a demand and a market share that wasn’t being met,” Jacober said.

But the importance of raising local, grass-fed beef goes even further for the partners in the business – Tai’s brothers Rio and Forest and their dad, Jock. They share a passion for agriculture and a desire to run a ranch in a way that makes a difference.

“It was just ingrained – a love of the natural resources and of the land,” Jacober said. “The ultimate mission is to save open lands.”

Crystal River Meats relies on eight ranches in the Carbondale area for its operations. Flying Dog Ranch West is “home base” for the business. Seven other ranches supply cattle, hay for winter feeding or pasture land. The success of the meat business translates into success for the affiliated ranches.

Jacober said he or one of his employees stays in regular contact with the chefs at the restaurants they supply and finds out what they are looking for in their meat. Cattle are bred for the most appealing characteristics, such as tenderness and intramuscular fat content. The emphasis is breeding cattle for taste, not for looks, Jacober said. They breed a cross of Hereford and Angus.

Mother Nature helps create the high-quality taste that has boosted the company’s reputation.

“We have the right microclimate to produce top beef,” Jacober said. “The type of weather we have produces grasses super high in sugar.”

The hot days and cool nights draw the sugars out of the cold-season grasses. But it’s not as simple as just letting their cows mow down the right grasses. The cattle have to be positioned in the right pastures and meadows at the right times to take advantage of the process.

Another key to the success of Crystal River Meats is keeping chefs supplied with fresh meat that isn’t frozen.

“We cut beef every single week,” Jacober said.

Mountain Meats in Craig dry ages the beef for 15 to 21 days to create meat that’s tender and flavorful, then butchers it. After the meat is cut, it is rushed to the restaurants without freezing.

The Jacobers have a plan to bring that process even closer to home. They plan to invest in mobile slaughter units that could be taken to the different ranches where their cattle are raised at the appropriate time. The animals would be butchered “where they are walking” and comfortable rather than loaded up and hauled off. The planned process is more humane, Jacober said, and further reduces the company’s carbon footprint.

Jacober said his family envisions a Main Street aging facility that is connected to an old-fashioned butcher shop. Customers will be able to come in and order their cuts of meat – a process that defines fresh. They intend to develop the concept in Carbondale in the near future.

“We want to have it like a coffee shop place where people like to meet,” Jacober said.

Tai Jacober was educated in agri-business, specifically in raising commodity beef. He knows that on a global scale, the agriculture industry must produce a lot more food in coming decades to meet the exploding population.

“We’re not going to get it done the way I do it,” he acknowledged.

But the way the Jacobers do it fills a niche – and it helps keep the remaining ranches of the valley viable.

“Just add water,” Lee Liebmann exclaims with the contagious exuberance that underscores her passion for growing the food we eat. “If everyone in America just grew salad greens on their windowsill, imagine how much healthier we’d be and how much better it would be for the environment. People don’t realize how easy it is. It baffles me.

Offered while standing at the center of the Aspen Community Garden on the Marolt Open Space off Highway 82, surrounded by 360-degree views of verdant mountain peaks and with plants and flowers sprouting at our feet in 50 well-tended garden plots, Liebmann’s statement might seem like an oversimplification of a complicated subject.

But dig deeper, and the message becomes clear.

“Food that’s locally grown and organic is healthier because it doesn’t lose nutrients like it would over the time it takes to fly it in or drive it cross-country,” she explains. “Plus, so much oil and road use would be saved. It’s a much greener way to go.”

Liebmann’s conviction is deeply rooted. Her love of gardening started as a youth back east in the ’80s.

“My mother kills houseplants,” she laughs. “I started taking over those obligations while we were living in Manhattan. After that, when we moved to Connecticut, I wanted to have a little garden, so I planted seeds in flower beds on the porch.”

After she moved to Old Snowmass with her family in ’95, Liebmann’s interest in cooking with fresh ingredients started while “poking her head into the kitchen” at the juice bar in The Aspen Club, where she worked. After formal training at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, during which she experienced the current farm-to-table trend in its infancy, she took a job in the kitchen with Charles Dale at the former Renaissance in Aspen. For the past five years, she has held the position of pastry chef at Syzygy.

Little by little during that time, Liebmann’s gardening obsession grew. At her home in Woody Creek, she turned “a barren landscape of lawn” with just a few perennials into a mini Eden complete with apple trees, currant bushes, a greenhouse, chickens and honeybees. She studied sustainable agriculture at Sustainable Settings in Carbondale and learned about extending the short local growing season through the use of hoop houses and cold frame-style greenhouses.

Three years ago, through sheer determination, she acquired one of the highly coveted plots at the Aspen Community Garden. Between it and her home garden, summer and fall harvests will yield everything from asparagus to sunchokes, cabbages to gooseberries, much of which she’ll either preserve or share with co-workers, family and friends.

Along with that bounty comes an obvious need to expand gardening opportunities in the area to meet with the demand.

“We are so far behind other places here,” she says. “In Denver, for instance, people are taking basic gravel schoolyards in lower-income urban areas and making entire edible landscapes. Here we are with field aplenty and one community garden with a 50-person waiting list.”

The solution is to educate. One place to start is with kids, which led Liebmann to yet another role – co-garden coordinator at Aspen Elementary School’s Magical Garden, a program started four years ago by Katie Leonatis and Slow Food Roaring Fork. Working in 12 plots with raised beds, classes of 16 kids (preschoolers to fourth-graders) take an organic vegetable garden through a full cycle.

“We’ll plant seeds in the garden, or start them inside in little paper cups if the weather is bad, and the kids get to learn how things grow,” she says. “They’ll be surprised that carrots grow underground and there’s an actual plant that grows out of the top. And watching a first-grader eating raw asparagus from the garden – and loving it – is amazing.”

Liebmann also is involved with the local Food 4 U Lunch program, which ensures that all elementary and middle school students have access to delicious, healthy, seasonal meals made, as often as possible, with locally grown, sustainable ingredients. She’s working with Kate Linehan, of the Honeybee Organic Juice Bar in Aspen, to form the Aspen Honeybee Guild. And, once a month, she participates in the Roaring Fork Food Policy Council meetings in Basalt.

“It’s an open forum for people to present topics they’re interested in, like ways to become self-sufficient,” she says. “The knowledge needs to be shared, or it’s lost forever.”

He’s young (29), has experience at some of the best restaurants in the country (Restaurant Daniel, Bar Boulud) and opened a successful kitchen (PB Boulangerie-Bistro in Wellfleet, Mass., with Little Nell executive chef Rob McCormick). O’Neill’s got a big personality and an even bigger agenda – to make the longtime beloved Ajax Tavern not only a social hotspot with good bistro fare but a place where the food is pushing the envelope and always changing.

This pursuit comes at a good time for Ajax Tavern. As celebrated and delicious as Ajax Tavern has been, it also has had a bit of an inferiority complex. And the persistent perception that the Tavern inevitably plays second fiddle to the sexier, more refined Montagna has always dogged the locale.

Or, at least, that was the scoop before O’Neill arrived.

“I reject that whole big-brother thing,” O’Neill says. “We all work together. Rob and I have such a good relationship, there is no separation. Our cooking techniques are the same level. Yes, he’s cooking a little more molecular, but our flavor profiles are the same. Our atmosphere and vibe are different. I look at it as different cuisines with different styles but utilizing the same ingredients.”

The presumed position of jockeying from behind suits O’Neill. He thrives on a challenge and has the honest grit of a chef who’s worked his way up the ranks, starting out as a teenager in Marietta, Ga., working at a pizza shop and then as a manager at Taco Bell. When he realized that being in the kitchen was where he wanted to be, O’Neill trained at the New England Culinary Institute and then embarked on a series of highs – gaining notoriety from the Boston Globe and the New York Times for his work as executive chef at PB Boulangerie-Bistro, two years at the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Daniel in New York and the grand opening of Bar Boulud in Manhattan’s Upper West Side – and lows – a short-lived and disappointing stint at August on the Lower West Side – that shaped his career path over the next several years.

Through his strong relationship with McCormick, O’Neill came to The Little Nell in December. When former chef Allison Jenkins decided to leave at the end of the season and return to her native Texas to open a new restaurant, McCormick tapped his friend, and O’Neill took control.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working in several kitchens with Matt over the years,” McCormick says, “and I’m thrilled to have him at the helm of Ajax Tavern.”

Ajax is the perfect spot for O’Neill. Not only does he have a close professional rapport with Montagna’s executive chef, but his confident vibe, with cooking chops to match, made him unafraid to take on a menu that was loved by many but also ready for a makeover. He took off some revered dishes like lamb Bolognese and mac and cheese, and he added lighter summer pastas, salads and small plates with a pan-European point of view. He makes his own charcuterie, jams and compotes and loves the curing process. (“Pig is my thing,” he says with a smile.)

In order to do this, first O’Neill had to know what he was working with – ingredientwise. He needed to be able to find things that were fresh and abundant, and that started with a strong local food connection. So he reached out to Jack “The Sourcer-er” Reed, a local food guru, to help execute his goal.

“I’m sourcing as much local as (Jenkins) and elevating it even more,” O’Neill says. “Jack has taken (Ajax) on as his first priority. Forty percent of what we use is from Jack.”

Three for four times a week, Reed drops fresh local meat and produce to O’Neil. Sometimes they’re items he’s requested, and other times they are surprises that Reed has come across in the field.

On the menu the day we met: house-made ricotta gnocchi with green, snap peas, morels, pea tendrils and cured Meyer lemon; chickpea fries with a creamy center and slight crisp of the outside thanks to the chickpea flour crust; a wonderful vibrant green nettle soup to taste and see (picked that day and brought to the Ajax kitchen “still wet from the rain,” O’Neill says) finished with a small amount cream; a simple eggplant starter with a cream and Greek-styled sauce with a perfect hint of lemon; and grilled squid accented with toasted hazelnuts.

As the afternoon sun got stronger, the popular Ajax patio began to fill, and I watched as O’Neill glanced from table to table. Subtly, he was eyeing the food – what people ordered and how they reacted to the first bite.

“I love to watch the food go out (to the guest),” he says, “and watch them take that first bite. That first bite tells you so much about whether they like or don’t like what they are eating.”

And he thrives on feedback. He visits every table and feels it is his job to get that direct communication from diners. He has worked to improve expediting and quality control, asking that nothing leave his kitchen without first being tasted by the chefs. And he is constantly taking notes, researching menu ideas and experimenting with ingredients to create the next great dish at Ajax.

“I feel more creative in this restaurant than I ever have before,” he says.

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