Chef-farmer Hardy sowing seeds of change
Earlier this spring, Ryan Hardy fulfilled the dream he has had since he became executive chef at The Little Nell two years ago. With a pair of partners, the 32-year-old Hardy bought a farm in Delta County, on the other side of McClure Pass from Carbondale – the 15-acre Rendezvous Organic Farm, in the town of Crawford (population approximately 400).Produce from the farm is already making appearances on The Little Nell menu: Rendezvous radishes and arugula are part of a snapper dish; the mint is in a salsa verde. Last week’s menu featured a carpaccio of lamb tenderloin. The lamb was a special that lasted two nights, due to the short supply of the meat. But not so with the goat’s milk that Hardy buys from a neighboring farm and makes into a goat cheese himself. The milk is “pouring in,” says Hardy, “so we’re putting it on everything.” There’s a salad of greens with goat cheese (both sourced from Rendezvous), and goat cheese on a host of specials.Aside from the current ways he is making use of his produce, Hardy bought the farm with an eye on the future. Keenly aware of changes in American society that have decimated small family farms and the traditional farm life that flourished just 60 years ago, he is trying to turn the tide. Buying Rendezvous and turning it into an organic, devoutly rustic farm – he has no tractor, but a rototiller that runs on locally produced biodiesel – Hardy is taking a step toward turning the tide. In his hopeful vision, he sees more and more land being worked by small, environmentally conscious (and food-conscious) growers.”World change has to start one person at a time,” said Hardy. “I know it’s cheesy. But we can’t rely on our government, who’s in office to make the changes we want. That has to be with us shopping at the farmers market every Saturday morning. It’s important for all of us to make that impact.”Toward that goal, Hardy is participating in a benefit lunch set for Thursday, June 14, at The Little Nell’s Tavern restaurant. Hardy will be joined by Ilan Hall, winner of TV’s “Top Chef” reality competition program, and master sommelier Richard Betts, director of The Nell’s wine program. Half of the proceeds from the event will go to Grow For Good, a campaign launched by Food & Wine magazine that benefits Farm to Table. That national initiative is dedicated to supporting local farms and encouraging sustainable agriculture. The three-course menu is likely to include Hardy’s homemade salami, a dessert of his farm’s preserves and his panna cotta, and a salad of home-cured ham, figs and, of course, goat cheese.
While Hardy bought Rendezvous to help ensure a future for small farms, his desire to do so stems from his past. His maternal grandparents had a dairy farm in Cincinnati and kept the neighbors in ice cream, milk and cream with their small commercial operation. On his dad’s side, he had relatives who kept their Louisiana roots after moving to North Carolina; they threw massive crab-boils with gumbo and étouffée.Growing up in Lexington, Ky., Hardy was a step removed from those roots. His mother kept a garden, which Ryan helped to tend. “That made a big impression on me,” he said. “I knew the difference between a good tomato and one you buy in the store. My mother never – never – bought a tomato in a store. Things that I thought were normal as a child, I learned in college really weren’t normal.”More normal, by the standards of contemporary America, was the occupation of Hardy’s father. The elder Hardy was a vice president of marketing for Long John Silver’s, a fast-food enterprise whose website boasts of being “the world’s most popular quick-service chain with more than 1,200 restaurants worldwide.” Hardy is understanding about his father’s career choice; after serving in Vietnam, he was merely looking for a job to support his family. But he also saw how the job, especially the fact that Long John Silver’s represented something so far from the dairy farm in Cincinnati and the family’s home garden, affected his father. Further contrast was added by Ryan’s uncle, his father’s brother, who worked for the Kroger supermarket chain – but in the fine-foods department, dealing with olive oils, produce and the like.”After so many years of it, it was less and less about the nourishment of a family meal, and more and more about commercial food,” said Hardy of his father. “After a while, it wore on him.”I saw that side of food and knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
After studying accounting in college and trying his hand at forestry, Hardy began to make his passion for a food into a career. He had a short, unfulfilling stint at the California Culinary Academy, a job working the wood-fired oven at a San Francisco restaurant, and a stretch at Chicago’s Rubicon, where Hardy learned just how competitive the restaurant trade was at the highest levels. At Rubicon, he also developed what has become his surpassing gastronomic interest, cheese.In 1999, Hardy moved to Aspen for the first time, taking the butcher’s job at Renaissance (and introducing the restaurant’s cheese program), and then the executive chef position at Rustique, the new spot opened by Renaissance owner Charles Dale. Those positions introduced him to the town he now calls home, but it was on Martha’s Vineyard, where he took over the kitchen at the Coach House, that he discovered his desire to have a hand in producing the food he served.”When I got there, it clicked for me, one of those defining moments,” he said. Interestingly, Martha’s Vineyard reminded him of Kentucky, as traces of a distinct, agrarian past were still visible. “I found myself spending a lot of time up-island, in the hills, working with Jack Reed, who was a farmer on the island, an old hippie who would care-take a half-acre here, trade for things. He had great produce – greens, tomatoes. So my off days I’d spend with him – herding sheep, planting. “It was part of my social environment, something I really enjoyed. When I’m on a farm, I feel really alive. You’re immersed in what it took to get to society.”
The farming lifeHardy’s second go-round in Aspen began two years ago, when he became executive chef at The Little Nell, responsible for the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus at Montagna, the bar menu, and room service. (This past winter, he also launched the French bistro menu at The Nell’s Tavern restaurant, formerly the independently operated Ajax Tavern.) As he had done in Martha’s Vineyard, he emphasized local food, creating relationships with rabbit and lamb suppliers in Delta County, Palisade fruit-growers, and a cattleman in Carbondale.Working closely with the actual producers, rather than corporate purveyors, was a step in the right direction. But Hardy arrived in Aspen with a yearning to become a producer as well as a chef, and he began looking for a farm of his own right away. On April 1, he and his partners – including his mentor from Massachusetts, Jack Reed – closed on Rendezvous.Hardy has big eyes for his small farm. Bought from a geologist who kept it in immaculate shape, the farm already yields pheasants, chickens and lamb, greens, berries, apples and pears, and fruits from asparagus to broccoli rabe. “And we haven’t even planted anything yet,” exclaims Hardy, who plans to add pigs and assorted crops soon.Hardy and his wife, Cathy, are hands-on participants in the physical labor at the farm. And going the route of being his own producer actually makes his job as chef more complicated. Hardy points out that chefs, as a rule, are intolerant of uncertainty. “We’re terribly inflexible in the demands we make of our food. We don’t want one day great arugula, the next day bad arugula,” he said. But relying on one small farm, rather than a mass purveyor, means that menus change not only with the season, but with up-and-down crops, short supplies and what happens to come up on a particular day.
“What Jack got me to see is, that’s not the way nature grows,” said Hardy, referring to chefs’ demands to have certain foods, regardless of the season. “We eat asparagus like mad for four weeks – and don’t eat it, or at least not much, the rest of the year. When something comes in your back door, you take it.”For Hardy, the appeal of working a farm seems divided into two discreet sides. One of those aspects is societal – the idea of supplying a community with food that he knows has been grown or raised according to his standards.”I look back at what my grandparents accomplished, establishing a business. And they did more than that – they fed the community, with an ice-cream shop, a dairy store. The whole idea with the farm is to feed the community,” said Hardy, who hopes to have a booth at the Aspen Saturday Market next summer. “Not to make money, not to supply The Little Nell.”A big part of the communal component is how the farm is run. It’s a method he calls “intensive organic farming.” The electric fences are solar-powered; the chickens live cage-free, preferring to mingle with the sheep. The latest thing to occupy Hardy’s mind is finding more earth-friendly alternatives to plastic and cardboard packaging.”Now that I have a farm, I look at a farm so differently,” he said. “I look at pasture land with cows or sheep, and it’s overcrowded with no shaggy grass all over to feed on. It’s dirt, with a little bit of grass here and there. They’re nibbling on the willow tree. They’re not discriminating, because they don’t know any better. They don’t have a choice.”Dude, it’s summertime. They should be eating hay. What do those cows taste like? Where do they go?”
The other side of the fascination with farming is the wonder of nature. Throw a seed in the ground and watch it become a beanstalk or broccoli. Take a newborn lamb, feed and nurture it until it is ready to be eaten. Milk the goats, and turn what the animal has given into cheese.”I can’t tell you how good it feels to raise something from its infant stage, then take its life, sacrifice its life, and take that food,” said Hardy. “It gives you a sense of what happened all along the way. You understand everything that went into it.”The idea of putting one seed in the ground and coming out with 20 pounds of greens – that’s amazing to me. That one seed has turned into something infinitely more, with texture and flavor. An incredibly powerful flavor at that. Way better than you can get in the store.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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