Teri Rippeto is a resolute, unpretentious, and straightforward restaurateur and chef. She seeks not the spotlight and marches to the beat of her own drum, one that sounds of unwavering beliefs around eating organic and local and serving food in the simplest, yet most authentic way.
The Early Years:
Teri admits she isn’t exactly sure where her commitment to a simplistic, unwavering lifestyle and seasonal food philosophy came from. She didn’t really eat good food growing up, her mom wasn’t a particularly good cook, and most of the time she ate pizza from the pizza shop her dad owned. Her entrepreneurial spirit though has been strong since the beginning. In high school, she had her own painting business and she has owned her own businesses since.
In her 20’s when she attended California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, she loved being part of California’s organic food movement in the center of the burgeoning food city. This period awakened her to food from around the world. She cites Alice Water and Jeremiah Tower of Chez Panisse and Margaret Fox of Cafe Beaujolais, as early culinary influencers of hers while she was becoming a chef on the west coast.
Before opening Potager in Denver, Teri had already lived in Seattle, San Francisco, and St. Thomas. Her father and her opened a restaurant in Missouri after culinary school, but they both agreed in 1997, there was a lot more potential in Denver. With no investors and capital raised solely from their own pockets, she moved to Denver to open Potager with her father as her business partner.
"My dad put everything on the line for this restaurant and we launched with not a cent of working capital."
"We should never had made it," Teri shares but smiles slightly mischievously as she says it was probably her "dogged stubbornness" to not fail, that kept them alive.
In the early days, "no one came" to the restaurant for what felt like a "long time." It was five years before she was able to pay their bills. Everyday she would worry they would go out of business.
She remembers a turning point when The Denver Post started to feature them. In 2008, their grassroots marketing (and really the only marketing they’ve ever done, even to this day) began by starting a Facebook page to communicate with and reach their customers.
Although it wasn't overnight, now 20 years later, Potager is still in its original location and what many would call a culinary institution, as a well-loved cornerstone of Denver’s dining scene.
Cooking to Connect People:
"I believe in connections," Teri shares. She feels its her mission in life to bring seasonal and local food to the forefront of people’s minds and set an example as a steward of the earth. She earnestly hopes her work may inspire others to do the same in their own day-to-day. For Teri, this is a way of life, it always has been for her.
Even from a young age Teri says she can always remember what people had to eat. She never forgets.
"Very early on I realized it was the memory invoked within each of us that ties together people and food." The same remains when her regulars come in. She always remembers what they ate and what it might have meant to them.
Asking about the local and organic food scene in 1997, Teri shares that for years she would go directly to the farmers market each week and pick produce by hand. This was well before farms starting delivering to restaurants. The first two years she only went to the Boulder Farmers Market.
She never introduced herself because she believes in creating an authentic connection and by nature she approaches her work with quiet humility. Back then, most farmers wouldn’t sell to restaurants given their demanding nature and volume, so she worked on building relationships just as a consumer who loved and supported their food.
Teri shares that Pachamama Farm in Longmont was the first farm to ask what she did and to learn about Potager and her vision. To this day, Teri has a working relationship with 12-15 farms that she’s constantly sourcing from that have been built on a foundation of 20 years of friendship and supporting each others' businesses. Teri admits this path isn’t easy.
"Unless you have the commitment," for serving local and seasonal food it won’t be done. "It’s easier to not do it."
Potager’s menu rotates every four weeks to reflect the most seasonal cuisine. Teri shares through her staunch commitment to local and seasonal, she approaches menu building in the inverse of many restaurants. Many chefs will build their menu, then list everything they need from their purveyors. Teri does the opposite. She finds the local ingredients that are available to her, then presents the list of ingredients and the menu is built off of seasonal availability - nothing else.
When asked about her favorite way to cook, she paused to think as she stirred a frothing sauce for a dessert she was making. Then she shared, "I love to keep things simple." She prefers to find a way to showcase the food in its most natural and rustic state. She lands on skewered baby red tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil and salt, then grilled as one of her favorite dishes.
She refers to the saying, "simplicity is complexity resolved," feeling like it describes her work and philosophy quite aptly.
All throughout her life, she has lived simply and cooked simply. With trends and cooking techniques, her resolve and style never swayed. She has steadily kept cooking the same way she knew how all these years.
The Staff and Service:
Although Teri has had much of her staff with her for years, she notes that as of last summer she had a large shift with a new group of staff coming on board. Although there was immense closeness and no turnover for years, she admits fresh faces are a way to reinvigorate the excitement about seasonal food and what the restaurant is doing in their 20th year.
For many years, Teri trained every single staff member and was also the head chef. She trained everyone on the likes of their philosophy, farming, who they work with, and every ingredient in every dish. As she shares she armed them with "tons of information."
Now with a Service Manager, Bar Manager, and Head Chef they are able to help her in the front and back of the house and she lets her years of prior influence and training go through them. Up until two years ago, she cooked at the restaurant every night.
Teri jokes it’s probably better now she’s not the only one training or in charge, as she is just "not tolerant of people if they don’t know how to do their job."
She trusts her staff - from the dishwasher, to the hostess, to the waitstaff - to properly and authentically represent Potager. "I empower them to be authentic," because simply put, "I don’t like bullshit."
Furthermore, the care and understanding involved in their business takes time. Teri believes "nobody is really useful for a year. It takes a while to know all four seasons well."
Citing the longevity and commitment of her staff, Teri believes it’s because they’re part of "something bigger than ourselves," at Potager. She says her philosophy is the opposite of most restaurants where their only prerogative is to be profitable. She doesn’t do parties nor are they open for lunch or brunch. They also close twice a year for vacation and everyone working in the restaurant (including herself) gets three days off, every week.
She admits they lose a lot of money when the entire staff goes on vacation. But she believes in also having a life so everyone she works with can be happier and healthier. This is the best example she can set for her vision and being true to Potager as it’s about living in a healthy way. Every six months her and her dad talk about the vacation and the loss of profit that hits them, but it’s something she’s had since the beginning and she doesn’t want to give that up.
Changes Since 1997 and What's Next?
When asked about what feels different from 20 years ago, Teri cites that "we weren't emailing or texting, we actually had to pick up the phone and have a conversation with one another. When someone needed to talk to me, they stopped by and we talked. I spoke to farmers two to three times a week. Both of it, not only learning about what they had or what they needed, but learning about each other and our lives..." was immensely impactful to her and built lifelong friendships. Now, speed and convenience have taken hold and it's a direction that does feel different.
Teri acknowledges, "there are so many people over the years that mean so much to me and the success of Potager." Overtime, that "happened in real conversations and connections. My hope is that we will continue to represent this in the world and that we will continue to have meaningful conversations."
The other difference? The growing food scene in Denver and the flux of restaurants Teri's watched flourish around her. Yet, she does hear as a hot new restaurant opens, people scuttle off to try it, and then they end up coming through her doors time after time. People still want something steadfast, delicious, and the same commitment to seasonality they have been eating for 20 years.
And without fail, that’s surely what they’ll get.