It has been a big year for Alex Seidel, Denver’s 2018 James Beard Award-winning chef, who on Friday opened his third local restaurant. Chook is a fast-casual chicken shop that’s sourcing sustainable poultry for a menu focused on charcoal-grilled rotisserie meats.
At Seidel’s three restaurants — Chook, Mercantile, Fruition — he’s using ingredients from produce to cheeses that are made and grown behind the scenes on his own Fruition Farms. The 10-acre operation is located an hour south of Denver in Larkspur by the headwaters of Cherry Creek and at 7,200 feet above sea level. Always meant to be a sheep dairy, today the farm serves as a cheese-making facility with greenhouses, hogs, chickens, a llama named Tina, and just one sheep remaining. Over nine years, the business has changed along with the chef, his restaurants, and their finances.
In 2016, Seidel and cheese maker Jimmy Warren made the hard decision to sell off their 130-animal flock so they could grow Fruition’s cheese business and continue to supply the growing restaurants. They still get fresh sheep’s milk delivered from Nebraska.
A full-time farmer, Ilse Anderson, lives at the farm now and grows squashes and beets, tomatoes, herbs, greens, and more things that show up on Seidel’s dinner menus. Warren produces ricotta, cacio pecora, shepherd’s halo, feta, and an Icelandic sheepskyr yogurt that make it into other restaurants as far as Milwaukee and LA and also just recently onto the shelves of Whole Foods. During the high season, Seidel’s chefs and cooks still take turns weeding, watering, and harvesting. Sometimes they box the vegetables up and take them back to cook at the restaurants.
On a warm late-spring day last season, Sam, a line cook at Fruition, knelt with Anderson planting an assortment of tomatoes underneath the protection of a hoop house. There are three such structures now on the property (throughout the years, five more have been lost to the elements). There’s a barn for the animals, a farmhouse, and the old tractor storage shed transformed into a pristine cheese production plant. Inside it, wheels of cacio pecora lie sideways building perfect layers of mold for up to two years and counting.
By spring, the piglets were a month old and nursing. The chicks were in boxes on the barn floor and chirping. Seidel had just won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest, but there was much more work to be done. Until a year ago, he was hand-delivering all the cheese from the back of his truck inside coolers. He opened his first restaurant, Fruition, in 2007, and Mercantile, for which he won the James Beard Award, followed seven years later. His latest restaurant might be the start of a chain of Chooks around Denver, a business model that could actually change the way poultry is raised and processed in Colorado.
“Figuring out the labeling, the packaging, the distribution, cooking at the restaurants — to be quite honest, it’s a lot,” Seidel said. Then he began, “the thing about the farm” and went on to imagine how people could see a chef with a restaurant and farmland (and a big award) and think, “everything’s gravy.”
“I did this because of curiosity,” he continued. “I wanted to learn more about my food, and that’s all I thought about. Now it’s like, okay, how do you make it work. How do you make it to where it’s not bleeding and it can survive on its own.”