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Even on a windy, overcast April morning, Black Cat Farm — framed by a stunning backdrop of shaded peaks — still looks beautiful.
The 425-acre Longmont property was the locale of many a pandemic dinner when Chef Eric Skokan brilliantly pivoted to hosting guests in quaint cabanas — translucent huts, warmed by vintage stoves, constructed from remnants of old greenhouses.
While the huts are still there, they are currently being revamped by staff to be brought up to code for a future project — a year-round on-the-farm dining experience. Although foodies will no longer have to wait for balmy temperatures to dine among roaming geese and sauntering cats, Skokan estimates it may be a year to a year and half until the farm’s permanent restaurant completion.
While both his Boulder restaurants — Black Cat and Bramble & Hare are no longer temporarily pandemic shuttered — he still has plans to offer the on-farm dining experience this summer under the pergola.
Skokan is one of six Colorado chefs up for the James Beard award for “Best Chef” in the Rocky Mountain region category. Other finalists are Jose Avila, of El Borrego Negro, Cody Cheetham, of Tavernetta, Dana Rodriguez, of Work & Class — all out of Denver — and Caroline Glover, of Annette in Aurora.
“I’m so appreciative and surprised,” said Skokan, who received the phone call when he was in his greenhouse, consumed by tending to half a million little plants.
“Instead of watching golf or racing or football, I watched cooking shows when I was a little kid,” Skokan said.
As a boy, Skokan tuned into PBS and became transfixed viewing Julia Child, Justin Wilson and Martin Yan sauté, stir and chop.
While Skokan worked his way through college as a city bus driver in Charlottesville, Va., the kitchen always seemed to be a gnawing siren song.
He eventually worked as an assistant innkeeper at a bed and breakfast in the Virginian countryside. He mentioned to the owner he loved cooking and, before long, began preparing dishes for guests.
“It was very much a moth to a flame kind of a thing,” Skokan said. “Very quickly he turned the kitchen over to me so he that he could have a more quiet day off and then that stretched out into long weekends.”
Skokan eventually stepped into the role as full-time innkeeper and quickly realized he wanted to be a chef. After college, an apprenticeship with the best chef in town followed. Prior to landing in Boulder, he worked in top-level eateries in Washington D.C. and San Francisco.
Skokan took a job at Gold Lake Mountain Resort and Spa, near Ward, and got his first taste of Colorado. It was there that he met his wife Jill, who was the resort’s general manager at the time.
The two opened Black Cat Farm Table Bistro in 2006.
“Looking back in time, I really did not have the expectation that we would have this farm of hundreds of acres, with tractors and old barns, and that we would be such a key part of the Boulder community,” Skokan said.
Skokan’s jump into farming was inspired about 14 years ago, when he was growing peas at his home garden to use in his restaurant.
He came to the realization that, “the things that I’m harvesting from the garden today that I put on the plate are fundamentally better than everything that comes through the standard way that restaurants are supplied,” Skokan said.
All of what Skokan serves varies upon what’s in season and at its optimal peak of freshness and flavor. He still feels the magic when eating a sun-soaked tomato straight from the vine or seeing the emergence of a pinky-sized carrot break through soil.
“It’s the new, old cherished friend that’s just come back,” Skokan said.
He is hoping to show people the potential that can sprout from their own at-home garden beds or herb-filled window boxes.
“I’d like to offer cooking classes where guests would wander out in the field with me, and we’d harvest together,” Skokan said. “At this stage in my career, the teaching aspect is more and more fun.”
From a toasty greenhouse filled with carefully nurtured seedings to the old barn that holds copies of Skokan’s cookbook among heaps of dried flowers, sheep hides and antique lanterns, the essence of Black Cat Farm is one that can’t be denied.
More than just a place where land is tended and grains are grown and processed, there’s a certain aliveness to the majestic expanse near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
Black Cat Farm hosts the occasional rustic chic wedding and recently collaborated with The Makerie for a series of craft retreats. It offers the best of produce and more with its farm stand at 4975 Jay Road, in Boulder, and maintains a booth at the Boulder County Farmers Market.
A family of five fluffy dogs — of the Akbash breed — keep watch at night to guard hogs, sheep and heritage turkeys from predators, like coyotes. During the day, the nocturnal pack — all named after jazz and blues musicians — can be found snoozing and sunbathing.
In the thick of the pandemic, Skokan and his team delivered groceries via a vintage ice cream truck.
“Communities are not places where people live next to each other, communities are places where everyone has common experiences where they rely on each other, where the experiences and the offerings of one member of the community enriches the lives of the people around them,” Skokan said. “I’m honored to be able to enrich the lives of the people who live here.”
In July 2020, a dump truck lost control on Nelson Road and swerved into the oncoming lane of traffic. The vehicle hit the convertible that two of Skokan’s sons were in, claiming the life of 17-year-old Kelsey.
“I am honored to have been taken care of so completely by everyone here in the community as well,” Skokan said. “When my son Kelsey was killed, the depth of what we have been offering the community showed itself the meaning of what we were doing. Any thought that I had that what we were doing was cooking dinner and making people not hungry, that went away. Really what we were doing was creating depth and meaning in people’s lives.”
From a GoFundMe campaign to various other acts of love, Skokan’s tribe showed up in big ways.
“I am so deeply appreciative — so thankful — that I live here and that we get to do this here,” Skokan said. “I have no doubt that If we were trying to do this in some sort of nameless suburb where each person is in their own little castle, that losing Kelsey would have been crippling. It was really the community reaching out to Jill and me and my family and holding us really closely. That’s what made it survivable. I’m devoted to this community. I love it.”
Come June, Skokan will travel to Chicago to attend the James Beard Awards at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“Eric has long been one of the top-rated chefs in Colorado, but I think his dedication to his values, his nimble pandemic pivots and creativity as a restauranteur is what made him stand out even more this year,” said Jessica Benjamin, owner and producer of First Bite: Boulder County Restaurant Week. “He leaned into his core value of serving incredible farm fresh dishes as sustainably as possible, and took advantage of his beautiful farm land to build truly one of the best dining experiences in Colorado. There is no other place to dine that carries the quality and consistency of what he plants to what he plates.”
Initially, 13 Colorado-based chefs and restaurants were announced as semifinalists. But the fact that half a dozen are still in the running speaks volumes about the caliber of ingenuity and passion of the Centennial State’s dining scene.
“It is no surprise that so many excellent Colorado chefs and restaurants were recognized by James Beard Foundation,” Benjamin said. “Colorado has long been a melting pot of people moving from all over, creating a unique mix of cultures, so it’s no wonder our culinary scene mirrors this. It’s wonderful to see the diversity of recognition among these six nominated.”
Edwin Zoe, owner of Zoe Ma Ma and Dragonfly Noodle Bar, made it to the first round, but initially was in disbelief about his nomination. He received a congratulatory text from Clay Fong, the Daily Camera’s food critic.
“As I saw my name on the Outstanding Restaurateurs list, my first reaction was maybe Clay (Fong) was playing a joke or there was a mistake,” Zoe said. “I imagine a lot of things in my life. But, I never imagined I would ever be considered. There are hundreds of thousands of restaurants in the U.S. with so many amazing restaurateurs. To be recognized is an extraordinary and unimaginable honor. I still find it difficult to believe.”
Zoe Ma Ma, with locations in Boulder and Denver’s Union Station, continues to serve up Chinese and Taiwanese street food. The popular eatery was inspired by Zoe’s mom Anna, and the amazing cuisine she prepared in his childhood home.
“Mama is nearing 80,” Zoe said.“Though she is slowing down from her seven-days-a-week work schedule, she still comes to our Boulder store several times a week to help make potstickers and scallion pancakes and say hello to staff and guests.”
This year’s James Beard Awards are said to be forging a new inclusive standard, aiming to spotlight chefs of different nationalities and cuisine of different cultures.
“As an immigrant and one who loves ethnic foods, I think recognition of cultural diversity in hospitality industry is long overdue,” Zoe said. “While I enjoy fine-dining where most recognitions have focused, there are so many unrecognized great chefs and eateries because they don’t fit the traditional checklist. This year’s list is a very positive step forward. I hope it will be a foundational change.”
During the pandemic, Zoe rebranded his Boulder restaurant Chimera Kitchen to Dragonfly Noodle.
“I joke that my dishes are like my beautiful children, my favorites depend on which day you ask,” Zoe said. “Joking aside, I do love our new Black Tonkotsu Ramen. What really sets it apart is our house-made black garlic oil. We slow cook fresh garlic until the moment it goes from very dark brown to black — imagine the darkest roast coffee in world. When it is drizzled onto the milky white tonkotsu broth, the roasted garlic flavor unpacks and explodes.”
With house-made noodles, ample servings of fragrant garlic and ginger and delicious duck and seafood, Zoe continues to attract diners with his extensive menus.
“The Front Range restaurant industry doesn’t have the pressure or ego seen in bigger cities and this, in turn, fosters creativity and a supportive camaraderie among chefs and restaurateurs,” Benjamin said. “Pairing this environment with the access to high-integrity agriculture and local ingredients makes, for some, a spectacular culinary scene.”
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