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Locally grown foods are all the rage—and several area eateries are catering to the demand with menus inspired by Utah’s bountiful harvests. In fact, restaurants have been at the forefront of the local-foods movement, educating their customers about fresh food with mouth-watering culinary creations.
Bambara, for instance, offers a nightly special that spotlights products from local organic farms. And Log Haven Restaurant hosts an annual “Meet the Makers” event that enables customers to sample fares from local producers.
Fifteen years ago the idea was a novelty—a half-baked notion imported from the West Coast. Now, the growing number of Utah restaurants that cook up local fare has contributed to a resurgence of niche farms in the state.
The Middle of Nowhere
In Boulder, Hell’s Backbone Grill has been serving up fresh fare since the year 2000, well before local-food fever hit the state’s restaurant industry. The grill, co-owned by chefs Jennifer Castle and Blake Spalding, has become internationally renowned for its unique dishes that rely on ingredients from Southern Utah’s canyonlands region.
“Our plan was to make a place-based restaurant, to have our food really exemplify the incredible and special place of Utah,” says Spalding.
Hell’s Backbone Grill is open from mid-March until just after Thanksgiving, and its menu depends entirely on what is currently growing. “Right now we have a ‘spicy salad’ because those are the things that are growing: garlic, arugula, radishes, chives—hot, spicy, oniony flavors,” says Castle.
The duo began cultivating a garden a few years ago to supply the restaurant. Last year the garden produced 8,000 pounds of vegetables, and local orchards supplied 2,500 pounds of fruit.
Additionally, 100 percent of the beef used in the restaurant is purchased from Boulder ranchers. In the early days, the two chefs asked local farmers and ranchers to grow things for the grill. They still rely on the small farming community for many of their needs.
“Everything there, because it’s so isolated, either gets hauled in from far away, or you learn to improvise,” says Spalding.
Ever eaten tumbleweeds? They’re on the menu, as are dandelion weeds and edible flowers. But diners will also find duck, trout, lamb and other regional foods.
Reservations are a must throughout the season, as Hell’s Backbone Grill is featured in European guidebooks and has been recognized by the New York Times and O magazine. Many customers have been frequenting the grill every year since its inception and look forward eagerly to their annual visit.
The local-food movement is certainly redefining the “special” restaurant experience. “Special” used to mean lobster or some other delicacy shipped in from far away. “That is a uniquely American notion,” says Spalding, who points out that when visitors travel to Italy, for example, they want the foods and flavors of that place.
“What makes for a special meal is when…people are serving you the food from right there,” she says, “and the food is so saturated with place that…you are literally taking that place into your body and turning it into yourself.”
If that is the case, then a visit to Hell’s Backbone Grill is the only way to fully experience the canyonlands region of Utah.
The Economics of Change
“Special” for Ian Brandt, owner of Sage’s Café in Salt Lake City, is food that is nourishing to the body and protective of the environment—and, of course, delicious and deeply satisfying.
Sage’s Café has been a cornerstone for vegetarians in the Salt Lake Valley since 1999. The café focuses on organic, vegetarian cuisine that—as much as possible—derives from regional sources.
Brandt, who studied economics in college, says that an environmental economics class gave him “a different perspective on how business can create change.” When he founded Sage’s Café, he had several purposes in mind: local economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, human rights and animal rights.
Hand-in-hand with economic and environmental sustainability is a reliance on local foods—supporting local farmers and reducing the number of miles food must travel before it is consumed.
“There is value in supporting people you know,” Brandt says. “I know the farmers. I see their faces and look them in the eye.”