The Kitchen pays way more than lip service to the green philosophy. The acclaimed Boulder, CO, restaurant evolved almost naturally from a blueprint of finding the best products, preferably from nearby farmers and producers, and leaving the smallest waste footprint.
This was not simply a nice idea for owners Hugo Matheson and Kimbal Musk when they launched the restaurant in 2004. It was more a projection of Matheson’s personal lifestyle onto a larger stage.
Matheson scoffs at labels. He believes that to be a successful neighborhood bistro you need to find the best products. “You cannot buy products just because they are organic or local or farm-raised; the terms are meaningless. It is the quality that should dictate what you serve,” he observes. He shies away from big producers and favors artisan efforts. “You have to trust the source of the product,” he explains.
Finding the products was not that difficult. He already knew many of the local farmers, and they were pleased he would be increasing his personal orders for the new endeavor. The bigger business challenge was making the restaurant a zero-waste environment.
This is the life the British-born farm boy has always lived. It is not the enactment of a trend. Matheson describes his mother as a forager who found the freshest items and made them into dinner. “Nothing should be wasted” was the childhood mantra that he took with him to Boulder when he arrived in 1998 to work on energy consumption.
Running a restaurant was not the goal. It didn’t take long for the genes to win out, though, and he found himself cooking. When he and Musk began talking about opening their own place, they spent a tortuous 18 months looking for the right spot.
Space is tricky, Matheson says. “Space often dictates what direction you’ll be able to follow.” Even though they opened The Kitchen in ‘04 strictly as a five-nightsa- week dinner destination, they knew that the late 1890s two-story building on busy Pearl Street, a pedestrian mall, had the potential to be a three-daypart diamond. They upped the dining ante in Boulder, a foodie town that manager Adam Reed describes as having “a smalltown mindset with a metropolitan feel, agrarian opportunities and a voracious appetite.”
Within a few months of opening, the two knew they had found a winning formula. They translated the early response into a seven-day-a-week operation that opens for breakfast and stays open through dinner. Reed says there is a shortage of three-meal restaurants in Boulder. Several people use the space with its free wi-fi as their third place hangout.
To boost business on Monday night, a traditionally slow time, The Kitchen has a community night. Reservations are required for the event as the five-course family style menu is designed for the exact number of guests.
From a design perspective, much as the food itself, nothing gets overlooked. The Kitchen started out as a white-tablecloth restaurant but the owners realized that laundering linens was an unneccessary and wasteful practice. Besides, the heavy wooden table look more closely matched the simplicity of the menu’s ingredients. In the restrooms, cloth hand towels eliminate paper waste and improve the guest experience.
Matheson and Musk set the table with chilled artesian spring water from Eldorado Springs poured from a tableside bottle. They restaurant uses more than 20 gallons daily, with plans for a sparkling artesian option. Branded waters are also available, but the staff does not upsell them to cut down on recycling.
The second floor of the building had a deteriorating roof; its Douglas fir beams were converted into the tables and the bar. “We recycle anything that is possible, including our furniture,” Matheson says. Recycle and reuse are logical bywords for the food and material side of the restaurant. In 2005, the owners converted the second floor into The Kitchen [Upstairs], an urban wine bar with an oak wood oven for flatbreads and pizzas. A 4,500-bottle wine list represents 600 producers. The impressive list is supported by an equally impressive cadre of professionals: six first-level sommeliers.
Just as Matheson developed friendships with growers, the [Upstairs] staff has found compatriot wine merchants who created a private label Kitchen pinot noir from Oregon’s O’Reilly’s Winery. By the end of 2007 they hope to be pouring The Kitchen cabernet franc from Washington State’s Andrake Cellars. Boulder, according to Reed, gets very excited and interested when a new drinking spot opens. The challenge was to demonstrate that wine was like food, with agricultural roots. Matheson did not want the space to just be a drinking haven. He calls
Boulder a very social town where people want to see the newest scene. “It was an interesting process for us to create a beveragebased space while still having people understand the cuisine. We wanted to build a more sophisticated space without being stuffy.” It worked. Lines often form for entry into the second-floor space.
The Next Stage
This past year brought one of the business’s biggest changes: the end of the ownership partnership. Now Matheson is the sole owner. Musk continues to dine frequently at The Kitchen but has no other involvement. (Two minor ownership shares still exist.) What he wants has not changed: a neighborhood bistro that GM Reed says “underpromises but overdelivers.”
Matheson remains focused on the food. He shies away from being called “chef” and prefers the term “cook,” a funny label for a graduate of Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London. He no longer mans a station, but walks around and oversees. His confidence in his 60-member staff enables them to create menus and develop sourcing opportunities. He champions their efforts and guides them through the pitfalls. “I work with creativity and freedom,” he says, encouraging staffers to write and execute a menu. He prefers to support ideas and suggestions rather than dictate an inflexible path.
For personal inspiration, you can often find him out back in the alley. “I love alleys. I have always loved the behind-the- scene spots. Deliveries come in there. People who want to avoid the main street walk down [the alleys].”
You might also see him re-sorting some of the items in the trash bins as he is a stickler for everything in its right place. The Kitchen has four dumpsters to separate everything for composting, bottle waste and cans, cardboard and the “one with the least amount of content, trash.” Boxes go back to the farms, and the cooking oil gets picked up by an individual who converts it to bio-diesel fuel.
All the innovations and efforts have been nationally well-received. Besides earning top honors from Zagat (America’s Top Restaurants 2006) and the Best Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, the restaurant has won recognition from Eco Cycle for an outstanding composting and recycling program.
The restaurant and Matheson’s personal life are focused on the overall goal of taking the right steps for current and future generations. As the father of twin four-year-old boys, he takes the environment seriously.
Not Always Easy Being Green
Committing to environmentally friendly practices isn’t always easy. Take takeout, for example: Cups and meal containers needed to be replaced as the ones originally chosen had an inner plastic lining. In their place are sugar cane-based containers and straws, which are 100 percent compostable. Cutlery is made from cornbased plastics. The costs to match the ecological commitment are somewhat higher, but Matheson believes spending the extra money makes him more careful about how supplies and produce are used. “It is just part of the challenge of running a restaurant,” he observes. Last year, food and wine costs averaged 31 percent at The Kitchen.
This is no small operation. The 75-seat restaurant does more than 3,000 covers a week. With higher-than-average ingredient costs, pricing is, of course, an issue, but Matheson prefers to stay focused on quality. Because The Kitchen uses about 250 dozen eggs a week, the initial challenge was finding farmers who could meet the demand. Price was secondary. A restaurant chain may pay about 50 cents a dozen; Matheson pays $3 a dozen, which means an omelet menus for $8-$9.
The Kitchen gets all of its energy from wind power. The restaurant does not track the usage but is proud of the fact that it is part of the windmill universe. With the focus on recycling and reusing, the staff does not spend time taking trash out as the only actual trash is from the plastic wrap for the meat. Everything else is sorted and separated for recycling or composting.
Matheson believes everything they are doing can be replicated. Purchasing local has almost become the negative in Matheson’s world. He wants people to focus on where the food came from and how it was grown, not just that it was from a nearby producer. He gets many products from within the state but buys nationally and internationally for the top quality he demands (see suppliers list).
As part of his overall philosophy, Matheson strives to help diners become more conscious of their options. It is not just a piece of meat, he insists, but one from Niman Ranch, which personifies quality and overall care for the animal from conception. He believes others can follow that same quality paradigm: make connections with purveyors who hold a philosophy identical to theirs, and then just follow their cooking passion, and the neighborhood quality bistro can be reborn anywhere. The boon to the environment is just gravy.
By Judy Liberson