Almost everything at The Kitchen in Colorado is eco-sensitive, down to the biodegradable straws. But here's the best part: luscious dishes like pork chops with herb salsa and chopped salad with goat cheese. Writer Lois Smith Brady explains why one of America's greenest restaurants is also one of its finest.
In downtown Boulder, Colorado, stores and restaurants are often painted exuberantly, like snowboards and tie-dyed clothing. The Kitchen, which opened in 2004, is just the opposite. It is all about restraint. The meticulous storefront facade is gray and brown, with a small white sign that looks like an old-fashioned calling card. It reads: the kitchen.
In every way, The Kitchen's message is no excess. The restaurant, a light and airy loftlike space with just a few chandeliers for decoration, has one of the most progressive recycling programs in the country. It recycles or reuses nearly 100 percent of its "discards." Eco-Cycle, a Boulder-based nonprofit, collects its recyclables and composts all of its food waste—bones, eggshells, meat trimmings, food left over on plates. Even the napkins, menus, takeout containers (sugarcane-based), garbage bags (cornstarch-based) and toilet paper are compostable.
When I recently met Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson, the owners of The Kitchen, they were showing off their new compostable straws. "You could throw these straws into a garden," said Musk excitedly. Just about the only stuff they put in the trash right now is petroleum-based products like plastic wrap. At The Kitchen, trash has almost become obsolete, like wooden tennis racquets or cell phones the size of ciabattas.
If you walk by the restaurant late at night, you will see the staff at the long communal table, collectively making sure none of the leftover food and wine goes to waste. "We give the staff all the food and open wine bottles we can, so the next day we start fresh," Musk said.
The restaurant also promotes alternative energy sources. It pays a premium on its electricity bill and, in return, the electric company agrees to buy The Kitchen's power from wind farms in Colorado. "If we use 12,000 kilowatts of energy one month, then the electric company buys 12,000 kilowatts of wind power," Matheson said. And The Kitchen gives all of its leftover cooking oil to a neighbor who converts it into biodiesel fuel and uses it in his pickup truck and Volkswagen Golf. "He's like this mystical man," Matheson said. "He comes and gets the oil and disappears."
Musk and Matheson view furniture the same way they do food: They carefully consider its source and recycle as much as possible. The communal table's top and the bar were built from roof rafters salvaged from an old mansion around the corner; the porch columns from that house serve as the communal table's legs. Musk's wife, Jen Lewin, constructed the chandeliers using old crystal she found on eBay and recycled electronic parts.
The two men behind The Kitchen describe themselves as "very intense in very different ways." Musk lives in a beautifully renovated Victorian house in town, with his wife and two children. He owns two polished silver cars (a Mercedes-Benz and a Volkswagen van). Matheson, the primary chef at the restaurant, also has two children and is separated from his wife. He lives in a farmhouse outside Boulder and rides a beat-up old Vespa that looks like the one in the movie The Motorcycle Diaries—at the end of the road trip. Sitting in the restaurant recently, Musk wore a purple paisley shirt, jeans and Prada loafers. He looked stylish but relaxed. Matheson, in baggy jeans and a rumpled shirt, simply looked relaxed. When asked their ages, Musk said he was 33, while Matheson scratched his head and replied, "Either 36 or 37."
Matheson had a no-waste childhood—in an old-world way. He grew up in the countryside outside Cambridge, England, with one brother, a dog named Potato (bought for a sack of potatoes) and an eccentric-artist mother who cooked everything from scratch. She bought eggs from a farm next door. She got meat from a farm down the road—or sometimes literally from the road. "We used to eat roadkill as kids," Matheson said. "Country etiquette is, if you ran it over, you weren't allowed to take it. The car behind you picked it up."
In his family, nothing was wasted, from vegetable trimmings to broken furniture. If a chair collapsed, they would make mirror frames out of it. "Sunday roast leftovers would be used for shepherd's pie the next day," Matheson said. "Or my mother would make stock. Her freezers are filled with every stock under the sun—rabbit stock, pheasant stock, pigeon, duck." He added, "We didn't do it to save the earth: We just hated to throw things out."
Similarly, the chefs at The Kitchen take salmon trimmings and convert them into salmon roulade, turn steak into meatballs, burgers into Bolognese sauce, fish bones into stock. "Everything gets reused and reused," Matheson said. He also tries to cook without creating any waste. When he grills broccoli that he'll drizzle with an anchovy dressing, he cooks the stalk as well as the floret. And he grills sea bass whole—head included—and serves it with a lemon-parsley sauce. "When you see an animal in its whole form, you realize it was a living thing, it had senses," Matheson said.
Musk, who grew up in South Africa, was forced into a no-waste, make-use-of-everything lifestyle while working in California's Silicon Valley in the 1990s. He and his brother, Elon, moved to Palo Alto and co-founded Zip2, providing online city and restaurant guides. For years they were basically homeless. "We slept in our office, showered at the YMCA," he recalled. Then, in 1999, they sold the company for $307 million.
Yet the no-waste lessons stuck. Though he does some cooking, Musk mostly focuses on hiring people with the right spirit—antiwaste yet energetic and loving. (For a businessperson, Musk uses the word "love" a lot.) He and Matheson also seem to be on a first-name basis with all their food suppliers—mostly organic, small-scale, eco-friendly and just plain friendly farmers and business owners. They buy granola from a lady in town named Fiona; shellfish from Ingrid, who shops the docks of Deer Isle, Maine, for them; vegetables from Anne at Cure Organic Farm in Boulder. They also try to form a circle with their suppliers when it comes to recycling. The Kitchen serves coffee from Conscious Coffees, a fair-trade roaster in Breckenridge, Colorado, that gives its leftover coffee-bean sacks to Anne at Cure Organic Farm, who uses them to store vegetables in the winter.
Matheson oversees the recycling and composting. If there's a creature rumbling around in the trash containers behind the restaurant late at night, it is probably not a bear; it's him. "Trying to get people to put things into the right bin is a continual battle," he said. The Kitchen's recycling area is the cleanest I've ever seen.
"Clean" is also the restaurant's mantra when it comes to food. "If you've got good spinach and a nice piece of fish and a wedge of lemon, that's all it really takes," Matheson said. "If you can taste two or three key flavors in a very clean form, that makes for happy cooking."
Some people might assume Musk and Matheson serve vegetarian or macrobiotic food. Far from it. In fact, one of their signature dishes is a succulent grilled pork chop with an herb salsa. "I don't want to pretend we're tree huggers," Musk said. "If anything, this place should be called Pork, Pork and Duck Fat. We're not eating granola bars." There is no art on The Kitchen's walls, but if there were, Musk said, it would be anatomy posters of pigs as well as "a Dutch master of a cow being broken down."
After so much talk about recycling, reusing and conscious everything, Matheson turned wry. Standing up, he sighed, "I'm getting a cigarette."
The Kitchen, 1039 Pearl St., Boulder, CO; 303-544-5973 or thekitchencafe.com.
Lois Smith Brady, a writer in Aspen, Colorado, contributes to the Vows and State of the Unions columns in the New York Times.