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What Inspires Boulder Chef Daniel Asher?

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Daniel Asher doesn’t believe in taking the easy route. In fact, he believes that words like “easy,” “fast” and “convenient” — and their accompanying mindsets have done irreparable harm to our families, our food systems and our planet.

“I prefer living with words like ‘thoughtful,’ ‘meticulous’ and ‘patient,’” says Asher, a father, food activist and chef.

Those words perfectly encapsulate Asher’s approach to hospitality at his many restaurants and food businesses, including Driftwind, River and Woods and Ash’Kara in Boulder (and the first Ash’Kara location in Denver); Tributary Food Hall and Drinkery in Golden; and Barrio75 in Ketchum, Idaho.

Asher also runs a catering and food consulting company called EcoChef Culinary and is involved with a variety of food-related organizations, including EatDenver, the Slow Food Chefs Alliance, the James Beard Foundation’s ”Chef Action Network,” the American Lamb Board and the Chef’s Manifesto Food Advocacy Hub.

We sat down with Asher to learn more about his approach to food, sustainability and hospitality.

What got you interested in food and cooking? Why have you stuck with it?

Food is my love language. It is how I heal, how I nourish and how I communicate. I have been obsessed with clean, healthy food since my mom put a step-stool next to the kitchen counter when I was seven years old so I could help her mix organic greens from her garden for a dinner salad. My mom’s kitchen was the soul of my childhood and the foundation of my emotional attachment to feeding people.

I was baking bread and frying kettle chips before I was the legal height to ride most roller coasters. I was volunteering for the first Green Festival in Chicago when I was in high school, I was protesting chemical additives in food before most people knew what corn syrup was and I was pairing food for biodynamic wine dinners in the fading light of the sunset while most of my friends were off trying to decide what they wanted to be when they grew up. I have spent the majority of my teenage and adult life in professional kitchens, and I don’t feel at home unless I am surrounded by gleaming stainless steel, the ticking of a printer and the elegant clamor of a properly functioning culinary ecosystem.

What do you love about Boulder County? What has kept you here?

Boulder County is an amazing region that has captivated me since the day I first arrived 14 years ago. It has such a strong sense of purpose and community. It is a launchpad for the most amazing natural foods businesses I’ve ever seen. The mountains are a powerful energy that influence daily life and are a majestic backdrop to gaze upon in challenging moments.

This is where my wife and I began dating. This is where we are raising our family, nestled in the forest of Jamestown, the greatest little mountain community I’ve ever dreamed of. I feel honored to have stumbled into this remarkable place and to have the opportunity to be a business owner here is truly exceptional.

 

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What excites you the most about your job? What motivates you?

I wake up every day inspired to have dialogue and take action around how we can use our kitchens and dining rooms to impact positive change in our communities. It is about working to educate and inspire our teams to be leaders and change agents, to use our voices, our influence and our purchasing power to move the needle of sustainability and hospitality in the right direction. It requires focus, long hours, late nights and faith in how the universe functions.

The act of serving strangers requires a certain mindset, a sense of humor and the ability to adapt to the unexpected. In almost three decades of a life fully immersed in hospitality, I’ve never had a dull moment, and every day I learn something new about people, cooking, food and the world in general. It is an endlessly humbling educational experience.

What are you especially passionate about as it relates to food, cooking and hospitality?

Some of the basic things are balancing waste streams (compost, recycling and landfill); educating staff on personal responsibility and impact; thoughtfully sourcing ingredients from mindful ranchers, farmers and producers; and constantly evaluating opportunities to be better.

Whether it’s utilizing vegetable trim into a sauce, vinaigrette, crackers or soup, or taking extra protein cuts to use for family meal, or using whey left from hanging yogurt and incorporating that into a marinade, using pickle juice left from bison burger sets to brine chicken . . . there are many creative ways to incorporate scraps and trim from one process into a completely different dish. This is a theme I want more folks at home to contemplate. Food waste and food insecurity are two of my biggest points of advocacy. We can solve hunger in America by utilizing a percentage of what we throw away.

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How do you feel about collaborating with growers and farmers?

Cooking food demands a constant awareness of seasonality, soil and circumstance. The most connected humans on the planet are the folks who grow our food, who are up at 4 a.m. dealing with a hailstorm or a sudden freeze. They are in the dirt, sowing seeds, hoping for the perfect combination of sunshine and irrigation and 100 other inputs so that, months later, a beautiful and delicious crop is harvested. It is a life lived at the complete mercy of nature, luck and sheer resilience. It is the hardest work that demands the utmost respect and gratitude.

Collaborating with growers, ranchers and farmers is what gives our local restaurant community a heartbeat. Telling their stories informs our ability to write our own, every night, on every plate. I love this quote from Daniel Webster, an influential statesman in the 18th and 19th centuries: “When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.”

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What do you wish more people knew about dining out, about the food system, about hospitality?

Sustainability has become this “thing” that people and companies can “decide” to care about, but it’s not just a line item on a spreadsheet at a board meeting. It’s a lifestyle that we wake up into every day by being human. It’s about wondering where your toothbrush was made and if the farmer who grew the fiber in your T-shirt was fairly compensated for his labor. Are you drinking coffee that exploits a small village in Ethiopia, or are you contributing to something better and more thoughtful than that?

It’s more important in the food service world than other industries because the hospitality world notoriously is one of the worst contributors to waste and pollution. Sustainability is crucial to adopt as a philosophy for any business. Being sustainable is rooted in connectedness and thinking about all the little things that make up our daily experiences. It’s about being kind and careful.

Why would you let some lettuce go unused and wilted in your fridge when there is someone a few blocks away who would look at that lettuce as a bar of gold? It’s about recognizing the intrinsic value of everything we encounter, from people around us to potatoes in our pantry. To honor that value as the most profound currency, and not be quick to discard it or turn away from it because it’s easier or more convenient to do so. Life is hard. Relationships are hard. Working is hard. Taking care of the kids is hard. Growing vegetables is hard. Raising livestock is hard.

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