#TheNewWest: What’s Next?

 Chef Josh Niernberg at his newest restaurant,  TacoParty . He also owns and operates  Bin707 Foodbar  and Dinnerparty, all in downtown Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo: Cat Mayer

Chef Josh Niernberg at his newest restaurant, TacoParty. He also owns and operates Bin707 Foodbar and Dinnerparty, all in downtown Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo: Cat Mayer

As a self-described food/restaurant geek, I’m fascinated with spirits, beer, wine, cocktail culture, terroir, and even food history. I use my downtime to read recipes and cookbooks, look at pictures of other chefs’ food online, follow notable chefs and restaurants on Instagram, and to study menus, prices, and trends. It’s safe to say that I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering, “What’s next?” 

In the last installment of #TheNewWest, I described an event our team was preparing for: a dinner in a Palisade orchard that paired fermented food, beer, and wine. Through that experience, I realized that before we can identify what’s next, we need to understand how we got here — “here” being a remote orchard in rural Colorado on a cold, rainy Thursday with a sold-out audience from all over the state, eager to celebrate our experimental menus and libations.  

I’ve begun to realize that what we are doing, collectively in rural communities throughout the country, is redefining the food of our region. We are creating — even revisiting and modernizing —regional cuisine. While that may not sound important, to me it is the beginning of one of the most exciting times in my almost-30-year career.  

So, what is next? The rural regions of the United States have begun to rewrite the history books. The recession created and then drove the farm-to-table and eat-local movements, leading to experimentation and preservation focusing on the “eat-local” ethos. The food got better as cooks and chefs began to master long-forgotten or completely new techniques, using products native to their regions. In the kitchen, smart practitioners across the county have incorporated an influx of crops and continue to innovate how they can be used. Now we are selling $3 tacos with cured, locally sourced pork shoulder, puffed amaranth furikake, sweet-corn ice cream, and cans of rosé wine — all produced within 50 miles of each other.

In another example of rural influence, the Colorado Governor’s Tourism Conference was recently hosted in Grand Junction for the first time in 14 years. Internationally published presenters, invited by the Colorado Tourism Organization, arrived from all over the country to speak and lead discussions about “destination dining” and “culinary storytelling.” Their takeaway from us was that we are collectively creating our own voice, style, and interpretation, using what is available to make our own regional cuisine. It was an inspiring moment for western Colorado and a pleasure to witness. 

A few days ago, I read an article about a forgotten chef named Jeremiah Towner whose 1976 menu changed the way we eat. Towner was working for and discovered by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. His menu, titled “Northern California Regional Dinner,” was the first of its kind in the United States. It then took a recession for us to reevaluate our food system and purchasing priorities, a couple of food “movements” to reteach how to plan seasonal menus, and a new appreciation of local ingredients to realize we may have been doing it wrong all along. Now, as we start to get it right, rural Colorado is actually leading the charge of “What’s Next!”