It's another day at the office for Bill Greenwood. The executive chef of Beano's Cabin- Beaver Creek's historic, fine-dining on-mountain restaurant- is traipsing across logs and scrounging beneath evergreens, wielding a serrated folding knife. He's got 40 square miles instead of a Sysco truck to supply his walk-in, and he hikes two to six miles a day on the mountain alone, or with his staff, collecting wildfoods for each night's dinner service. He gathers some slender, reddish-green leaves of sheep's sorrel for a salad dish, then he's off, scouring the forest and flower-carpeted meadows on a mission to procure enough berries, roots, mushrooms, and leafy bits to feed that night's house of well-heeled diners.
You may be asking yourself, what the hell is this man all about, and why should I eat his weeds and shit? Lest you think Greenwood is dishing up the overpriced equivalent of cattle fodder, take note: A sample summer dish is wood-grilled foie gras, with foie fat poached strawberries, grilled wild rhubarb, cow parsnip flowers, chiming bells, and penny cress. If that does it for you, here's why all food-loving mountain enthusiasts need to make a pilgrimage to Beano's or Greenwood's independent Sunday foraged food pop-ups, held in a kitted-out food trailer in random locations throughout the Vail Valley.
Greenwood, 35, has an impressive resume, having worked for a number of years in some of Colorado's top kitchens- The Little Nell, Hotel Jerome (both on Curbed Ski's 38 Essential Ski Town Hotels list), Cache Cache- before hopping around the country as a high-end corporate executive chef, with stints throughout Texas and California. Unlike many of today's young chefs, he literally grew up in the kitchen. His father owns Greenwood's Restaurant, a popular, neighborhood eatery in Roswell, a suburb of Atlanta. Greenwood started working for his dad at the age of 9, doing, he says, "whatever needed doing." The restaurant was- and is- focused on homey, seasonal cuisine made with "locally-grown, organic produce, dairy, grains and meats whenever possible." Says Greenwood, "There was never any question that I was going to be a chef. It's what I know, but I also love cooking, how every day is different and provides a new creative outlet. My dad and I drove around in a U-Haul, picking up produce from local farmers. He had a garden at the restaurant, as well, and those things really influenced me and inspired my interest in sustainability and sourcing locally when possible."
An avid snowboarder, Greenwood moved back to Colorado nearly three years ago, when he landed the Beano's gig; porkophiles may also recognize him from his whole hog butchery demos and as a competing chef at Cochon 555 in Denver, Vail, and Aspen. Living in Aspen from 1998 to 2007 gave him the opportunity to at last reside in the mountains, and work with his mentor, James Beard award-winning chef George Mahaffey, then the executive chef of Hotel Jerome (prior, Mahaffey served as executive chef at The Little Nell and at Conundrum). It was while working at Aspen's Cache Cache that Greenwood learned to forage- mushrooms, mostly- and developed a passion for it. "It's like finding gold," he explains. "You get addicted to it. You're walking in the forest, you can see and smell these different plants. It's exciting."
Key to accepting the position at Beano's for Greenwood was the freedom to put in a sustainable garden on-site (skills he honed while working as the chef at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes in his 20s), and the ability to source other product from local farms and purveyors like Eagle Springs Organics, Rock Bottom Ranch, and Denver's Tender Belly. The only fish on the menu are line-caught halibut and wild salmon from sustainable fisheries. The Beano's garden is made entirely from beetle kill pine and soil harvested by Greenwood and his staff on-mountain, as well as odds and ends of reclaimed wood and wooden pallets (which are ideal for smaller row crops). While the garden is still evolving, this season various lettuces, beets, turnips, shelling beans, herbs, and edible flowers like borage and nasturtiums are thriving. It's a work in progress, as they learn how to battle thieving chipmunks, untimely frosts, and scorching high-altitude sun.
The foraging aspect at Beano's came about more organically. Says Greenwood, "It was winter when I started the job, but once I saw the abundance of wildfoods around the restaurant, it just made sense." He sought the help of Erica Marciniec, a Breckenridge-based forager/snowboard instructor/Renaissance woman/adjunct faculty member at Colorado Mountain College/founder of the Wildfoodgirl blog and Wild Edible Notebook digital mag. "Erica is great," he says. "She really taught me about wild greens and shoots, so now I'm able to utilize things that are seasonal to spring, as well." For this winter, Greenwood says he's "more prepared" to put up foraged foods so he can continue to emphasize them on the menu when the snow falls. "I've got porcini preserved in oil, smoked cow parsnip seeds, which I use as a garnish, and more things in the works."
Greenwood's obsession for foraged foods has a bigger picture. "There's no identity to Colorado cuisine other than game, lamb, and trout," he laments. "Using a wood-burning rotisserie and oven, serving indigenous wildfoods offers diners a chance to taste what grows right here. We have so many micro-climates, and foraging is so subjective- it depends upon the weather, soil conditions [forest fires, for example, portend a great morel season], altitude. My foraging spots vary year to year, and day to day."
He's also quick to point out that beginning foragers shouldn't just go frolicking into the woods on their own. "You don't ever want to go picking if you don't know what you're doing- you can really hurt yourself, from a toxicity standpoint. You can also cause a lot of damage to fragile ecosystems and the plants you're harvesting from. Go with someone who knows what they're doing, and as you learn, have your harvest checked over by an expert. You should also get a foraging permit, and practice good land-use ethics." For permitting, check with the regional Ranger Station or National Forest Office.
If you're wondering about the odd, admittedly unappetizing name of the restaurant, local legend has it that Beano's is a tribute to an early 20th century homesteader of Polish descent, named Frank Bienkowski. Nicknamed "Beano" by locals, he built a small cabin above Avon (the original structure is adjacent to the restaurant; Greenwood holds special dinners in the cozy space). Accounts vary, but Beano was said to be a miner and hay and lettuce farmer. The post-and-beam restaurant with its showpiece stone fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows was constructed in 1985 out of lodgepole pine.
Although Beano's offers a set seasonal menu, it's tweaked nightly and specials are added, depending upon what's in the garden and on the mountain and at local farms. A wood-fired rotisserie and wood oven are the centerpieces of the restaurant, and from them emerge refined signature dishes like acorn-fed Berkshire Pork Belly (sourced from Denver's Tender Belly), with whiskey-bbq sauce and sweet peach puree; wood-grilled egg with mascarpone grits, pork jowl confit, and Fruition Farms Cacio Pecora (a farmstead pecorino from Denver chef Alex Seidel's sheep dairy), and venison flank with sweet corn potato hash, French horn mushrooms, and braised plums.
Greenwood uses wild edibles like salsify, a dandelion-like plant with spiky green heads redolent of green beans; he likes to grill them. The plants he uses are many: sweet clover; various cresses (pennycress is also used to make a housemade mustard); chiming bells; miner's lettuce, cow parsnip flowers and seeds; pineapple chamomile; ox-eye daisy, dandelion greens. There are alpine berries: Huckleberries- tangy little things a fraction of the size of their cultivated blueberry cousins; mouth-puckering currants and gooseberries (Greenwood makes these into a gelée when they're abundant enough); tiny, fragile strawberries, and raspberries. There are rosehips after first frost, when the sugars condense, which are used to make sorbet. "Frank's Garden Salad" is an elegant, changing combination of foraged and garden greens, with honey mascarpone and poppy seed and Banyuls vinaigrette.
The mountain is home to many edible mushroom species as well; most days in late summer, Greenwood finds an abundance of boletus (porcini), chanterelles, puffballs and hawk wings, as well as the occasional morels, wood ears, and lobster or oyster mushrooms. Diners will find the meaty porcini and puffballs in substantial dishes like wood-grilled porcini and star-studded puff balls with roasted huckleberries and sweet clover, or a chanterelle tartare with ox-eye daisy-sheep sorrel vinaigrette, toasted pennycress and pineapple chamomile. Working with wildfoods is a balancing act. "You don't want to cook a lot of these foods, like wild greens," explains Greenwood." "Instead, you look at (the greens') inherent properties- bitter, astringent, spicy. Acid transforms and enhances their flavors, but takes away the bitterness. In winter, we do a blue spruce ice cream- the fat in the ice cream base tones down the pungent oils in the spruce tips."
As he heads into his third season, Greenwood has decided to venture into new territory. Last summer, he launched a series of summer Sunday Garden Dinners. Starting this month, he'll be cooking foraged foods most Sundays throughout the fall, from a seriously baller food trailer loaned to him by his friends at Tender Belly (for location and other details, check out Tender Belly's Facebook and Twitter.
Beano's Cabin closes October 1, and reopens for the season December 13 for lunch and dinner; reservations required (round-trip transportation on-mountain included).
· Beano's Cabin [Official Site]
· Mountain Chefs Impress at Denver's Pig-centric Cochon 555 [Curbed Ski Archives]
· From Patios to Farms: Where to Dine Outside in Ski Country [Curbed Ski Archives]