20 August 2013

Cultivate Denver: you get what you pay for

I attended the second annual Chipotle Cultivate Festival in Denver's City Park last week. It was a free event designed to advertise Chipotle products, basically, but it also boasted great-sounding live bands and plenty of opportunities to sample local beers, farm products, baked goods, and all things food from Colorado. Since Chipotle got its start in Colorado, and since Denver has become such a great food city, I cast aside my cynicism about the corporate sponsor and headed down for a day of what I hoped would be a great opportunity to find even more local purveyors to love.

The highlight of the day was definitely the beer tent, as it should be in Colorado.  The tasting tent was packed with 12 local breweries and 2 Colorado wineries, each offering $2 tasters (4oz. each) and $6 cups (12 oz.). It was a terrific opportunity to sample some of the state's best beers, and although each brewery intelligently limited themselves to two or three flavors for ease of serving, they all seemed to choose great beers that represented their aesthetic well.  Prost's Dunkel beer took me right back to that summer I spent getting drunk in Bavaria, Denver Beer Co's keffir lime IPA was wildly unique, and Bull and Bush's grapefruit IPA was sublimely balanced. The tab ran up quickly, but the opportunity to have so many of the best beers in the state all at once was reason enough to go to Chipotle.  So, at least they got that right.

Food options included Chipotle tents (more on that later) a surprisingly small "Artisan's Hall" where you could meet local farmers and small food business owners and try their products, usually at a surprisingly steep price. Accordingly, it wasn't terribly busy when I was in there mid-afternoon, except for the one stand offering tiny free samples of their pickled cucumbers and beets.  I know it was already free to get in, but almost everyone at a farmer's market either has samples set up at their table or is willing to offer samples upon request; it's how you get to know the product and decide to commit to it.  A small pulled pork sandwich for $10 would sell a lot better if there were little samples of the pork.  I really considered a struedel, but didn't want to buy one the length of my forearm in case I didn't like it.  Local artisans should seize this opportunity to hook new customers by offering samples to show us what we just can't live without.  Or perhaps this wasn't allowed so that we would be more likely to stick with Chipotle food...

Now, the Chipotle tents: besides the tacos, everything available was unfamiliar territory to me as an occasional Chipotle customer. This seemed exciting--perhaps this was a taste of new menu items to come? I had read about the new Asian Shophouse Bowls they were rolling out on the coasts, and there they were at Cultivate.  There were also gorditas (2 for $6), and $6 esquites, a refreshing cabbage and charred corn-based salad dressed with crema and pickled onions.  The description promised some other vegetables, but I couldn't find them under all the crumbled cotija cheese.  Likewise the gorditas, made with pleasantly pillowy flatbread, were largely a mountain of crema and cotija with a little meat and chopped carrot underneath. The Shophouse Bowl seemed to underwhelm everyone in my group, as well, though again, the description sounded promising.  As my husband noted, even when there was no one else in line (and therefore no rush), the food was slopped together, assembly-line style, as quickly as possible, and this could easily account for the lack of balance in the ingredients and haphazard presentation (our gordita filling was about 50% off the flatbread when we got it).  This is the fast food model, so I imagine this is how the food would be made if these dishes make an appearance at our local Chipotles anytime soon, but if that's the case, they have some tweaking to do to their construction models.

Finally, and one of the main reasons so many in the crowd attended Cultivate, there were the bands and the celebrity chef demonstrations.  I made it in time to see Cold War Kids and Richard Blais, darling of reality cooking-elimination shows Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars.  His schtick was pure (mediocre) comedy.  The food was already prepared (of course), and besides vaguely describing it, he didn't discuss it at all.  There was absolutely no cooking instruction whatsoever. Instead, he danced around, playfully calling audience members "NERDS" and making jokes about his wife and kids. I can only hope Amanda Freitag had a little more interest in the subject matter earlier in the day.  Again, it was a free show, but try, Richard.  Just try to be a chef, OK? We know you've got it in you.

Cold War Kids looked crowded on the small stage and sounded entirely unbalanced and garbled.  As a travelling musician, I know you are subject to whatever in-house sound crew you get at each location, and the Denver City Park guys were not kind to this band.  I love their 2006 debut album, Robbers and Cowards, and that's mostly what they played from.  I don't know what they sound like live anywhere else, but it was an epic fail of overly loud drums and unintelligible vocals at Cultivate.

Cultivate could be a great opportunity to sincerely herald local food producers and their products, which might go a long way in mitigating the damage caused by the confession that Chipotle's food is filled with GMOs.  I know, I know, they're really working on it.  Of course, they were feeding us the stuff for years while smugly boasting about how fresh and filled with "integrity" their food is. This little road trip they're on feels like more of the same--pretty words backed by little substance.  Coming soon to you in Chicago...