Podcast Episode 66

How Regenerative Agriculture is Changing the Culinary World

Steve Nalls | 44 Minutes | November 1, 2022

In today’s episode, we speak with Steven Nalls—a professional chef, regenerative farmer, and Escoffier Chef Instructor where he teaches a Farm to Table Experience course.

Steven worked in the hospitality industry for 15 years, and then decided to dedicate his career to building sustainable culinary practices. He also owns Three Sisters Farm & Ranch where he manages animals, builds irrigation systems, and conducts research for farm resources.

Listen as Steven talks about his switch from engineering to culinary arts, how he manages an 80-acre farm, and the true cost for that final plate of food.

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with Steven Nalls, a professional chef, regenerative farmer, and an Escoffier chef instructor right here in Boulder, Colorado. After working in the hospitality industry for fifteen years in Texas, California, Hawaii, Steven became a chef instructor at Escoffier, where he teaches the Farm to Table Experience course. In 2016, he and his wife bought an 80-acre farm to begin a homestead so their three daughters could grow up and enjoy a pastoral environment and lifestyle. And our Escoffier community is very happy that he did.

Join me today as I chat with Chef Steven about the Three Sisters Farm and Ranch and the impact regenerative agriculture is having on our society.

And there he is! Good morning, Chef. How are you, Buddy?

Steven Nalls: I’m doing well, Chef. Good to see you again.

Kirk Bachmann: You look good. You look good. That virtual background even looks real. We know it’s real. Tell people you’re not in the barn right now, though.

Steven Nalls: I don’t have good internet in the barn, so it’s just a background.

Getting to the Front End of Food

Kirk Bachmann: People will realize pretty quickly that we’ve met. First and foremost, I’m super excited about this chat today, and I mean this with all sincerity and appreciation. You’ve been that solid background of our program here in Boulder at Escoffier for over a decade now. Our Farm to Table class is the culmination of our program and the time our students most look forward to. You’re legendary. You’re there with the students when they really shine. You’re leading the charge. Everyone sees you, especially me, as an individual who truly walks the talk.

We’re super, super thankful for you. We look forward to hearing, in your words, what’s important to you. Three Sisters Farm and Ranch. We’ll let you talk about the name and the personal piece there. It’s a beautiful location – I’m trying to set the tone here – on Colorado’s front range. I’ve had the good fortune of spending some time there with you and your family – both sides of your family! Your wife’s parents as well – as have some of our students, who you’ve graciously hosted some informative tours and some great food.

What I love most about your approach, Chef, and your style is that you are truly genuinely interested in where our food comes from. How important is that to you?

Steven Nalls: It’s super important and a driving force in what I’m doing these days. When I was in culinary school back in the good old days, it wasn’t really talked about much. It came off a truck. It’s one of the things that teaching at Escoffier that has really driven me to dive deeper into understanding and learning about how it can effect people, environment, flavors. It’s so tied into so many aspects of what we do. Instead of me continuing in the culinary field on the back end, I really wanted to get towards the front end of food. How does it get to the plate? What goes into that and why? Is it better, is it not? These are things I’m trying to explore and learn.

Kirk Bachmann: Did that make you a better instructor? I’ve always thought that while people are educating themselves, whether it’s through practical applications or school, that they’re better teachers. They’re sharing as they’re learning. Did you find, as you made that commitment several years ago with your wife to grab this land and do something special with it – we’ll get to that in a minute – that all of a sudden you were even a better teacher than you were the day before?

Steven Nalls: Absolutely. And not just teaching, but cooking as well.

Kirk Bachmann: Good point.

Steven Nalls: It gave me a lot of reference points on food and flavors, which I could then share with my students. The real world experience really helps set the tone and let them know I’m not just regurgitating information to them. These are things I’ve lived and seen and done. One of the things I try to stress to my students is to just grow something, because it will make you a better cook.

All the parallels of the culinary arts and the farming arts are very similar. That learning curve is similar; learning from failures and successes has really helped me articulate that to the students as well.

A Farm for the Kids

Kirk Bachmann: It’s a super important point. I’m going to dive in a little bit. Three Sisters Farm and Ranch. You have three beautiful daughters. This just kind of popped into my head, but on a previous podcast, we were talking about how important it is to demonstrate to your children habits that you want them to have. You can’t be behind your computer yelling at your kids to get off of Fortnight, right? You’ve got to walk the walk, talk the talk.

Same thing with food. If you’re putting fresh vegetables from the garden or from wherever, and other proteins, where they came from, you’re putting them on the table, was that part of the whole thought process? Let’s do this for us, but let’s really do this for our daughters, for our family.

Steven Nalls: Absolutely. That was one of the beginning driving forces. Before we had the farm, we were living in town, as most people do. I’ve always had a small garden. The transition from gardening to farming is quite bigger than you think. I think that first memory of my daughter taking that cherry tomato off the vine, and seeing her eyes light up, and then just keep going back for more. Knowing that when they see where it’s coming from and they taste it, they’ll just naturally have a healthier diet in most cases. I take that loss of yield with pride when they’re out there helping me harvest. They can fill themselves up with their body weight in food with no complaints from me.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a cost of doing business, Buddy.

Steven Nalls: Absolutely. Just subconsciously teaching them how those delicious things are good for you without having to force them to clean their plate or try something new. When they see it start, especially if they planted the seed, and they see it start to go to fruition, they’ve got some stock in the game, and they’re going to go for it a lot easier. That was the big driving force, to let them know how food has such a big impact, not just in my life as a chef, but really everyone’s life. It plays such an important role.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that visual. Three girls on the farm with you. Your wife. Your parents are on the farm as well. I grew up in a family where what was in front of you was what you were going to eat that night. There was no going to the refrigerator. It’s different for us now. We’ve got the farm table in the kitchen and there’s a lot of variety on the table every night. We’re cool with that. The kids are moving over from peppers to whatever we have on the table. Is that something that is sort of natural, organic, serendipitous? It happens that if you allow your daughters, your family, the choices, they tend to make choices – hopefully – that are healthy and good for them?

Steven Nalls: If everything’s going right, that’s what we’re hoping for. They still love their snacks and sweets. But just seeing them really go for those healthy things, and say at two years old, “I love broccoli,” is a pretty important time frame. Of course, like all kids, it changes as they age and it goes in waves. It really helps them to eat better if they helped plan the meal and helped harvest the meal. That really goes a long way.

A Love for the Fire and the Knife

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. Same with students.

Let’s talk about you for a little bit, some back story. While attending, I believe, a Bachelor’s program in mechanical engineering at Texas A&M, you realized – your words – you didn’t have a passion for the thermodynamics of an I-beam, but you loved the thermodynamics of a saute pan. Sort of kidding, but kind of not. Can we start at the beginning? First, what was it about mechanical engineering that you were fascinated by? We’re going to tie all this together.

Steven Nalls: I really wanted to test and develop backpacking equipment. I’m an Eagle Scout. The outdoors has always been a big part of my life. I was always cooking while I was going to school as well. Front of the house, first, but I moved into the kitchen once I realized I wanted to go down that career path during school.

I had the aptitudes for [engineering]. I did some testing, and it said I’d be good at that. My mom’s an engineer. Texas A&M, in my home state, is a pretty proud engineering school. I thought that was my first step into my future. Like most people, you’ve got to go on that track of school and get that job, and make that into a career.

I pretty quickly realized that I’m not really a desk kind of person. Being in the kitchens, I caught a love for the fire and the knife, and the lifestyle and the variety that it provides. I decided to hang up my engineering drafting board hat and all the good stuff, and move out to California to go to culinary school, to pursue that passion.

Kirk Bachmann: I know that you worked in kitchens at a young age, and you were in the industry for what seems like a career, a long time, fifteen years. What was in like growing up in in Texas? Was food a big part of the family table and your lifestyle? Did that catch you early on?

Steven Nalls: Yeah, I think it did catch me early on. My mom’s turned into a great cook over time. She’s been the historical cook of the family. She’s not afraid to experiment, try new things. She has a great love of food as well. Some of that is coming from there. Having the family dinner together was always an important mainstay of what we were doing. She’s a country girl from west Texas, so having beef tongue on the table was not weird. Her best friend was Hawaiian, so getting octopus in the freezer section of the grocery store and cooking that up on the weekend was not an unusual thing. Lots of experimentation.

She was a gardener as well. I had an early love of that tomato off the vine, the true tomato off the vine, not the one at the grocery store on the vine. Pretty early on, I knew that there was a difference from home-grown to store-bought. It didn’t really set until later on in life, but food always played an important role.

Finally, when I got my driver’s license, my mom said, “Well, you’re going to need to get a job if you want to pay for the gas.” I went the easiest route I could and walked into a Burger King and applied. Even though it’s not glamorous, working at a fast food restaurant, I really started to get the bug for the kitchen industry. I started waiting tables at country clubs and bar-tending and things like that, just to make money on the side, not really ever thinking of that as a career. It was the most accessible, easy job I got. It got me good. I don’t think I’ll ever leave it.

Kirk Bachmann: You’re hooked. Similar to me, I went to the University of Oregon and then went to culinary school, but grew up in a more food-centric family with a master pastry chef as a day, a family bakery and all that stuff. You went to culinary school after A&M, right?

Steven Nalls: Right. Yeah.

Kirk Bachmann: These are great shares for our students in our listening audience. Did you get all of the wiggles out at A&M so when you went to culinary school, you were hyper-focused? That’s the way it was for me.

Steven Nalls: That’s exactly how it worked for me. I was not making the best choices. I was spending more time on my social life than my education, and I was always a really great student – honor rolls, all those things, going through high school. Everything came easy to me. University is not something you just walk in and ace the test. Bad choices, and then I just needed to make a big change, a decision. I knew that culinary school was really the way to go. I decided to go as far away as I could to get away from the choices I was making. I really dove headfirst.

Kirk Bachmann: Into Los Angeles!

Steven Nalls: Yeah. Into Pasadena. It was a really great learning experience, great ingredients, great instructors, great opportunities to work while going to school. A lot of eye-opening food out there. The difference in cuisine from west Texas to the massive variety in southern California is pretty massive. To be able to go into an HMart in that area verses the Asian section at a west Texas grocery store just blew my mind. I never stopped buying things I can’t pronounce and trying them out since.

The Impact of People

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Then it was pretty natural. You got trained. You went into the industry. We’ll talk about teaching in just a minute. Any moments that really stand out: Texas, California, Hawaii? Fifteen years is a long time. What were some of those really memorable moments when you were in the industry trying to figure it out?

Steven Nalls: There’s a lot of memories that have imprinted on me over time, from different styles of service, different foods. I left a little piece of my heart in Hawaii, just from the environment there. The freshest fish. All that stuff really blew my mind, but the biggest impact was the people I worked with. The diversity of people, the camaraderie. When you get in with a team and it feels like a family unit and everything dances on fire, it’s a special adrenaline moment. You never know if it’s going to go the right way, but we’re all going to work together to make sure we’re going to get out of there alive. I think that was my biggest impact. All the people we’ve met.

I like to tell my students, “You’re going to work with everyone from ex-cons to ex-doctors, and everything in between.” That’s really the hardest part of this industry: dealing with the people and then the money. The cooking part’s the easy part. Dealing with the humanitarian aspect of it is an important thing to master early on.

Kirk Bachmann: A great statement, the idea that you went directly to the people. A lot of that never changes. Those are the stories. For our audience, you have this calmness about you in the kitchen. Students can sometimes be frantic. They’re trying to make deadlines and they’re not as comfortable. But it’s the stories. It’s the sharing of how important people and your team are to you that I really love.

When you look back on your time in professional kitchens, Chef, if your daughters wanted to do that, what would be the advice you would give as they approach entry into the industry? A second part of that question is, from when you were in the industry over a decade ago to today, how much has it changed, from your perspective?

Steven Nalls: First part of the question, advice. I think the most important advice is to get out there and do it to make sure you love it. Going to culinary school without ever being in a kitchen and just watching Food Network is a pretty big difference from what they see on the screen. If you come in unaware of the work, the hours, the pay, all these things, you lose that passion pretty quickly and get overwhelmed by it. I think the best advice I can give is to make sure you love it. While cooking in kitchens isn’t for everyone, you can do a lot of different things in this food industry with a culinary career. It’s not just cooking in restaurants. It’s just probably the most up-front aspect of it. Make sure you have a basic understanding that this is what you really want to do. Sometimes it just takes some time to do. For me, it was realizing I didn’t want to do something else. This is what I really wanted to do.

Kirk Bachmann: Process of elimination.

Steven Nalls: It’s a little different for everyone.

Learning as an Instructor

Kirk Bachmann: Good advice. I’m going to try to connect the dots from teaching Farm to Table here in Colorado. You started teaching a new concept here at Escoffier, this idea of farm to table experience and really trying to get the students out to the local farmers during their class. Then you started diving deeper into locally-produced food yourself, sustainability. Even a learning process for you. What did you encounter?

Take us back five or six years. What did you encounter as a chef in this industry discovering a new interest or a new passion, or maybe an enlightened passion? You remembered the tomatoes off the vine that you had with your family, so it was important to you already, but I’m really curious what your learning curve was like as a teacher, as someone who had been in the industry and you just happened to end up in a beautiful community like Boulder, up to Fort Collins. This is kind of what we do here, a lot of evangelists for local sustainability here in Colorado. Did you start to teach differently? Did you start to think differently? Take us before 2016. I remember the day when you said, “We bought a farm. We bought a ranch.”

Steven Nalls: That was a tough week. My twins were born the same week we closed on the property. That’s when all the gray started coming in.

Almost 12 years ago, I started teaching at Escoffier. We were just getting started up. We were building the program. I really had a very basic understanding of what we were trying to do. Getting out there and being on the farm with students, learning with the students, is really where it all started for me. Just having a basic understanding of our food system, and learning more so I could teach others.

One of the best things about teaching at a culinary school is how much you learn as an instructor, not just the students. It really set the tone for where I eventually desired to go to. Getting out there, seeing these systems that are being put into place to create 1) delicious food, and 2) having a positive environmental and socioeconomic impact. All these things that I really didn’t see were tied to our food system: local jobs, environmental standards, how soil microbes can develop flavor. I took a nutrition class in culinary school, but I never made that connection of nutrition and delicious. I have not found another example otherwise, but if it is extremely nutritious, it likely has more nutrition in it as well. How the soil and the water and the terroir play a role in building that vegetable, or that animal in that scenario. It really opened my eyes.

That’s when I decided that I needed to do this deep dive. I expanded my garden in the backyard. We got some city chickens, which I think are the gateway drug of future farmers, is to start with a small little flock of backyard chickens. Tasting that egg difference and seeing their actions and knowing how that role can play delicious and also all these other standards that can come along with that. The learning curve is steep. I’m still learning quite a bit. I still don’t consider myself a true farmer yet. I’m an amateur farmer moving towards the goal of becoming a professional.

A Virtual Tour of the Farm

Kirk Bachmann: I think people are going to see really quickly that you’re super humble. I’m proud to say, even though I self-identify, and the family does, as primarily plant-based, I look forward to bringing eggs from you farm every week, bringing them home. They are different. We had the good fortune of for one week raising one of your new chicks, which was the highlight of my kids’ summer, to be perfectly honest.

I want to emphasize that I’m so proud to have you as a guest and to have you hear with Escoffier for over a decade. What people don’t realize is you’ve got this farm, and it’s not next door. You’re an hour away both ways. You get up early. You take care of what you need to on the farm, you come, you teach for six to eight hours, and then you head on back. It’s an amazing commitment, and it’s not lost on me or anyone at Escoffier. I want to make sure that you know that.

Because I’ve had the good pleasure of touring the farm a couple of times, the ranch, with you. This is the hard part. It’s good. You’re a storyteller. I’d love it if you could discuss the origin of the farm, more of the particulars: how you’re folks got involved, and some of your key initiatives. I love hearing about the irrigation. I know you’ve got heritage breeds. You’ve got highland cattle, Icelandic sheep, goats – who I think you referred to as weed-eaters – alpacas, who are your protectors. Your Bresse chickens, your turkeys, your egg chickens, and, of course, all of the vegetable production and the bees. Could you take us on an imaginary tour of the farm?

Steven Nalls: Sure. There’s a lot to unpack there, so pause me if we need to.

In about 2014, I approached my wife about potentially selling our home and buying a piece of property. It took us about two years to find this piece of property. Unfortunately, it was further away from school. I was driving from Fort Collins, which was about an hour, and now about an hour and half away from school. Don’t ever do that math when you’re commuting. I’ve spent over four months in the car in the twelve years I’ve been here.

That being said, that rural lifestyle and learning about our food was something that she was willing to support me in. We bit the bullet. It took us a while to find a property that we could afford in an area that we wanted to live it. It had the right zoning for doing what we wanted to do and getting a water right as well. It’s not an easy or cheap thing to do that in the west. The water right laws are challenging, to say the least.

We finally got lucky enough and got that little package. We got our share of water, and some acreage with a house that we could live on. And we could not do that without the support of our family. Some good choices driven by my wife earlier on in our marriage helped us get there. The property was poorly managed before we got there. It was over-grazed. It had some issues with the land. I was willing to take on that challenge to try to start rebuilding all of that.

Let’s start with the name. We had twins that week we bought the house. That made three daughters. In my education aspects, learning about Native American agriculture techniques, the three sister form of agriculture, companion planting agriculture just seemed to fit with our scenario we had going on. I was imagining twelve, fifteen years down the road, my three daughters being my sales team at the farmers’ market. The three daughters at the Three Sisters farm stand would be banging market strategy. The etymology and the beginnings of the name came about.

Then I started thinking about, “What do we want to grow?” The answer was everything, which is not something you should ever try to do – everything all at once. We just threw everything at the wall to see what sticks, to see what we could do. I was throwing different taglines around. The Whole Diet Farm, or Feeding People with Heritage Breeds and Old Seeds, and things like that. Trying to develop our mantra, our ethics, our business strategy.

I knew doing the animals was something that was going to be a long learning curve and it was going to take some time to get numbers up to a point where I could use them. Protein being one of the more contentious sustainable products out there, I really wanted to see 1) could I do it? And 2) is it worth it flavor-wise, cost-wise, and is it good for all the core tenants that we were trying to represent?

We first started off with three Scottish Highland heifers from a farm up in the mountains of Colorado. They were about a year old. We raised them up until they were about breeding age, about two years on average. We started doing some artificial insemination, learning that process as well to develop our livestock.

Once I knew I could keep more than chickens alive and happy and healthy, we moved on to some sheep. I was looking for multipurpose breed. Number one, I was looking for tastiest breed, but I also wanted a multipurpose breed. We settled on Icelandic sheep, which is a very old heritage breed. I’m going to argue – biased, obviously – some of the best-tasting lamb I’ve ever had. But they are also a highly-prized wool sheep and a good dairy sheep as well. Very butterfat content in milk. Being a homestead first, moving towards a sustainable farm later, we want to utilize the whole animal and respect all that. Learning how to shear, and use wool, even sending my mom off to a spinning class to learn how to do natural dying and spinning on that. Tanning our own hides has been an interesting experiment. A little bit of milking in there, but mostly for meat and grazing.

Of course, we always had our chickens. We just increased our heritage breed egg-layers for color diversity, also for hardiness in our harsh winter climates up here. As I was trying to develop a meat bird program, trying to stay away from our commercial Cornish crossbreeds, I started researching, “What’s the tastiest breed of chicken out there?” Of course, as a chef, I’d always heard of the Bresse chicken out of France, and was super interested in that. I wanted to get into that. I spent 30 bucks on a dozen fertilized eggs that came in the mail, and hatched those out ourselves to start our own American Bresse. They’re DOC protected, so I can’t call them Bresse. They’re American Bresse chickens. The first time I ate that, it was night and day difference in structure, flavor, even the color of the meat. The leg meat on those is almost purple, like duck legs. It is super-flavorful, a little bit more toothsome. It doesn’t have that massive breast. They are very active foragers.

All along, growing vegetables as well, trying to learn our soil conditions, our weather patterns. Trying to figure out what I need to know to set up processes so that we can do that.

My parents came into the play. They retired early and wanted to come and spend more time with their [grandkids], so they sold their house in town. We sold them, very cheaply, five acres of the property. They lived in an RV on-site for two years while they built a house out there. They’ve really been a super-important safety net for us. Childcare and extra help on the farm. It’s been a big blessing to have their support and their time out there as well.

Trying to grow a little bit of everything, learning the processes to see what works and what doesn’t work. What’s to be viable, what’s not viable? What’s amazing? I’m going to keep doing that! What doesn’t work so well? Well, do I need to stop doing that, or do I need to change up how I approach it? That’s kind of the stage we’re in now.

We’re getting to a production point where I can start a CSA model and a farmers’ market hopefully next season, and do that with a more refined product, as opposed to going through all the learning curves. I’m not done learning, but I think we’re to a point where we can make it happen now.

The whole ultimate goal was not to focus on one thing. We’re going to create what a community needs – my family being the beginning community – what we need to thrive and survive. What works really well that we can share and educate with our community? To create a good local food system that produces delicious food, but also ethical food that has some integrity to it was really the major goal.

Future goal will be to add some small grain production in there long-term, so that we really truly are a whole diet farm where people can get everything they need.

Kirk Bachmann: Can I jump in right there? You mentioned CSA – community supported agriculture. Can you expand on that just a little bit for our audience?

Steven Nalls: It’s a more and more popular part of getting your local food system. In a community supported agriculture system model, there’s a lot of variation to it, but basically it’s kind of like a buyer’s club. You pay the farmer at the beginning of the season a certain fee for a certain amount of products throughout the year.

It really helps support the farmer when they need it most, as opposed to our commercial farmer, where I go get my business loan to buy seeds, pay wages, maintain my equipment, plant, water, and then hopefully harvest and sell for a profit at the end of the year. I didn’t want to risk all that because we live on this farm. I can’t lose the house that my kids are in.

Going to a system where we’re supporting our farmers by giving them that money upfront and trusting that they’re going to provide me with delicious, nutritious food throughout the season is a really great model. There’s a lot of variations in that and a lot of online modalities are coming into play these days. It’s really all about the community supporting the farmer and the farmer supporting that community to create that local food system that’s a little bit more resistant to market challenges out there.

Following Nature’s Path

Kirk Bachmann: Makes sense. I think we’re talking about this, but could you talk a little bit deeper about regenerative agriculture? Maybe define it a little bit more.

Steven Nalls: There are a lot of buzzwords out there that a getting a little bit hard to define, but in my own word, regenerative agriculture is a style of agriculture that is not depleting resources. It’s actually maintaining or, even better, regenerating more resources: sequestering carbon through proper rotation of animal grazing practices and rotations of crops; minimal-till practices can actually help become carbon neutral or even carbon negative as opposed to a carbon positive operation.

Having these more natural systems in place instead of using petro-chemical fertilizers or pesticides. We’re going to let the guinea fowl eat some of the insects as opposed to spraying them with pesticides. We’re going to use compost and microbes and inoculates of microbes and bacterias to help create healthier soil. Just really paying respect to what nature has given us and using nature as a guide as opposed to the industrial techniques that caused the Dust Bowl, that caused desertification around the world, rainforest falling out. I want to plant more trees instead of remove trees for crops. Following nature’s path is how I would loosely define regenerative agriculture.

Kirk Bachmann: Spoken like a teacher, like a true professor. Talk about the bees. What role do the bees play?

Steven Nalls: Well, they’re fascinating insects. Their social structure, the way they produce this delicious elixir is just absolutely fascinating to me. Pollinate. We’re having a lot of issues with pollinators. These neonicotinoid pesticides that are causing colony collapses all over and a lot of other issues with that. Knowing that they produce honey, number one, that deliciousness really drives the first decision that’s going along, but then all the side byproducts that come along with that, from the pollination to the excitement of watching them dive-bomb their hive with these pollen sacs on them.

The flavor nuance depending on season. When the apple blossoms are blossoming, the honey has this really great apple floral scent. Later on in the year when the alfalfa is king, you get a little bit more of a grassy note. We talk a lot about consistency being king in our industry, but I also don’t want to lose that terroir of food. It’s not just a word for wine. That flavor change is what makes foods super exciting and nuanced, which I really love as cook. When you have a great product, you don’t really have to do much to it to sell it. That was the main driver, deliciousness and all the side effects of pollination and keeping these animals, these insects as a major role in the environment. They really do a lot of different parts.

That really goes to all my practices. I don’t try to kill all the insects that are eating my plants. I try to create habitats toward beneficial insects that can provide balance. The bees are a part of that. They’re part of that ecosystem. They may not be the best pollinators, but they are the best honey makers.

The Challenge and the Reward

Kirk Bachmann: I just love the respect for what you’re creating. I was fascinated when you explained the irrigation style. Can you take a moment? It’s amazing what you’re [doing]. Eighty acres and you sort of flood it, right?

Steven Nalls: Yeah! So the ancient art of flood irrigation: it’s pretty amazing what people have been doing for 10,000-plus years. How much I did not know, what it takes to do that! To move massive amounts of water with a plastic tarp and a shovel is really scary, but also a rewarding concept right there at the beginning. Definitely not the most sustainable way of irrigating here in Colorado. We have a lot of wind and solar aspects that create a lot of evaporation. It’s definitely the cheapest to get into early on.

That’s what I’m starting with now, mostly for pasture. When I’m irrigating my vegetable crops, I’m using a lot more efficient techniques of micro-drip emitters and drip tape, in some cases some overhead spray irrigation. But when it comes to getting water to 80 acres of pasture for growing great grass, which grows great meat, which creates great soil, and this compounding aspect has been pretty interesting. The amount of work that goes into it and the respect I have for the ancient agriculturalists is just super highlighted when that water is flowing through.
Even though my feet are wet and muddy and my back is sore from shoveling, the joy of watching it spread, and then the next week the green starts to really shine. It’s been pretty cool.

My engineering mind comes into play as well. The way you dig these ditches, it almost looks like you could move water uphill at times, and if you do it right, you can get some elevation out of that using the hydraulic pressures of that system. I find it really amazing that we’ve been doing this for so long, and very few people, unless you’re working that system, truly understand what goes into that. The power of water when harnessed by human hands, you feel powerful yourself when you can do that.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s almost calming and relaxing. I could listen to you for hours. But I don’t want to give off any impression whatsoever that what you’re doing and what you’re creating is easy. It’s a lot of work. You mentioned the back, and probably a lot of trial and error. Any moments of challenges that really stand out in your mind?

Steven Nalls: Oh yeah, so many. On that point, that’s one of my reasons for doing this, to let everyone know what the true costs of food are, and the work that goes into producing what’s on your plate so we waste less and use our resources better.

There’s been many challenges along the way. It’s not an uncommon saying that if you’re going to have livestock, you’re going to have dead stock. That’s probably one of the earliest challenges I had to mentally prepare myself. Predation. The worst moments are when I made a mistake and the animal didn’t make it through that scenario.

But on the reverse side of that, when our first calf was born breach and we had to pull that calf. Luckily my neighbor came and showed me the way. Getting in there, not knowing if it was going to make it or not, and then see it take its first breath: it’s a powerful moment.

In the beginning days, I would hide my harvesting of animals from my children because I thought they were too young for it, but of course they would get, “What’s Daddy doing over there?” They would come and see. Now they’re asking, “What’s the name of that steak that we’re eating?” They know that meat does not come wrapped in plastic from the grocery store, from the beef tree. That it’s coming from an animal. While we put a lot of love into these, they know that they’re there for a reason, and that we’re going to utilize them thoroughly and well. We’re going to treat them right alive, and we’re going to treat them right on the plate. Developing that mindset of the amount of work that goes into it and seeing that final dish and seeing them eat it and make that connection makes what I’m doing [meaningful.] Why I’m doing it.

Kirk Bachmann: And we can sense it. So beautifully said. What a lovely story. The book needs to come out next.

Steven Nalls: If I were only a good writer and had time to do the writing!

One Pot on the Windowsill

Kirk Bachmann: I think someone just needs to record you, and we’ll be just fine.

I don’t want to get up over our skis, but any subtle advice for someone, maybe a student, who just wants to get started on their own little garden? Maybe one or two or three things to really be careful about?

Steven Nalls: Absolutely. Number one, just start growing what you like. Don’t go trying to grow artichokes if you don’t even like to eat them. The time and energy it takes to produce a vegetable is worth understanding the work behind, but also you want to reap the benefits along the way. Start with what you like to grow.

If you’ve never put a seed in a piece of soil, I highly recommend you start by just buying some herb starts, putting them in a small pot in your kitchen window. I tell every culinary class and student that comes through, it doesn’t matter if you want to be a farmer or a grower or not, grow some herbs. Number one, they are about the price per pound as protein. They’re not cheap. The flavor from a fresh herb can entirely change a dish. It’s economical. It’s delicious. It’s also going to make you a better cook. You’re going to learn that the seeds taste different than the leaves, taste different than the roots. The flavors going to change as that plant gets older. When it’s young, or after that first frost, all of these nuances change flavor. It’s going to make you a better cook in the long run. You’re going to be able to adapt on the fly with ingredients that you’re getting in by just having that basic understanding of growing something.

Then from there, if you feel like you get the knack, then start expanding. Some of the biggest mistakes, I think, are people not knowing that too little water is bad and too much water is also bad. That was one of my first big mistakes, thinking I should just keep it wet all the time. Learning those little nuances that some plants don’t like wet feet. Some plants prefer those marshy conditions. Not everyone is the same, not every plant is the same. We have to approach them from different aspects.

That wealth of knowledge is really best learned by doing it. We can get a lot of information from books and YouTube videos. Those are all great. I used all of those as well, but really getting out there and getting your hands in the soil. Learning the texture, the smell of the soil can tell you the nutrition and qualities of the soil, whether it will be good or bad for a plant. All of these things need a little practice to do. It all starts with one pot in your windowsill.

If you’re in an apartment, put some pots on your patio. If you have some space, plant your favorite plants out there and eat them. As a chef turning farmer, that’s my ultimate goal. Is it edible? Is it delicious? Is it good for everything else along the way? Let’s promote that, get more people out there doing it.

Chef Steven Nall’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Incredible advice. Start with what you like. Start with herbs. Slow expansion. I love it. Steven, Chef. You’ve been described in a few different ways. What I hear the most is you have a willingness and eagerness to try new things. Clearly. You’re calm and confident. You’re personal, personable, and professional. I sense what’s most important to you is being a great father, a great husband, a prolific teacher – which you are – and a damn good rancher. I’m sensing those all make the podium and it’s really an honor to have you.

We’re not done with you yet though. The name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish, so I’m going to put you on the spot. What is, in your household, the ultimate dish?

Steven Nalls: We just had a grass-fed rib-eye the other day from our beef. The ultimate dish in my house the one that is 90-plus percent from our farm. That’s going to change weekly, seasonally, and what our tastes are going for. It’s perfectly cooked protein, vegetable, all the components. It even gets better when it’s part of the plant or animal that people don’t each most often: making a sauerkraut with the broccoli leaves as opposed to holding the stems. That’s what really gets me excited. I’ve got a fridge full of ferments going on. Once we can get all those little components on a plate, it makes sense, and the kids eat it all, then that’s the ultimate dish in my house.

Kirk Bachmann: That is an amazing ultimate dish. Seasonal, local because it’s right outside your door, and it’s cooked well. Absolutely.

Steven Nalls: If I only had a salt mine and a black pepper tree, we would be almost 100 percent.

Kirk Bachmann: You’d be good. Aw, Chef, thanks so much for spending some time. Ironically, I’ll see you in a minute. Thanks for all you do. What a great 45 minutes just hanging with you. Really appreciate it.

Steven Nalls: Always a pleasure, Chef. Thanks for inviting me.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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