At a Butcher's Dinner, a novice chef might manage to blunder a brisket or deliver the world's most unmemorable burger. A showboat white coat might reach for tongue, tail or organ meats to impress.
Chef Kevin Campbell of Full Circle Cuisine falls into neither category. At what he calls a Harvest Dinner, he displays an ambitious and well-grounded culinary prowess, but balances it with a humility that matches the picnic-blanketed card tables inside Ranch Foods Direct's retail market.
After exhausting your primal pleasure centers with a course like an open-faced sandwich of short rib pastrami and seared foie gras — OK, there's one organ item — with piquant mustard on rye, he appears from his makeshift prep kitchen to almost sheepishly ask, "How was that?"
Let's just say you could do a lot worse. And the same goes for his short ribs, bone marrow, hanger steak and bacon, served every which way that's gourmet, and spotlighting each one's finest qualities.
The whole story behind Campbell's pop-up-dinner-inspired Harvest Dinners appeared in our Jan. 19 Side Dish column, but the gist of the concept is local and sustainably produced foods, served family-style at a community table. The weekly theme dinners seat 20 people max (ranging from $40 to $60), with menus announced a week prior to production.
Labor of love
That pastrami course was the first of four that night, and Campbell had started prep nearly a week earlier to execute it in style. First came a five-day brine of the ribs, then a black pepper-and-coriander rub, then 12 hours of hickory smoke. With Campbell partial to using everything he can scrounge from inside the market — up to 95 percent of the ingredients, which you can purchase after meal's end — he wound up pairing the bold meat with local Old German Bakery rye bread, adding halved, tart pickles and a few raw red onion flecks for garnish.
The cowboy and architect with whom I was seated both politely declined to finish the single extra portion, leaving the co-owner of Colorado Springs Food Tours and me to judiciously split it. More free Two Rivers wine with that? Please and thanks.
Next came the marrow, the night's biggest surprise. Campbell had asked via e-mail if I had any requests earlier in the week (the nature of these dinners leaving little element of surprise for reviewing), and I'd simply said marrow, thinking back to slathered toast points I'd enjoyed at Bones in Denver.
I have a gut feeling he'd have done marrow anyway. But instead of serving it out of halved or whole bones, as I'd always eaten it, he delivered it tempura-style, fried crisp inside an airy skin of pastry flour, corn starch and Perrier water (a little fizz for fluff). Once opened, the misshapen fat mass (which tasted infinitely better than those words together sound) met the underlying, simple frisée salad with capers and a mild black truffle and black radish vinaigrette. To be fried, unctuous and yet light all at once — what a culinary coup.
Bean and boar
"From gate — to Chef — to plate, these foods were loved," reads a note on Campbell's website. And that sentiment couldn't be clearer than in our third course, where the sustainably raised Callicrate hanger steak — also called the "butcher's steak" because there's only one per animal, which often the butcher ate himself — met a pan sear, then three-hour sous vide (controlled water bath) before a final oven bake.
Picture a pinkish medium-rare interior under slightly blackened skin, a tough cut rendered tender next to perfect soft-boiled egg halves. (Perhaps someone studied the first issue of David Chang's Lucky Peach last year.) With it came a lovely, earthy baby bella mushroom-herb salad, rich with woody rosemary, sweet red onions and a fun mushroom double-down with crumbled, dehydrated Shiitakes as garnish. A bite captured yolk, steak and elements of the salad, striking that soul-stirring comfort-food chord, that ideal kitchen marriage between forager's basket and properly "loved" farm proteins.
And then there was bacon. And chocolate. Together.
Yeah, I've had it before, and it's not for everyone. If you don't like it when your maple syrup runs off your pancakes onto your bacon (only god knows why not), this ain't for you. Chopped, candied bacon incorporated into the ganache stripes of a five-layer chocolate terrine, topped with another whole candied swine strip.
I say: Rock on, rich piggy.
So we know that Campbell can bake, too. And as the seasons warm, more fresh produce will find its way into Full Circle plates via biodynamic-minded Colorado growers.
Campbell says he's committed to the Ranch Foods site through 2012, with this low-overhead-driven and mutually beneficial model, but he hopes to grow Full Circle into its own brick-and-mortar some day. Until then, enjoy casual dining with strangers (or even with Campbell himself, as one of four welcomed into his prep kitchen), surrounded by the raw elements of your meal.
The chef may have eschewed pop-up-dinners' surprise element, but he hasn't dismissed the core concepts of something different, and something special.