Terra Denver is a new Colorado regional restaurant at 14th and Champa. Owned by Scott Schaden, it features native ingredients from the midwest region of America. All the ingredients are locally sourced from independent farmers. Stop by for their lunch and get some great sandwiches or salads or stop by for dinner for an upscale experience. No matter when you visit you’ll be greeted by a fantastic and welcoming staff.
Gaydenver: I saw a few varying descriptions of your food, let’s set the record straight. How would you define it?
Scott: Regional American is the best way to describe what we are doing. This is a shame because that description is typically used when restaurants don’t know what specifically they are. For us, it is the best descriptor of what we do. We focus not only on locally sourced ingredients but native ingredients. We focus on this terra (Def: land or territory) and its flavors, its history, and the communities that grow it. Some examples would be beans, corn (corn is king), juniper, mountain berries, Pacific Coast seafood, river trout, or Southern California tuna. This is the food that I grew up eating and that I love. It’s not green chili and bison burgers. I love those items and
Colorado has a lot of fun with them but we wanted to do something different, something more indicative of what locals enjoy. I wanted to highlight a different vein of Denver’s cuisine.
When I was cooking in Chicago, the locals there believed that everyone in Colorado eats nothing but green chili. I really wanted to highlight actual Denver cuisine. I’ve cooked high-end Italian for most of my career but Italian can be so variable. The change in cooking styles and flavors vary so much from region to region, from saying Piedmont to Sicily, the food is always showcasing the specialty of that region. If you’re in Bologna you will see a lot of Montebello and wet cured/dry-cured meats, if you’re in Sicily it’s all about the Mediterranean seafood.
Gaydenver: I love this concept of cooking your own culture. When did this start to take hold?
Scott: There wasn’t a lightbulb moment, it was a steady evolution. The more I delved into ingredient-focused cooking in Italian cuisine, the more I found myself focusing on elements that were near and dear to my heart. It wasn’t ‘Oh this is my culture, I’m going to buck tradition!’, it didn’t start that way. It started with supplementing ingredients in traditional dishes with amazing produce, best grown in Colorado.
When I say ‘my culture,’ it’s a melting pot. I’m not Native American, I’m not Mexican but I grew up in a place of confluence, and respect the various communities in Denver. I grew up with all these amazing influences and products, it seemed crazy to not include them wherever I could regardless of tradition.
I built this menu with the products at hand in mind. We skipped out on crowd-pleasing favorites to create dishes that highlighted the ingredients and our house styles. Its different ingredients are presented in unique ways but the flavors are comforting and familiar.
Gaydenver: Let’s talk about your work culture. I know you’re giving bus passes out, insurance, and a gym stipend, can you talk a little more about that?
Scott: Our mantra is, ‘Not everything has to be the way it has always been’. I’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time, and it wasn’t always a super healthy place for me most of the time. I know a lot of people that feel the same way as me. We were tired of the culture and the lifestyle: both are unsustainable. You put up with it at first because you needed a job, or you wanted to learn something from somewhere or someone. Eventually, you burn out. When friends and I read Anthony Bordain, we got all excited and inspired. Then we hit our thirty’s and realized we didn’t want this kind of life.
I wanted to create something different. If someone wants to work at Terra for a little while or until they retire I want them to have a good experience. I want them to have a sustainable lifestyle. So we changed up the perks to working for us. We give our employees and public transportation ECO Pass, discounts to a local gym, and health insurance. We did away with shift drinks to pay for that. We are hoping that this also attracts like-minded people to come work for us.
I wanted to de-stigmatize taking time off or calling in sick when you are sick. I don’t want sick people serving or making my food and I don’t want people to miss out on life experiences. I realize that there might be people that take advantage of that at first but they’ll weed themselves out.
Gaydenver: The noodles are made in-house, what else do you make? Locally sourced?
Scott: Yes absolutely, we source everything locally or as Colorado adjacent as makes sense. We make all our bread, sauces, and noodles. I joke that the only thing we wouldn’t make is ketchup (if we had it). For our bread and noodles, we are using really basic ingredients for now as we test out some locally milled flour. The company is called Dry Storage out of Boulder and they just floored me with their knowledge and ability. We are all excited to keep growing with them.
We developed some proprietary items that we are proud of. Take our garlic oil for instance. We use fresh garlic instead of the traditional roasted garlic. It changes the flavor from an umami flavor to a slightly spicy, and grassy flavor.
Gaydenver: (Supplementary) How did you find all these local vendors?*
Scott: Some of its luck, a lot of it is proximity. I worked at a food truck when I first started up, and one of our big locations was farmers’ markets. So for seven years I slowly got to know a ton of farmers, their products, and their methods. That’s how it started. More than a few of the farmers I work with now I had set out to find something specific and got to explore the network that way. Both the local chef and farmer scene in Colorado are a pretty tight-knit community, everyone is generous with referrals and information, which is fantastic. It’s one of those things, once you break into it and show you’re serious, they start to flock to you. I try to use my buying power as responsibly as I can.
I gotta make my rounds through different sellers during Covid. When all the restaurants were closing farmers had a ton of excess product. A buddy and I started going around and buying up a bunch of their goods and then selling them to homes or whoever would buy them. That was a great learning experience both for networking and getting to know tons of unique native Colorado plants.
Gaydenver: I saw your resume online and I wondered if you could take us through what you gained from the experience that helped you get to this point?
Scott: My travels were the best experiences. It wasn’t even that I was always learning about cooking techniques, I got to see how different kitchens operated and different chefs pulled inspiration. So when I started getting serious about cooking I had a lot of foreknowledge compared to the people that were in the same boat as me. This is also what helped me refine what I wanted to bring to my customers.