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It has taken us a long time to finish this piece.

We kicked around several ideas for our collaboration, and settled on recording a conversation between Natalie and Paul regarding the wonderful offerings of Cambium Dining Group. For a variety of reasons we weren’t able to make that happen.

Below you will read two reviews of the same meal. Some points will be repeated between sections, and others won’t. We hope that you enjoy, and more importantly that you follow the progress and adventures of the Cambium Dining Group. We’re fans, and you should be too.

Natalie Scarlett’s Comments:

Pheasant has long been associated, for me at least, with medieval feasts and the still life paintings of Chardin, Oudry, and the Old Masters, or of the tweedy English hunt and autumnal plenty. I’ve seen pheasant in terrines, roasted or stewed with lots of much needed fat, or in pies cooked in traditional ways.

There’s something so old school and old world about pheasant. Suffice to say I was surprised by the first course at the Cambium Dining Groups pop-up multi-course meal in early December when I was offered a pheasant “egg” of ground meat seasoned with the Thai flavors of peanut and curry and cleverly hidden under a “nest” of julienned green apple and hair-thin fried rice noodles.

Inspired by the birds themselves, Spencer Milne and Cameron Trezoglou, created the first dish in keeping with their philosophy of honoring the wildness of their game. The bouquet of pheasants whose meat figured into almost all five courses was discovered by Spencer when he went to a farm to slaughter turkeys.

Boyish and bespeckled, Spencer is both a chef and an avid huntsman as you can see evidenced in his extensive podcast and blog archives at fieldtotableoutdoors.com. Seeing the beautiful Blueback pheasant hens he asked the farmer what she planned to do with them and soon found himself pheasant rich and planning a unique pop-up dining experience with his cooking partner, Cameron.

The farmer told a story of how the pheasant hens would try to hide their eggs under brush and straw when the farmer came to collect and so the inspiration for the amuse-bouche was conceived. But this story of observing the animal’s nature and wildness and imbuing the dish with its character is more than just a clever gimmick to Cameron and Spencer. It was more than just that to me.

Spencer Milne and Cameron Trezoglou cook together

Honoring the essence of the pheasant is one of the ways in which this philosophy of respectful omnivorism permeates all of Cambium’s dishes and stands at the center of their values. Whether it’s the dried grapevine twig shoved through the fire-roasted pheasant heart or the juniper and evergreen scented quail gizzards Spencer waxed poetic about, each dish acknowledges the life of its contributors.

How a bird nested, how the elk graze, how the seasons change: all the wildlife is celebrated through the flora, fauna, and flavors. Unlike trendy molecular gastronomy where often the natural ingredient is transformed beyond recognition with gels, emulsions, and dry ice, these two chefs swing the opposite direction in paying tribute to nature itself while still plating gorgeously and taking risks with technique and presentation.

This is not to say that they don’t also work against nature in their challenging combination of flavors such as bisected raw cranberries next to lacto fermented meat soaked in sourdough starter or unusual textures such as tartare of raw beef cheek, a notoriously fatty and toothsome cut breaking with the traditional of using tender filet.

With the exception of some butter, cream, and basic pantry staples, everything Cambium prepared at the field to table pop-up with gardened, hunted, or foraged locally. This commitment to local produce isn’t a gimmick but whence Cambium gets its name.

Cambium is ‘a cellular plant tissue from which phloem, xylem, or cork’ grow, the source of cellular generation and growth in plants. Going straight to the source for ingredients, especially in our climate and location, is a huge labor of love and requires the resolve of a food zealot following in the footsteps of Johnny Appleseed.

Spencer and Cameron’s holistic approach to fine dining is radical in a town where often lip service is paid to locally grown and sourced products but when it comes down to it, because of overhead costs, scarcity, food safety regulations, or lack of creativity, most restaurants in Fort Collins may feature a few seasonal dishes in collaboration with local growers but can’t achieve Cambium’s integrity.

They sacrifice seasonality and local food on the altar of consistency and familiarity. Everybody likes fried shrimp and pineapple.  This, of course, is unfair of me to say since a restaurant opened almost every day of the year has different challenges than a one-time twenty plate pop-up. A harried Chef de Cuisine can hardly afford to hunt her own jackrabbits every morning or is allowed to hang freshly shot quails in her walk-in for a week uneviscerated and with feathers attached.

I realize that. My point is that farm and field to table dining events, such as this, are an exceptional way to eat our own terroir,to get to know our immediate world better, and to eat ethically.

I described the meal I ate at the Cambium pop-up and the origins of the pheasant meat to a vegetarian friend of mine. She is a vegetarian out of concern for her health, disgust with the aberrant factory farming of meat, and moral objections to the inhumane treatment of animals. She agreed that she would eat meat hunted or ethically raised in the way I described Cambium and its partners husband, hunt, and slaughter animals for food. An aside on vegetarianism: Spencer and Cameron met working at a local vegan restaurant and bonded over their passion for responsible meat-eating, milking goats, and cleaning rabbits. I find this delightfully amusing and more than a little ironic.

There’s a secret network of chefs in Fort Collins. I like to think of them as an order or secret society scuttling through the back alleys after their kitchens close and sharing their new culinary ideas beneath streetlights. If there’s any Don in this culture, it would be Nate Hines, owner and Chef de Cuisine at the Welsh Rabbit Cheese shop and the gracious avuncular host of Cambium and its diners for one night. Hines sets the pace for seasonally cycling menus, bringing in exotic and sustainable meat like nilgai, and maintaining high expectations for creative cuisine. Closed on Sundays, Hines nevertheless allowed for Spencer and Cameron to take over his kitchen and humbly washed dishes while enthusing over each dish as it was prepared. “What was your favorite? What didn’t you like? Why?,” Hines peppers me with questions out of sheer curiosity and excitement. “He’s a chef’s chef,” Spencer said of Hines, remarking on how earnestly he cares about creativity in the kitchen.  “Hey, I got a driveway full of black walnuts,” “I know a lady with a bunch of plum tries,” “Lend me some of your sourdough starter,” or “What should I do with all this bear fat?”; Chefs share with one another in this community.

Much of what Cambium prepared had been what I like to call “community foraged.” So often finding backyard ingredients is about talking to people who care about local food, or at least don’t want to see good food go to waste, and asking strangers if you can pick the mushrooms or asparagus in their north forty or save a bunch of scraps from the garbage. For example, the deep brown velvet demi-glace blanketing the pheasant breast was made from a heap of duck bones scavenged from Choice City Butcher’s Turducken extravaganza a week prior. There’s barter and favors and the kind of trading that happens in any artistic movement. A group of people, probably drinking, around a table late at night sharing their ideas and experiences until new ones form.

My learned colleague and (SALT) Editor, Paul Provencher, has a more detailed account of the meal with specifics about hunting and each dish below. Let me end by saying that Cambium’s pop-up was your favorite band’s house show–an experience you will forever cherish because of its intimacy, uniqueness, and raw energy. Like a house show, it only happened once and, if you missed it, you’ll probably always regret it. Now, most bands can’t just play house shows exclusively. Every member does commercial work, plays with multiple groups, or does big arena concerts, and that’s fine. But when, once every season or so, Cambium Dining’s Spencer and Cameron take a break from their respective jobs cooking, studying botany at CSU, farming, and butchering, and create a house show pop-up meal, you won’t want to miss it.

Paul Provencher’s Comments:

Local sourcing played a role in the Cambium Dining Group’s inaugural pop up that (SALT) Magazine attended on December 2nd. Cameron and Spencer currently work shifts at a game processing shop on North College. Here they are able to refine their craft of producing field to table meals through constant interaction with the hunting community and the freshly harvested animals. Because the shop is at capacity, they also freelance as butchers by going to people’s homes and processing meat there.

While cutting up some turkeys on a small farm, they noticed a hutch of pheasants. They asked the owners what they intended to do with the birds, and so secured a harvest of pheasants, one week before their already scheduled dinner. The duo slaughtered the birds by hand and hung them in a cooling shed to cure for a week, finally plucking and butchering the animals the day before the meal. During this process, the menu changed a few times as recipes didn’t work out. The amuse bouche, intended at first to represent an egg of pheasant sausage in a nest of corn silk, didn’t pan out because the team couldn’t source a supply of corn silk. “We went to restaurants, and even offered to shuck and silk corn in return for the ingredients, but no one had corn. We missed the season by a hair,” they told us. Instead, we were served an amuse of pheasant sausage served over Thai inspired sauce complete with crushed peanuts, accompanied by julienned green apples, hidden under a pile of fried rice noodles. The effect was of enjoying a meaty candy apple. But the presentation also tells a story about our food system. The couple who raised the pheasants observed that the birds sense when they are about to harvest the eggs, and cover their nests with twigs and straw to hide them.

This use of local ingredients and changing techniques is nothing new in the cooking world but remains aspirational for many. To this end, Cameron and Spencer have found an outlet in their Field to Table podcast. It’s not your average hunting podcast (although in the western United States, at least, hunter advocacy groups have emerged as leaders in game management, conservation, and land use issues). Episode One details their favorite cooking methods that everyone should know and serves as a manifesto for their approach to food. The other episodes discuss the best way to use a harvest, and how to maximize game meat without turning it all into hamburger. And how to make good food with naturally procured meat that doesn’t involve wrapping it all in bacon or turning it into a stew. “We treat craft beer like food should be treated,” Cameron told us. In response to this, Cameron and Spencer cruise the Pawnee Grasslands hunting jackrabbits with shotguns, or bow and rifle hunt for big game in the mountains. It’s naturally procured food that tastes like the land we inhabit.

They also work with farms to procure food. The Bootheel 7 Ranch has operated in Lusk for over 100 years, and is staffed by members of a family that straddles the state line in Wyoming and Colorado. They offer a ranch to table pick up service for their meat. As an appetizer, Cameron and Spencer prepared “Tongue in Cheek”, an unexpected combination. Bootheel 7 provided the meat under the proviso that their involvement in the meal would be made public. We may tell you that they produce fine meat, and you should patronize them. Beef tongue was prepared and sliced into cold cuts, flavored by torched pine. Adjacent on the stone slab the served as a plate was a beef cheek tartar under a barn made of a Parmesan cheese cookie. Both were accompanied by fermented mustard and a cranberry-orange relish (and a bit of toasted baguette from the Welsh Rabbit). Flaming pine is another Cambium touch. “I don’t know why pine isn’t on more menus around here,” Cameron lamented. And it does add a, well, piney flavor to the neutral background of beef tongue. It’s an unexpected aromatic finish food with, especially off the grill, and the effect was thrilling. It tasted like a walk in the foothills. And cheek really does make the best tartar, with lots of flavor contrasting textures.

The entree featured a similarly innovative use of local ingredients. Grilled pheasant breast was smothered in a demi-glace of duck stock, among other things. The chefs tossed spinach picked that morning on a grill with prosciutto. And joining it all was a revelation: mashed pumpkin. And really, who doesn’t spend fall wondering what to do with an abundance of pumpkin? One can have only so many pies. While the demi overpowered the natural flavor of the pheasant, it was itself a work of art. Thick enough to hold a knife upright, the cooks reduced about 15 gallons of stock made of bones reclaimed from Choice City’s turducken extravaganza. It had a rich smoky flavor that would have been right at home alongside a rack of ribs. The spinach was sautéed to just that point where it gave off a slightly sour umami, a flavor accentuated by a spare amount of pancetta.

Dessert came with port and showcased just what the duo can do when it comes to sweets. A southern sugar pie, which is a sort of white, sweet custard took up a corner of the plate next to seeds tossed in a confection of ginger. Candied slices of carrots were topped by bits of sugar candy, and a small ball of ginger ice cream sat slowly melting in the center. I’m not much of a dessert person, but this was quite good.

Wine service was provided by the Welsh Rabbits’ own sommelier, Jake Voss, who delivered his tasting notes in conspiratorial terms before announcing his selections to the company. He paired the wines with Cameron via email as the recipes evolved in the run-up to the dinner. More impressively, he was able to create these brilliant pairings although he himself doesn’t eat meat. Though Voss has only been pairing wine with food professionally for five years, he is quite adept and ingratiating.  

After the dinner, I followed up with Cameron Trezoglou, who has an engaging smile and sparkling eyes set deep above a thick black beard. Although it was a blustery Monday, the Choice City Butcher Shop was warm and inviting, and we discussed the meal he prepared the night before, his culinary vision, and his plans for the future of the Cambium Dining Group. Cameron creates with pop up restaurants. “I don’t paint, I don’t write, I don’t play an instrument. Cooking is how I create,” he said. Cameron started cooking at Choice City while a college student, and through a series of happy circumstances went on to be at the right place at the right time with the right talents in a variety of Fort Collins restaurants.

Cambium Dining Group’s dishes are inspired by the changing seasons of Colorado and with ingredients they are able to hunt, forage, or otherwise reclaim from the area. Cameron observed that, “Fort Collins has an incredible amount of food in peoples’ backyards. We’ve gone door to door asking to pick fruit from trees or to ask to use food from gardens.” Such foraging can take place year round to unlock new flavors and textures in their food. Explaining their method, Cameron said, “The secret to using anything is knowing how ingredients change during their lifecycle, and when to harvest them.” Flavor changes and waste increases if food has to travel long distances. Eating local is the better option for both taste and environmental, social, and economic consciousness. This means patronizing family farms and demonstrating a willingness to use a degree of creativity.

A similar process to foraging takes place when the pair obtains permission from landowners to hunt on their property, though Cameron and Spencer are primarily public land hunters in the western style. Western hunting involves spending a great deal of time in the mountains, stalking through timber and glassing with binoculars or spotting scopes from windswept ridges. One does most of the hunt on foot, well incorporated into the natural environment one seeks to manipulate by hunting. When the hunt is over, the hunter carries the meat out by himself, or with the help of a few assistants. It’s a raw style of hunting, primitive in its complexity and earthiness. Western hunting is also the best way to get quality game meat and to help manage herd populations in the Rockies and on the high plains.

We spoke at length of our mutual affection for the humble asparagus, that wonderful spear whose flavor is best when the time between harvest preparation is measured in minutes, not hours. At a previous pop-up, Cameron had a friend pick asparagus growing wild in a park and deliver it to the restaurant, where it was immediately prepared, plated, and consumed within hours. It goes without saying that foraged asparagus is far superior to that which comes from the store, and it’s an untapped resource in our local food system.

Pop up events like this are appealing in the uniqueness. One will only have this dinner once. You missed the first iteration of the Cambium Dining Group but can participate when they put on their next production. This temporality reflects the changing of the seasons and the changing tastes of the creators. There’s something precious in an event that isn’t repeated. Something unique, something that separates pop-up dining from the usual run of visits to favorite restaurants, or even experimental restaurants. Such meals are a breath of fresh air that reveal new possibilities for what we can do in our own kitchens. As we finished our conversation, Cameron asked me what my favorite restaurant was. After hemming and hawing and providing some lame and highly qualified answers (I prefer to eat out for small plates and cocktails as opposed to a full meal), I responded, “I cook.” “Me too,” he said. And that really is what dining is about. Experiencing those once in a lifetime moments that refine one’s own tastes and allow one to create new comestible vistas for friends and family.

You can follow the Cambium Dining Group on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/cambiumdining/ and https://www.facebook.com/fieldtotableoutdoors/, and share their adventures through the Field to Table Outdoors podcast.

Photos courtesy of Cambium Dining Group and Sean Lawlor. You can find more of Sean’s work on his Instagram account.