By Elizabeth Miller
January snowflakes drift outside and winter air nips under the door as members of the Durango community meet for a unique dining experience at James Ranch: the Gather dinner, a four-course meal highlighting James Ranch products, local ingredients, and the ingenuity of culinary staff. Creating partnerships through the James family and other farmers in the region, late fall and winter Gather dinners look to further cultivate a network that honors farmers, ranchers, producers, bakers, and other purveyors to understand all that goes into the making of a delectable, distinctive meal.
James Ranch started with a dream to live on the land and connect with nature, raise children to contribute to the food source and teach the values and hard work ethic that it takes to live and survive from the land. Cynthia Stewart, a James daughter and innovator of the Gather dinners, came back to the family ranch years ago with her husband to raise their own daughter. Along with other James siblings, the ranch creates a beautiful team effort with each sibling running different aspects of the ranch: James Ranch Beef, The Gardens at James Ranch, the tree farm and James Ranch Market, dairy farming and cheese making, and James Ranch Grill, which Stewart owns. The ranch has also extended invitations to other farmers to use the land, with the addition of the flower farm. Both the Market and The Grill work together to utilize all components of James Ranch, as well as ingredients and crops from local farmers, providing ways for local farms to grow more and sell more.
The Gather dinners grant another opportunity to capitalize on the synergy of James Ranch and how each part influences the whole to create a coursed dinner using as many local and regional ingredients as possible. “Often the people that eat the food before them may not understand what it takes to produce the meal on the plates,” Stewart ruminates. “I wanted to share the real story behind the process and give the farmers and producers of our ingredients a chance to describe and highlight all that goes into the food on diners’ plates.”
The Gather dinner in January included a perfect balance of sweet and savory flavors, starting with a butternut squash carpaccio that guests at the table couldn’t stop exclaiming over, a soup or salad course, and the entrée: a perfectly seared James Ranch beef hangar steak with a smoked cherry jus, butternut puree, confit potato, chimichurri sauce, and complemented by a James Ranch Belford crisp. Dessert was a sour cherry compote with tarragon ice cream, utilizing cherries frozen from summer at the ranch, featuring crops and products being used in innovative ways. “It’s an opportunity to understand what you’re eating and that everything on your plate is of the purest level and highest nutrient density we can get it,” Stewart added. “Our hope is to educate people about their food and where it comes from, and the importance of doing it right.”
Doing it right involves a complex network of inventive solutions to solve problems that arise in the business of living off the land. Population impacts on resources, drought, and solutions for chemical-free pest control have given James Ranch many opportunities to work with Mother Nature instead of against it. James Ranch utilizes regenerative practices for vegetation such as composting, rotating crops and field use, and fertilizing with kelp, which supports the harmonious ecosystem the ranch shares with local wildlife, providing an oasis for birds, bugs, and other living things.
Another aspect of James Ranch and the Gather dinner is the space to highlight the producers of the many components that go into making a meal, whether it be the James Ranch cheesemaking process, Buckel Family Wines, or James Ranch Beef, all with an eye on sustainability and regenerative practices that contribute to the Durango landscape. Joe and Jenn Wheeling, also a James daughter, were the guest producers of that Gather dinner evening from James Ranch Beef and The Gardens at James Ranch. James Ranch Beef boasts two hundred steers processed locally a year, which equates to 100,000 pounds of beef! Sustainability and utilizing all parts and products of the animal are important to the Wheelings and the James Ranch philosophy, down to an extreme level of detail to support the land as well as the animals. One inquisitive dinner guest inquired if these sustainability practices made cow flatulence less toxic, to which Wheeling replied, “We live in a biological world, with infinite possibilities,” eliciting a chuckle from dinner guests. James Ranch strives to provide the best life for their animals. The Wheelings suggest holistic management and community involvement leads to healthier and less stressed cattle, which in turn boosts the flavor and quality of their beef.
As the Wheelings spoke about their farm and the James Ranch community, it’s clear that relationships with their customers and guests’ connection to sustainable farming and the land are paramount. James Ranch is truly a family farm, focused on the Durango community. The James’ family philosophy centers on refining practices, knowing where your food comes from, and providing care in how it is processed and used. The attention to detail the James Ranch family and staff pour into everything encourages us to understand a little more about the sustenance that fuels our bodies.
James Ranch invites you to visit the Market, the Grill, educational panels, tours, or the unique experience of the Gather dinner. Gather Dinners are Tuesday evenings, 5:30-7:30 P.M. at James Ranch Grill dining room, mid November through March, with limited seating through prepaid reservations. For more information on James Ranch events, tours, and reservations, visit jamesranch.net/grill.