Prairie to Plate

By Lisa Van Horne

Once a month, Chef Jeff Bolton at Kachina Southwestern Grill in Westminster receives a whole bison from the Prairie Ridge Buffalo Ranch in Limon. Not just a pack of sirloin steaks, flank steaks or ribs. A whole bison. What happens next is a culinary collaboration between Bolton and Kachina’s in-house butcher to not only figure out how to use this sheer 600 to 700 pounds of meat, but also how to craft dishes that will both utilize the entirety of the animal and uniquely entice their patrons. 

“From nose to tail, we work to incorporate the entire bison into our menu,” said Bolton. “Instead of just serving something like tenderloins, we get at least eight to nine cuts of meat from the same bison, so the whole bison hits the shelves.” 

Photo: Kachina Southwestern Grill

Photo: Kachina Southwestern Grill

This sustainable practice and philosophy is indicative not just of Bolton’s exploratory, creative mindset, but also of the bison industry in Colorado as a whole. According to Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, there are about 400,000 bison in North America today, making it a small market even after its spike in growth over the past decade. Only in the past 10 years or so have chefs throughout the West and in Colorado begun experimenting with and introducing bison dishes to the public. As more people experience the delicious and unique taste of bison, demand continues to grow. 

As the bison industry has expanded, operating and abiding by sustainable philosophies and practices has and continues to be key to its success. From the time when Ray and Debbie Thieman started the Prairie Ridge Buffalo Ranch in 1999, demand for bison meat has increased dramatically. 

However, that doesn’t mean there is anything mass market about raising bison. Prairie Ridge, which has about 1,000 head of bison, only offers buffalo meat in quarters, halves, or as a whole animal, eliminating the wastefulness of only selling certain cuts of steak. 

It’s illegal to use growth hormones when raising bison, and the animals at Prairie Ridge roam freely over 15,000 acres, never consuming anything that contains stimulants or antibiotics. 

Because of this free-roaming practice, raising bison is agriculturally sustainable as well. As Dave Carter notes, bison have historically shaped the landscape of the ecosystem of the West and, as the popularity of bison continues to grow steadily, they are continuing to shape that ecosystem today. 

Photo: Kachina Southwestern Grill

Photo: Kachina Southwestern Grill

Chefs in recent years have likewise capitalized on the versatility of bison meat. Here in Colorado, bison dishes can be found at countless restaurants and breweries. In a state of health-conscious citizens, bison meat is a more nutritious option for getting your red meat fix. From the Bison Brat at Colorado’s ViewHouse restaurants to the bison jerky and smoked bison meatloaf at Kachina, bison has become a quintessentially Colorado dish. 

Kachina has become the gold standard in preparing and serving unique, hearty bison dishes. Chef Bolton uses each carcass to its full potential, right down to the skull, which is often decorated by a local artist and ends up adorning the walls of the restaurant as a piece of décor. Kachina also engages Colorado’s craft beer industry and hosts regular beer and bison dinners. Kachina partners with a local brewery to offer various bison dishes paired with craft brews, creating an experience that is authentically local to Colorado on all levels. 

So, the next time you’re asked to name Colorado’s most famous dish, consider answering with bison. From the sustainability and care with which it’s raised to the creativity and craft with which it’s prepared, local Colorado bison are unique indicators of the state’s craft food culture. 

 

From Massachusetts to New York to Reno to San Diego to Boulder, Lisa Van Horne is a writer who has found a home here on the Front Range.