As spring thunderstorm clouds loomed ominously overhead, Mark DeRespinis bent down and carefully tugged two carrots from the ground. He spent a few minutes rubbing the small, orange vegetables on his blueish-green T-shirt, then proudly handed one to me. We both took a bite. “Essence of carrot,” he says after crunching down on his. “First carrot of the year… it’s snappy, it’s tender. The juice rolls over your tongue. It doesn’t hit you hard but, it’s like, that’s a carrot.”

We stood in a field in east Boulder in early May as DeRespinis gave me a walking tour of the 1.5-acre property where he grows vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers specifically for Denver-area chefs. Through his company, Esoterra Culinary Garden, DeRespinis and a crew of nine employees lovingly cultivate wholesale produce that eventually ends up on dinner plates at roughly 50 restaurants throughout the Mile High City, including the Wolf’s Tailor, Tavernetta, BRUTØ, the Greenwich, and Mercantile Dining & Provision, to name a few.

A crate of carrots.
Esoterra’s mokum carrots. Photo by Sarah Kuta

Last year, DeRespinis grew nearly 7,000 pounds of this tiny, sweet variety of carrots—called mokum carrots—and chefs still couldn’t get enough, he says. And they’re difficult to find elsewhere because the slender, pencil-shaped roots have brittle tops, making them incompatible with mechanical harvesting techniques. “They’ve become a bit of a cult phenomenon,” DeRespinis says.

It’s not just the carrots chefs fawn over. They hungrily snap up anything DeRespinis grows on this small plot of land, leased by Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks division to help promote local agriculture. Some restaurants, like the Wolf’s Tailor, even design their menus around DeRespinis’ upcoming harvests. “It’s funny, but I always talk with Mark as if he’s the chef de cuisine here at Wolf,” says Taylor Stark, the Sunnyside eatery’s chef. “We talk with him, we look at what he’s growing, we look at what he’s forecasting. If he’s going to have celtuce in May, we’ll write a dish centered around celtuce. Then it’s the carrots. Then it’s the radishes. We just rinse and repeat that cycle throughout the season. It’s this very harmonious process.”

Esoterra celtuce. Photo courtesy of Esoterra Culinary Garden

That collaboration goes both ways. DeRespinis, who is 44, spends a lot of time talking with chefs and researching food trends when deciding what to plant—and how much of it—each year. To that end, he often brings chefs ingredients they’ve never worked with before, which they welcome with open arms. “We live and breathe food,” says Cody Cheetham, executive chef at Tavernetta. “Finding something you’ve never worked with before or never tasted before or seen or heard of is a rare treat. When that happens, I’ll say, ‘Oh cool, send me some of that and I’ll figure something out.’”

The fact that he only sells to chefs—not to consumers at farmers’ markets or through community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares—is a big reason why DeRespinis can play around with plants that most home cooks have never heard of—things like nepitella (a Mediterranean herb), kangkong (also known as water spinach, a leafy green often used in East and Southeast Asian cuisines), and red-veined sorrel (a green herb with crimson veins and stems). That’s been his business model since he launched Esoterra in the spring of 2018. DeRespinis came up with the idea of growing vegetables exclusively and specifically for chefs while working at Ojo Caliente, a hot spring resort and spa in rural New Mexico about an hour west of Taos. When he arrived, he wondered why the resort was buying all the produce for its restaurants from places like California and proposed creating an on-site farm instead.

After starting and growing the resort’s farm, he began working with chefs who “had a sense of wonder about plants,” which ultimately inspired him to set out on his own five years ago. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’” he says. “I want to grow for people who can appreciate food and produce in this way. Because then that allows me to bring that same approach to the garden, instead of, ‘I’ve got to churn out tons and tons of arugula.’ It allows me to have this really diverse garden where all these different parts are speaking with each other. We have this opportunity in our relationships with the chefs to bring people into connection with the plants and, through the plants, the Earth and a sense of place.”

Esoterra Culinary Garden. Photo courtesy of Esoterra Culinary Garden

With their young daughter approaching school age, DeRespinis and his wife were already contemplating a move before settling Esoterra’s location. They decided to return to the Front Range, where DeRespinis had worked in several farming-adjacent roles earlier in his career; he says he was also excited about Denver’s booming dining scene and wanted to be part of it.

Chefs say DeRespinis’ produce is noticeably better than what they can order from other larger suppliers and distributors. His hand-harvested veggies—grown without any chemicals—arrive in their kitchens within hours of being picked, which means they’re vibrant, juicy, and full of life. Traveling such a short distance from field to plate also helps prevent spoilage and loss, which reduces food waste and helps restaurants save time and money.

A gardener holds a bunch of veggies.
Mark DeRespinis picking celtuce. Photo by Sarah Kuta

“His stuff is just really high-quality—it’s always delicious and in great shape,” says Tavernetta’s Cheetham. “I wouldn’t call anything [he sells] cheap, but you get what you pay for—that’s our motto here. We try to source the best products we can from all outlets and you just have to pay for that. We think it’s worth it.”

But can Denver diners tell the difference? Chefs certainly think so. And amid a growing—and increasingly competitive—food scene, they’re leaning on DeRespinis and his veggies to help them stand out.

“They’re willing to invest $300 a week in carrots because they know it’s really going to stand out on the plate and it’s going to be just delicious,” DeRespinis says. “Some restaurants have put sections on their menu that feature each one of our vegetables. They attach the appropriate premium prices to them and no one complains.… The dining scene really is changing. Everyone’s realizing that, as that level increases, the quality needs to increase with it. Because otherwise why would people come back?”

Sarah Kuta
Sarah Kuta
Sarah Kuta is Colorado-based writer and editor. She writes about travel, lifestyle, food and beverage, fitness, education and anything with a great story behind it.