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On a late-summer afternoon in 2011, my husband, Dave, and I pulled into beautiful Boulder, Utah (pop. 180), near the end of a three-week road trip around the West. After a lot of roadside burgers and campfire fare, we eagerly anticipated dinner at Hell’s Backbone Grill, a rural farm-to-table restaurant beloved by off-the-beaten-track eaters, thanks to glowing reviews in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and others. While the meal was indeed memorable and the setting charming—sunlight slanting into the chic-rustic dining room adorned with dried corncobs and garlic garlands—my favorite part of the evening was sharing conversation and a bottle of wine with chef-owners Jen Castle and Blake Spalding.
After working “extreme” catering gigs for river-rafting groups, the two women put down roots in Boulder to start a restaurant—and to make a difference. “Boulder chose us,” said Jen. “We wanted to be part of the local movement with something more than just a window box of herbs.” The now iconic status of Hell’s Backbone Grill sprung from its authenticity; Jen and Blake source all their fruits, vegetables, herbs, and eggs from Blaker’s Acres, a six-acre “no-harm” organic farm three miles down the road. “Our value system from the beginning has been to use local and organic …” said Jen “… plus it’s just the right thing to do,” added Blake. (Completing each other’s sentences is a conversational hallmark.) The women also manage an 11-room affordable-housing unit for their staff, operate an on-site and online retail business, and “are supposed to be doing another book,” they sigh. (They published their first cookbook, With a Measure of Grace, in 2004.)
Tenacity and having “brains that love puzzles” keep them engaged and enthused. “There’s not a day that goes by that’s not a surprise, or that we say, ‘that was easy!’” laughed Jen. “But,” finished Blake, “we’re still into it and we still love it, 13 seasons later.” And they gratefully embrace the widespread accolades for their low-key role in changing the definition of “good” food. As Blake put it, “It’s been wonderful to be able to be witness to the [food] movement catching fire—not just organic, but place-based, too.”