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Marking time with /Shed Dinner Project

Midway between fall equinox and the winter solstice, Taos begins to slide out of the lap of autumn. The light has changed, but the snow has yet to fall. The golden leaves that regaled the trees now carpet streets, and turn wonderfully brown. And inside /Shed, it is exactly the same: leaves adorn the long wood table; ashy cups are stacked close on the shelf; a tray of pine branches burns in the shadows. It’s an atmosphere that has all the panache of dining out, with the comfort and enchantment of your mother’s kitchen.

/Shed is a two-month-old dinner collaboration between Leia Layus and Johnny Ortiz. And in this case the name really does have a lot to say about the concept. The word “shed” used as a verb has several meanings for the project as a new way of thinking about harvest, and what we use to make our food. And the forward slash indicates a new idea, something that is an offshoot of what has come before. The dinners are designed with attention to small batch cooking that uses local, freshly harvested ingredients. I say designed with attention, but what I should say is committed to these principles in every step of the meal.

As we sip a ginger and sagebrush gin, Leia invites us to peruse the books that she and Johnny read on their way to Taos while they brainstormed about /shed. In the back of the room Johnny, his sister Alyssa and friend Cody hover over a table of autumn harvest. The room is lit like a playhouse. The kitchen is immersed in shadow with just enough light to see fingers fluttering confidently at their work, and the dinner table is filled with the soft gleam of candle light on shining glass and lustrous ceramic.

What follows is a magnificent parade of eleven courses. Wild trout with mint; celery root with quince and osha; beet root with chokecherry malt and chèvre; wild elk with red beans; squash in piñon milk, raspberries and cactus fruit. Each dish not so much spiced, but rather seasoned with fresh herbs. Whole foods paired simply in a way that showcases their natural, individual flavor. Even the dishware is local magic; simple, organic forms made for the most part by Leia and Johnny, supported by local work from Logan Wannamaker, Carole Neilson, and Johnny’s brothers.

The meal has the beauty and wonderment of taking a very long stride. A stride from summer into autumn, from harvest onto table. We remember summer in cactus and raspberries, and we walk in the autumn with mushrooms, squash and trout. The small party of eight laughed more than once with delight at the sensation that we had stumbled upon each course. As if we had found it in nature, so alive and wild. It’s like a dream about being a deer. Or the way you imagined life would be when you told yourself as a child that you would go and live in the woods.

If someone had written a thirty page definition of terroir, it couldn’t have been a better education than the evening. The conversation reflected the meal, as we ranged over the topics of local food and water politics, farming methods, family and history. Even allowing some silence. The silence of new friends and old acquaintances: comfortable, curious and strange.  Jordan, who sat across from me at the dinner had helped to harvest some of the ingredients and had caught the trout. The things that couldn’t be gathered, wine, beer, bread and some vegetables, had come from friends, from the community. I learned in a way I had only previously known by rote that local food means community. Together, we took time to mark time, standing on the doorstep of autumn.

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Learn more and connect with Johnny and Leia at Shed-Project.com.

Photos Courtesy of Leia Layus & Hannah Westly