Confronting the vegetarian’s dilemma at Boulder’s Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant

Chef Shane Jackson on running a vegetarian kitchen in Boulder

By Paul Hagey Nov 6 2020

Boulder’s Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant came from an inspiration to eat and serve seasonal foods and to dispel ideas of vegetarian food as boring and tasteless.

That can be a tall task. But Sara Martinelli, who founded and runs Leaf under the Three Leaf Concepts restaurant group with her husband Lenny Martinelli, says that was the founding idea for the restaurant that opened in 2006.

It’s one of three vegetarian restaurants — along with Thrive and Native Foods — Boulder offers, and one of five local restaurants Sara and Lenny own or operate under their group; they also own the 10-acre Three Leaf Farm in Lafayette.

Along with Leaf, the farm also feeds the couple’s four other restaurants: Chautauqua Dining Hall, Louisville’s The Huckleberry and Zucca Italian Ristorante and Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, which the city chose Lenny and Sara to run in 1998 when Boulder’s sister city Dusahnbe, Tajikistan, gifted Boulder the tea house.

The Martinelli’s vision for Leaf, which moved to East Pearl at 1710 Pearl Street from a nearby side street, focused on highlighting plant-based flavors rather than meat, Sara tells BLDRfly. (The restaurant also goes through close to 50 pounds of kale a week.)

Lenny and Sara Martinelli. Image: Three Leaf Farm.

Sara acknowledges the challenges that come with operating a vegetarian-exclusive restaurant.

“It definitely narrows your target market dramatically,” she says. “One of the things about the Boulder community is the focus on health and healthy eating, and I don’t think you have to be vegetarian to do that.”

Boulder has made lists of the top 10 cities for vegetarians to live, and while lots of Boulder restaurants offer vegetarian items, many offer a wide variety of meat dishes. While carrying a granola vibe and legacy, Boulder does not have any laid-back, hippie vegetarian restaurants.

Several spots, like national fast-casual chain Flower Child, Fresh Thymes Eatery, Next Door, Jill’s Restaurant and Shine Restaurant and Potion Bar, have frequently made local lists and reviews of Boulder’s vegetarian staples, even though they also serve meat. Out of Boulder’s over-350 restaurants and cafes, only Thrive, with its all-raw menu, and Native Foods, and Leaf have fully vegetarian menus.

Cooking the veggies

Shane Jackson

“I was kind of prejudiced against Boulder before I started working down here,” said Shane Jackson, executive chef at Leaf. “Not living here, you definitely get the granola town vibe.”

“But now I love it,” says Shane, who lives a little under an hour away in Estes Park, commutes daily to Leaf, where he runs the vegetarian restaurant as its executive chef.

When Shane joined the cast of Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant in January 2019, first as a sous chef for six months, an all-vegetarian restaurant sounded like a good challenge.

Leaf features a lot of plants. Images: Tatyana Sharpton.

Shane grew up in the hippie heaven of Humboldt County deep in Northern California, which turned him off. His West Coast restaurant background also covered intense, old-school style fast kitchens and later in Estes Park revolved largely around catering, weddings, and lots of mountain elk and bison meat.

Dishes not centered around a meat require different kind of commitment and creativity to develop flavors. “‘Oh vegetables,’ I remember thinking,” laughs Shane, “‘I don’t have to worry about meat and stuff;’ but it’s a totally different animal — there’s no down time.”

Shane creates a menu with a variety of flavors, such as Jamaican Jerk Tempeh, Korean Veggie BBQ, Jackfruit Enchilada and most recently its Bibimbap — Korean for “mixed together:” rice with kimchi, spinach, carrots, cucumbers, mung bean sprouts, grilled tofu and a fried egg on top. Leaf also makes its vegan sausage in-house from scratch.

Another highlight is the restaurant’s Orange Cauliflower, made with battered cauliflower tossed in an orange glaze, fried brown rice and roasted broccoli.

Leaf’s new Roasted Butternut Squash Salad, blackberry ginger beer and pumpkin alfredo. Images: Leaf.

Leaf uses meat-like proteins such as tofu, tempeh and seitan, while also focusing on vegetable-only dishes — such as beet steak (one of Sara’s favorites), which involves roasting a full beet, searing up slices and serving with wasabi cream.

Additional reporting by Tatyana Sharpton

Paul Hagey

Paul Hagey is BLDRfly’s founder and editor. When not wrangling video, audio and words in the name of story, he’s riding his mountain bike, trail running and hanging with his awesome wife Jen and their young daughter.