By Teresa Farney
Updated: November 29, 2017 at 9:28 am • Published: November 29, 2017
Local chefs love the San Luis Valley for its potatoes - the second-largest U.S. potato-growing region with more than 70 varieties grown there.
Among those singing the valley's praises is self-proclaimed "Potato Emperor" Kevin Johnson. He owns the Potato Potato mobile food truck and has been serving a spud-centric menu for four years. He says he's plowed through roughly 6 tons of the root vegetable.
His passion, and the inspiration for his potato truck, is poutine - a French-Canadian dish of french fries and fresh cheese curds, covered with gravy. He discovered it in Detroit and learned it was "virtually impossible" to find here - and an idea was born.
At first, Johnson served only the classic form of the dish as well as pommes frites (French for french fries) with various sauces. But for poutine, why stop with one version? He came up with a smoked salmon poutine with capers and red onion on pommes frites and drizzled with dill sauce. His menu has other fried potato options, such as green chile fries topped with cheddar and sour cream; The Allen, with marinated steak, cheddar and sour cream over the crispy fries; and Greek fries, with feta, kalamata olives, bell pepper, red onion, pepperoncini and Greek vinaigrette.
For the poutine, he said, "We always use Russet Burbank potatoes from the San Luis Valley. Depending on other recipes, I also use Yukon gold, waxy reds and fingerlings. I love purple potatoes for mashed or smashed-style dishes. The color is so beautiful. I also slice them and flash-fry them."
Brother Luck, owner and executive chef of Four by Brother Luck restaurant, said he buys all of his potatoes from the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers, a farmer-owned cooperative in southern Colorado with potato farmers in the San Luis Valley.
"I especially like purple potatoes from there," said Luck. "The color is so beautiful, and the flavor is better because it is fresher from our local growers."
He likes the purple potatoes so much that he used them in a recipe for the upcoming season of Top Chef, a reality show on which he is a contestant.
"To keep the purple color vibrant, I soak them in salt water," he said. "It keeps the color from getting muddy-looking."
Other Colorado potatoes, such as fingerlings, also are used on several dishes on his menu.
What makes potatoes from the San Luis Valley so special?
Location, location, location. The valley is nestled between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains along the Rio Grande, which, it turns out, is the perfect place for growing exceptional potatoes. With 350 days of sunshine a year, potatoes from this valley are packed with important sun-drenched nutrients. At an elevation of 7,600 feet, the valley has mild temperatures in summer, which is ideal for potato farms, and the altitude naturally decreases the likelihood of disease and pests. The surrounding mountains provide an abundance of pure mountain water from the annual snowmelt.