by Monica Parpal Stockbridge –
Many chefs and diners agree that Denver is experiencing something of a renaissance. More and more, our locally owned and operated restaurants are scooping up critical acclaim and national accolades. The scene is hot right now, and we all want a bite.
Of course, there are many humble hands behind the food we enjoy. While some of these chefs have earned household name recognition over the years, others are just starting to bring their presence to the table in Colorado.
For this story, we considered the chefs in Denver who are currently making the biggest impact on the culinary scene. The names that came to us first — Caroline, Dana, Carrie, Linda — all happened to belong to chefs who were female. We decided to make that the theme for this piece. And since we’re going to press during Women’s History Month, it just feels right.
It’s important to note, though, that these chefs are chefs first — not just women chefs, but trained, talented and tenacious professionals whose presence in the Colorado dining scene is not only qualified but compelling. These chefs are leading Colorado’s culinary evolution. In short, they’re the ones to watch.
Perhaps the best-known name in the context of Colorado cuisine is Jennifer Jasinski, proprietor of five restaurants, a James Beard Foundation award recipient and bearer of the well-deserved reputation as “the godmother” of Denver dining. Her first restaurant, Rioja, has been a pillar of Larimer Square since 2005, and the precursor to sister restaurants Bistro Vendôme, Euclid Hall, Stoic & Genuine and Ultreia. Her restaurants attract tourists and locals alike to Denver’s most iconic downtown destinations for high-quality Mediterranean food, French bistro fare, hearty poutine, impossibly fresh seafood and award-winning burgers.
As Jasinski built her career, aspiring young chefs also found their way into her kitchens. In addition to her own accolades, Jasinski finds immense reward in helping others achieve success. “I love teaching people and I love surrounding myself with smart people,” Jasinski says. “Smart people eventually move on, so this seems natural. I will feel honored to have helped people find and achieve their dream in the culinary world.”
Another chef whose achievements have been top of mind lately is Carrie Baird, executive chef and partner at Bar Dough, and much-adored contestant on “Top Chef” season 15. Working alongside her restaurant group partners — including celebrated Denver chef, Max Mackissock — Baird oversees a menu of elevated Italian eats, including wood-fired pizzas and creative fresh pasta plus a brunch menu that includes five different fan-favorite Fancy Toasts. At Bar Dough, Baird works closely with senior sous chef Stefy DeVita and pastry chef Natalia Spampinato — two up-and-comers whose names you’ll want to remember. Baird’s top-notch team, affable nature and, of course, Fancy Toast, have helped land Bar Dough among Denver’s best restaurants ever since it opened.
Baird, who was born in Idaho and once had hopes of becoming a professional skier, came to Colorado to chase the powder in Summit County. She lived in Breckenridge for 12 years before earning her degree at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Oregon. She returned to Colorado and eventually found herself working under Jasinski, whom she considers a mentor and a friend, and who inspired her to mentor others. “That’s what I want my legacy to be,” Baird says, “that I turned out some amazing chefs.”
Jasinski had a similar influence on Dana Rodriguez, executive chef and owner of restaurants Work & Class and Super Mega Bien. Also a James Beard Award winner, Rodriguez never anticipated a career as a chef. “I had been a butcher with my dad since I grew up on a farm,” she says. “I never thought I’d be cooking at all.” While visiting Denver in 1988, Rodriguez applied for a role at the Hotel Monaco. She didn’t speak English at the time, but she was hired at Panzano, where she later worked with Jasinski. “Jen pushed me to do everything,” Rodriguez says. “Prepping, pizza, banquets, pastry department, everything.” Rodriguez eventually left Panzano to join Jasinski as the chef de cuisine at Rioja.
Today, Rodriguez owns and operates Work & Class and Super Mega Bien with partners Tony Maciag and Tabatha Knop, where the most important thing is taking care of their employees. More restaurants may be in the works, she says, and we can bet they’ll be serving plenty of quality meals, stiff drinks and heartfelt hospitality.
These are all familiar terms for Elise Wiggins. “Hospitality comes naturally to me because I’m a southern gal,” she says, although she’s lived in Denver long enough to feel like family. And that’s just how she treats her guests at Cattivella, which opened in 2017 in Stapleton. The lively Italian restaurant personifies Wiggins’ 30 years of collective front- and back-of-house restaurant experience — including 12 years as executive chef at Panzano — with a genuinely warm welcome and commitment to making a lasting connection with guests.
Wiggins shares her deep love of cooking through handmade pasta, wood-fired pizzas and popular twice-monthly cooking classes. “I know how to break it down where it’s not intimidating,” she says, connecting with and nurturing new and repeat guests. “At the end of the class, these people are now part of my Cattivella family.”
Not far from Cattivella, another chef makes a point to connect with guests from her open kitchen vantage point. “I talk to most guests who dine with us, and I love that,” says founder and chef Caroline Glover of Annette, an intimate yet airy restaurant tucked within Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace. In just two and a half years, Annette has been named one of the “50 Best New Restaurants in the Country” by Bon Appetit Magazine and was a 2018 James Beard Foundation award finalist. At press time, Glover had just been nominated again for Best Chef: Southwest.
Annette’s menu, while featuring popular staples like octopus patatas bravas and roasted whole fish, is “always evolving, changing with the seasons, changing to reflect the produce that local farmers are giving us, or changing to make sure the kitchen and the bar are cross-utilizing ingredients,” Glover explains. This type of approach is especially important to Glover, who went from working as a sous chef in New York to working on farms around the country before opening Annette just outside Denver. “Farming has made me much more aware of what it took to grow the food we cook with,” she says. “and much more determined to honor that effort as best I can.”
This spring, Annette will serve ramp and radish toast, asparagus and burrata salad, and milk-braised pork cheeks, among other seasonal dishes. But save room, Glover says, for the chamomile pot de creme with spring strawberries.
Sheila Lucero, the executive chef of Jax Fish House, harbors a similar dedication to food sourcing — only her supply comes from the ocean.
During her 21 years with Big Red F restaurant group, Lucero has been instrumental in designating Jax Fish House as the first restaurant in Colorado to be certified by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch — the authority on respecting and maintaining sustainable fisheries. “It’s a lot of work to do that homework,” Lucero says, “But we’ve always been doing it, and it feels good to be aligned with them in our sustainability goals.”
Lucero graduated from the Art Institute of Colorado and started her career as a line cook while still in school. Today, she oversees four Jax Fish Houses in Colorado and one in Kansas City, as well as Denver’s longstanding Lola Coastal Mexican. “I try to lead by example,” she says. “I feel so fortunate that I’m doing what I love. All the crazy shifts and long hours glide by because I love what I’m doing.” This fall, another Jax will splash into Denver International Airport. And as you order your fresh oysters and hamachi crudo, you’ll be doing your part to contribute to oceanic sustainability.
Another chef on our list, Linda Hampsten Fox, is so devoted to sustainable living that she lists her water-efficient dishwasher on the back of her menu at The Bindery. “It became a high priority for me to go into the space with eyes on sustainability,” she says. From the energy-efficient radiant floor heating system to the Moroccan tadilakt wall tiles, to the wall insulation made from recycled denim jeans, Hampsten Fox is walking the walk. She’s even planning to start a pilot composting program which she hopes will eventually reach other Denver restaurants.
Hampsten Fox first visited Colorado at age 16 while on a road trip from her family home in New Jersey, and immediately felt at home in Colorado. Following deep interests in art and food, she spent years learning and teaching cooking in Europe and Mexico before coming back to Colorado, knowing it would be where she opened her first restaurant as soon as the time was right.
The timing, as it turned out, was perfect. The Bindery has earned readers’ choice awards for restaurant of the year in Eater and 5280 magazine. The enormous space and open kitchen grant guests a chance to witness her spellbinding craft in motion at just about any time of day. Guests swoon over her handmade pastries and breakfast menu each morning, seasonal and thoughtfully prepared shared plates at happy hour, and exquisite dinners worth lingering over. “We’re doing everything from scratch,” she says. “We’re making everything the way that I learned and love from my family, to my time abroad, to the places I’ve traveled.
Like Hampsten Fox, Kelly Jeun lived and worked in Italy until just recently when she and her partner Eduardo Valle Lobo were hired to run the kitchen as co-executive chefs at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder. Consistently ranked among Colorado’s finest restaurants, Frasca is one of the country’s best expressions of Northern Italian food — specifically that of a region known as Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
Jeun dreamed of cooking professionally ever since watching Lidia Bastianich on PBS. “She has such natural ease when cooking, and she always showcased simplicity and authenticity about Italian food,” Jeun recalls. Her dream came true when she had the opportunity to work as a culinary assistant on Bastianich’s Emmy-award winning cooking program, and again when she was invited to open Bastianich’s restaurant, Orsone, in Cividale del Friuli.
“Colorado is similar in some aspects to Friuli,” she says. “There are some great restaurants in the area, and we have certainly met a lot of transplants from big cities, so I believe the appetite and appreciation for great food is out there.” Truly, chefs like Jeun are raising the standard in Colorado.
Frasca has cultivated several noteworthy chefs over the years. Among them, Kodi Simkins, Frasca’s former chef de cuisine. But her kitchen skills took hold at a young age. “I come from a family with great cooks,” she says. “Our family gathers as much as possible and we always use food as the centerpiece.”
Simkins attended culinary school and started her career at Fruition, where she worked her way up to a sous chef within three years. She credits Alex Seidel, Matt Vater and Franco Ruiz for “teaching [her] how to cook, push, love, learn and succeed.” She later earned her role at Frasca Food and Wine. “My years at Frasca helped me fine tune everything,” she says.
Today, Simkins is part of the culinary team at The Wolf ’s Tailor, a 50-seat restaurant pushing boundaries of food and flavor. Simkins suggests ordering a few items from each section — or better yet, putting your fate in her hands with the “Entrust” chefs tasting experience, which curates the best expression of that day’s Italian- and Asian-influenced menu. “Restaurants get categorized but it’s hard for us to be grouped with others,” Simkins says. “I would rather make great food that I enjoy than to fit in a specific category.”
Indeed, ambitious chefs like Simkins are hard to put in a box — not unlike pastry chef Liliana Myers, who sees her work as a combination of art and science. “We used to call it the Da Vinci effect in college,” she says. “A harmony of both science and art.”
Myers’ experience cooking in Michelin-starred restaurants in France and New York taught her resilience and empathy in the kitchen, as well as how to trust herself. “It was such a great experience to know that the only limits to what you can do are in your mind.”
Now at Safta (by James Beard award-winner Alon Shaya), Myers is excited to explore her own cultural heritage through Israeli recipes. For her, this involves less French butter and more olive, “which is a bit cleaner on the palate as well as more locally sustainable,” she explains. “Israel is such a diverse melting pot culture and at six months [at Safta] I think I am only beginning to scratch the surface.”
When you visit Safta — no doubt for the famous hummus and pita — be sure to try the malabi, an Israeli milk pudding which Myers will make with local rhubarb and orchid root this spring. She’s also working on a version of krembo — an Israeli cookie with marshmallow topping, and her favorite childhood treat — which will feature the flavors of pistachio, rose and Meyer lemon.
According to Carrie Baird, Jasinski once told her that when it comes to being a chef, “food is the easy part.” The rest — the long hours, the razor-thin margins, the challenge to build menus that will delight guests again and again — is what makes the industry so utterly demanding. But if we know anything about these chefs, they’re up for it. They’re made for it. Because wrapped tightly within that life is incredible growth, profound reward.
And as for us? You can bet that we’ll keep coming back for more.