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20 Iconic Chefs in Denver & Boulder (in no particular order)

A profile of the people and places that have truly shaped the landscape of our Mile High dining mecca

Want to check out the full 40? Pick up the latest issue of DiningOut Denver/Boulder at your local Barnes & Nobles and Tattered Cover.  Read Winter 2017 issue here!

Potager

Teri Ripetto {potagerrestaurant.com}

It’s difficult to name a local culinary figure whose sense of purpose is more profound than Teri Ripetto—a chef, forager, gardener, and remarkably talented artist who, since 1997, has presided over the kitchen at Potager, still one of the loveliest restaurants in Denver. An early pioneer of the city’s farm-to-table movement, Ripetto is a vegetable whisperer so intensely in tune with season-driven, seed-to-stalk produce that, whether roasted, pickled, braised, fried, or left raw, every vegetable that her hands touch tastes heavenly. Her cooking is, above all else, honest and pure—celebrating flavors honed by the small-scale farmers, ranchers, fishermen, cheesemongers, and purveyors from whom she sources her ingredients. Her cooking is punctuated with simplicity—there are never too many competing tastes on the plate, and she largely ignores trends, embellishments, and fads. Here, against a farmhouse backdrop that personifies her cooking style, every ingredient retains its integrity. A lot of restaurants are smoke and mirrors, glitz and glamour; Potager, where dinner around the table is all about nourishment and human interaction, is not that kind of restaurant.

Dave Query of Big Red F Restaurants {bigredf.com}

Dave Query is something of a legend in Boulder. A native of the People’s Republic, Query got his first job in the kitchen at age 14, churning out hot dogs and sausages at Mustard’s Last Stand on Broadway. This auspicious beginning let to a whirlwind career—pivoting first to The Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, then on to kitchen stints in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, Miami, France, and other international food meccas. But he came back to Boulder in 1988—the goal was always to move back home and open his own restaurant, he says—and soon began working on a business plan for five restaurant concepts that would become Big Red F. The first restaurant on the list was ZOLO, opened in 1994 to noted acclaim, followed soon after by Jax on Pearl Street. Jump ahead to 2017, and Dave Query is 23 years in with 11 restaurant locations across the Front Range and a veritable army of chefs, managers, and support staff behind him. And while the Colorado community has been good to him, he’s been committed to returning the favor since day one: “I still think of things as a chef. People may experience a lot of things when they go out to eat, but the main reason they do it is because they’re hungry. So, food has to be the focus, and I always want to deliver the best.”

Sara and Lenny Martinelli {threeleafconcepts.com}

Lenny Martinelli’s restaurant career started at 15, when the Boulder native got a job washing dishes at the Pearl Street Deli. Later, while completing his master’s degree in architecture, an opportunity arose for him to helm the café at the Naropa Institute, and Martinelli ran it for 23 years. This segued into Three Leaf Concepts, a Boulder-based restaurant group which he now runs with his wife, Sara. It’s a success, he says, because “we both have a creative outlet, can wear more than one hat, and we’ve never looked for opportunities—they’ve come to us.” And boy, have they—the duo are behind Boulder and Louisville’s legendary Dushanbe Teahouse, Chautauqua Dining Hall, Aji Latin American Restaurant, Zucca, and Huckleberry. The couple shares a passion for ethnic cuisines, a common thread among all five concepts—along with local, seasonal ingredients. Much of the produce used at the restaurants comes from the couple’s nearly four-acre farm, where they also raise chickens and horses. But this kind of success and growth comes with responsibility. To wit, Three Leaf restaurants have all but eliminated food waste by either composting scraps or using them as chicken feed. And it doesn’t look like Sara and Lenny plan on slowing down anytime soon. Says Martinelli, “Cheffing has been a creative outlet for the last 25 years; we’ll see what happens in the next 25.”

Daniel Asher of River & Woods {riverandwoodsboulder.com}

It’s little surprise that Daniel Asher of Boulder’s River & Woods became a chef. “I would always hang with my mom in the kitchen after school,” he recalls. “She had a from-scratch mentality, so we made everything. And it was because of those days, with the kitchen as the center of my universe, that I became so comfortable with knives and stoves and pans—not to mention ingredients fresh from our garden.” Inevitably, this passion led to his first job in a commercial kitchen. He cooked all through college, and while he always thought of restaurant gigs as a way to make ends meet, it eventually dawned on him that cooking could be its own profession. We know, and love, the chapter that follows. After moving to Colorado for a “slower life,” Asher connected with Justin Cucci, where he sailed into a gig as chef at root down in the Denver Highlands. That relationship blossomed into oversight of multiple Cucci/Asher concepts—Ophelia’s, Linger, Vital Root, more root downs. Despite the success, Asher realized he wanted to pull back. Happenstance and fortune led him to Boulder, where he partnered with DiningOut’s Josh Dinar on a labor of love: River & Woods. “It was a homecoming for me,” Asher explains. “I missed cooking, and I wanted the beautiful chaos of owning my own restaurant.” The veteran chef has finally come full circle, returning to the kitchen he knows so well to cook for the Boulder community he loves so dearly.

[River & Woods Brunch Offers (Elevated) Classic Comforts]

Justin cucci

Justin Cucci

Justin Cucci {ediblebeats.com}

Some chefs are born a mile high, eating their way through our culinary scene’s development until they offer their own contributions. But when Florida-native Chef Justin Cucci first landed in Denver in 2007, ours was a new frontier. While Cucci was an undeniable vet—running two successful concepts in Florida before moving to Colorado—his first venture in Denver was a gamble: the converted gas station at 33rd and Osage. That station would morph into the now-esteemed root down, an eccentric mix of reclaimed materials, a veggie-focused menu, and, well, just a lot of Cucci’s personality. “I wanted to celebrate the beauty of food,” Cucci explains. “No rules, no boxes—just what fit.” Since root down, several others concepts have landed in the maven’s lap—including the morbidly magnificent Linger, sultry Ophelia’s, and vegan-sung Vital Root. “I wasn’t ready for any of them,” Cucci admits. “But as the opportunities came, I realized I was building a movement—something that connected to me, and that connected to guests. It was like finding a favorite band, one that calls on shared stories for inspiration and delivers an experience that’s about human culture—not just a specific cuisine.” As he grows his mini-empire, Cucci says he’s focusing on what the brand means in Denver. “We have a presence now,” he says. “We’re part of a bigger ecosystem that should always be people-first. I want to make sure we are held accountable, that we always walk the walk.”

[El Five Soars in LoHi]

troy guard

Troy Guard

Troy Guard {tag-restaurant.com}

Many a Colorado writer has penned the history of Denver dining, and while the ebb and flow of trends always color the final rendering, there is a constant: chef Troy Guard. The Mile High City first met Guard in 2003 when the Hawaiian-raised chef collaborated with Richard Sandoval on Zengo, a fusion concept that recently reopened to pomp and praise at the edge of downtown. With tutelage from celebrated maestro Roy Yamaguchi, the up-and-coming Guard was eager to contribute a unique blend of Pacific flavors and Latin flare to the menu. And he did so with panache, delivering inventive creations that blurred the line between two seemingly divergent cuisines. But Guard also wanted something uniquely his own. In 2009—after courting more than 100 different investors and brokers—he launched the now iconic TAG restaurant in Larimer Square. And while Guard has conceived countless other Denver-area concepts—TAG Raw Bar, Los Chingones, Guard & Grace, Mister Tuna, Lucky Cat, bubu, Sugarmill, and TAG Burger Bar—Larimer’s TAG Continental Social Food remains the cornerstone of his burgeoning empire. Perhaps the primary reason for the restaurant’s longevity is its intimate connection with Guard’s own personality—a culinary reflection of a life journey that wound from San Diego, to New York, to Hawaii, to Denver. That journey is one ruled by a Latin and an Asian bias, a decidedly unformulaic merger of classics like Short Ribs and Phô. What lines the menu at TAG is entirely Guard, leaning on local ingredients and celebrating global flavor. Hong Kong Steamed Sea Bass with piquant ginger and chile-soy vinaigrette? Of course. Taco sushi with ahi and guacamole? Why not. Nothing is beyond the scope of Troy’s imagination here. It’s little wonder, then, that the culinary polestar has received commendation from countless area publications. In 2012, TAG was named one of the Top 25 Restaurants in Denver by 5280, followed only four years later by a nod from Zagat as one of the Denver’s Top 50 Restaurants. Guard himself has been praised continuously, earning nods as one of the 2013 Best Chefs America, and Outstanding Professional in the same year from the Colorado Restaurant Association. Indeed, the praise for Guard and his growing culinary creations is prolific. Westword has called his cuisine “nothing short of miraculous,” while 5280 applauds his restaurants’ polish year in and year out. The Denver Post chronicles the chef’s continued success, and Zagat lauds Guard’s unfading magic. One of the most notable accolades for Guard himself was being named the 2016 Mort Harris Small Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Council of America (SBCA). While an evening at any of Guard’s concepts—numbering nine and counting—is something memorable, it’s worth revisiting the original. Tucked happily in bustling Larimer Square, TAG continues to astound with both an aesthetic and a flavor that so richly and authentically reflects the personality of Guard himself. Whatever the chef’s future success, we will always be proud he chose Denver to begin his delicious journey—and celebrate with regular indulgences at his flagship concept.

Bradford Heap

Bradford Heap

Bradford Heap {colterra.com, saltthebistro.com, wildstandard.com}

We could wax eloquent about this esteemed Boulder chef for days, but decided it would be better to let him share his own passions—reminding us why he’s one of our beloved culinary greats: “Since opening Colterra in 2006, my basic principles have and always will remain the same. After spending much of my early career working for European legends, I gained a respect for local, sustainable, humanely raised food. Sourcing with this mentality is an absolute priority at SALT, Colterra, and Wild Standard. I use the naturally beautiful flavors in these items, along with classic cooking techniques, to prepare dishes that highlight the true essence of these ingredients. Health is also of utmost importance to me as I strive to create dishes for my guests that I would be proud to serve my family. And my goals have not changed over the years. Instead, they have grown to include educating and uplifting my staff and the significant people in my life. Most recently, I’ve opened myself up to new ideas and cooking techniques at Wild Standard. Encouraging Chef Baril to take the proverbial wheel has led to some of the best dishes on the restaurant’s menu. And it all comes back to my ethos; by striving to be increasingly conscious about everything I do, use, buy, and eat, I hope to improve the world in my own way—embracing the possibilities of food and health each day.”

[Wild Standard: Where Sustainability is King]

Steven Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton {oakatfourteenth.com; denveracorn.com; denverbrider.com}

Steven Redzikowski would rather be cooking from the collaborative confines of his open kitchen than bask in the bright lights of celebrity status, but make no mistake: The executive chef of Acorn, one of two restaurants that anchor The Source, is a household name in food-obsessed circles. His creations, masterpieces of harmonious flavors, textures, and season-intensive ingredients, have earned the chef numerous endowments, including two James Beard Foundation Best Chef: Southwest nominations and a coveted spot in Food & Wine magazine’s “People’s Best New Chef” competition. In 2014, Bon Appétit magazine named Acorn one of its 50 Best New Restaurants in America. But while Redzikowski’s remarkable abilities in the kitchen (no one understands the superiority of acid more than he) have largely contributed to the triumph of Acorn, the restaurant wouldn’t have come to fruition without the determination of Bryan Dayton, Redzikowski’s business partner and lord of all things liquid. Together, the dynamic duo—who are also behind Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder and the LoHi-based Brider—have created a trio of fantastic restaurants, each with their own personality, that has furthered the progress of Colorado’s race to national culinary recognition. And as of this printing, Dayton has also committed to a prominent rooftop space on West Pearl in Boulder for yet another concept—more culinary mastery to look forward to in 2017.

Coperta

Coperta’s housemade mozzarella | Photo by Morgan Carter

Paul C. Reilly and Aileen Reilly {beastandbottle.com; coperta.com}

When siblings Chef Paul and Aileen Reilly opened beast + bottle in Uptown, the restaurant immediately rocketed to the top of every “best of” list in the city. Three years later, the duo launched Coperta, an Italian restaurant with rustic appeal, inspired by the regions south of Rome—Campagnia, Abruzzo, and Calabria. Reilly’s menus come from dishes sampled on many an Italian road trip—essentially, self-guided food tours. Recently, he spent time in Rome sampling versions of classic Roman dishes like Cacio e Pepe and Carbonara to see whether there was any variation in the flavor profile depending on the chef (there wasn’t, really; there really are standards) before heading to the trattorias in the countryside to explore Italy’s seasonality. Reilly noted that “Italian cooking has a practiced and distinct simplicity” based on common sense (like eating heavier dishes such as homemade pasta in the winter months because it sticks with you longer). Mostly though, the trip brought the genuine warmth of the Italian people to Reilly’s attention—everywhere he went, he noted how comfortable and welcome people made him feel. While that level of hospitality is a trend in America’s restaurant industry, it’s a way of life in Italy—something that Reilly says has a connection to the restaurant’s name. Coperta means “blanket” in Italian, which was the idea behind the concept—a place where simple, authentic Italian food and genuine approachability envelop you in a warm, comforting embrace.

[Coperta Launches in Uptown]

Hosea Rosenberg {blackbelly.com}

Another culinary trailblazer, Hosea Rosenberg is beloved not only for his food, but for his passion. In his own words, he describes the arc of success and its demands: “2016 was a big year for us—we celebrated Blackbelly’s two-year anniversary in November, and in April, we opened our dedicated Blackbelly Butcher shop next door, which I am extremely proud of. Each member of our exceptional team has been key to making the whole operation work. I was proud that we advanced in the annual rankings of 5280 magazine’s Best Restaurants from number 24 in our first year open to number 15 in 2016. But what I’ve been most excited about presenting to our guests is a unique proposition. We hold ourselves to a standard that is kind of extreme. We work directly with small, local ranches to bring in the animals we serve; whole lamb, pig, cows, and goat are broken down by our butchers, and are sold in their entirety across all outlets—at the butcher shop, on our restaurant menus, for catering, and for specialty orders. We work just as closely with local farms gathering only the freshest, seasonal produce. This requires us to change what we’re serving regularly based on what’s available. It is costly, and the work is intense, but we are accomplishing our mission: to serve our guests good, honest, natural food every day.”

toshi and yasu

Toshi and Yasu Kizaki {izakayaden.net; ototoden.com; sushiden.com}

In the late 1970s, Toshi Kizaki was working as a master sushi chef in Los Angeles. He had initially planned to return to Japan, but not before an opportunity arose as a sous chef position in Denver. After becoming acquainted with the area and noting only three sushi restaurants in rotation, Toshi quickly made moves to open shop. Yasu Kizaki, who at the time was working as a sous chef in London, was convinced to move to the states by his father. “My father told me, via air mail, that I had to move,” Yasu recalls. “Being the oldest one in the family, I am responsible for taking care of the others.” Yasu moved to Denver in 1985 and the two opened Sushi Den, coinciding with the sushi wave bubbling just under the surface. Thirty-one years later, Sushi Den flourishes as a beacon of authentic Japanese fare in our landlocked city. Not only does the restaurant’s success frame the vision of Toshi and Yasu, but also of their youngest brother, Koichi. He, too, was recruited to support the family business, daily picking fresh seafood at famed Nagahama Fish Market and flying it Denver-ward. After three decades of this incredible sushi formula—and three world-class restaurants, including Sushi Den, Izakaya Den, and OTOTO—the Kizaki brothers have been celebrated as true pioneers of the Denver sushi scene.

[Date Night: Sushi Den]

jennifer jasinski

Jennifer Jasinski

Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch {craftedconceptsdenver.com}

Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch are truly the faces of Denver’s bustling dining scene. The pair initially met in the early 2000s at Panzano; Gruitch worked as a general manager and Jasinski as executive chef. After four years together building the success of Panzano, the duo decided to go into the biz together, opening the Mediterranean-inspired Rioja in Larimer Square. They’ve since dominated the Square—and beyond—with a slew of culinary hits, ranging from French-inspired Bistro Vendôme to eclectic sausage and cocktail bar Euclid Hall. With the revitalization of Union Station, the pair broke ground on new territory at seafood-centric Stoic & Genuine. And with an even bigger itch for expansion, Jen and Beth are set to open their newest concept, Ultreia, in early 2017. Inspired by a trip to Spain and Portugal the pair took over a decade ago, Ultreia emulates the feel of a tapas bar, boasting a full selection of wines, sherries, and an extensive program dedicated to gin and tonics. With four-going-on-five restaurants, how do they handle it all? Gruitch credits their amazing staff: “We are not superwomen. We have an amazing staff that helps us balance it all.” Jasinski, meanwhile, keeps it simple: “I drink a lot of rosé wine.” How can you not love these two?

Elise Wiggins

Elise Wiggins

Elise Wiggins {cattivelladenver.com}

Following a 12-year stretch as executive chef of Panzano (now helmed by Patrick Kelly), Elise Wiggins, Denver’s self-described “Naughty Chef,” departed that kitchen in the spring of last year to focus on opening Cattivella, her first chef-owned restaurant. The sassy Louisiana native, whose personality is as vibrant as her big, bold culinary style, was inspired by the late Julia Child who, says Wiggins, “took the stuffiness out of cooking.” During her rewarding tenure at Panzano, Wiggins, whose rather marvelous pasta-making capabilities seem to channel a higher power, catapulted the downtown restaurant to far-reaching prominence, clinching award after award for everything from her elevated happy hour menu to her prized Brussels sprouts to her godly pasta carbonara. Wiggins’s new restaurant, a temple to wood-fired Italian cuisine—the name of which, coincidentally, translates to “naughty girl” in Italian—is scheduled to open in Stapleton’s Eastbridge Town Center project in April 2017. And while the restaurant is a bit of a trek for city slickers accustomed to downtown boundaries, Wiggins, who lives in Stapleton, exudes palpable enthusiasm. “I can’t believe I’m opening my own restaurant in my own neighborhood, just a few blocks from my house,” she says. “This project is a dream come true for this naughty chef.”

[Served The Podcast: Elise Wiggins]

Max Mackissock

Max Mackissock

Juan Padro and Max Mackissock {bardoughdenver.com; highlandtapdenver.com; sloanstapandburger.com}

It’s rather hard to catch up with Juan Padro these days. But with three restaurants on hand and one waiting in the wings, who can blame him? Padro first started his foray into the dining scene in 2010, initially as an investor for Highland Tap & Burger. He personally knew the team behind it—Brad Beale (who has since left the group), Kris Slocumb, and Kevin Eddy—so it made sense that he and his wife, Katie O’Shea Padro, would invest. But dollars turned to a passion, and he soon became entwined with the concept. Even though Highland Tap & Burger could’ve easily flown under the radar, the restaurant has truly become a part of the community. “We invest heavily in our neighborhood schools and participate in as many events as possible,” Padro explains. “I think people in the neighborhood understood that we were not out to just turn a profit—that we set out to be responsible business owners and listen to our neighborhood.” With the success of Highland Tap & Burger, Padro soon decided to move on to new ventures with the intention of “investing in people and making a difference in their lives.” Just ask Chef Max Mackissock. One of Denver’s best, Mackissock gained notoriety working as executive chef at Squeaky Bean. Shortly after his departure in 2013—and work on a concept that never came to fruition—Padro and Mackissock bumped into each other at a dinner at Old Major. “As the dinner was winding down, I told him about [my restaurant] deal falling through,” Mackissock explains, “and half-jokingly said, ‘You should open me a restaurant.’ We did a quick cheers then I went back to wrap up in the kitchen. About 20 minutes later he saw me again and asked me if I was serious. I told him I was and the rest is history.” Out of this fortuitous union came the elevated yet approachable Italian eatery, Bar Dough, mere steps away from Padro’s flagship restaurant. Since then, it seems as though Padro shows no sign of slowing down. Just this past year, he expanded Highland Tap & Burger to a new outpost near Sloan’s Lake, and most recently, unveiled a new Latin-American themed concept, Señor Bear, set to launch in 2017. With a focus on crafting ingredients in-house and sourcing the best from local farms, the new restaurant will have an emphasis on tacos, ceviche, and an extensive crudo program. Even with a growing empire at his feet, Padro is always the first to attribute his successes to his amazing team. “I’m most proud of my partners in all of our businesses,” he proudly states. “I’m interested in seeing who the next surprises are in our group—the talents who will step up and get into leadership positions so we can grow.”

[Served The Podcast: Blake Edmunds of Bar Dough, Highland Tap, and Señor Bear]

Frank Bonanno

Frank Bonanno

Frank Bonanno {bonannoconcepts.com}

As with so many of Denver’s greats, Frank Bonnano is best characterized in his own words: “There are moments when you step outside of yourself, your life, moments when you truly get the sense of being part of something bigger—part of this place, this instance. For me, these moments seem to explode in the quiet spaces of winter. I found these moments first during the initial year at Mizuna, looking up at the window steamy from drinks and conversation and holiday lights. At Osteria Marco, it was a 7am serenade. We never expected to be so busy—every day and night I was flipping pizzas, covered in flour, but in the mornings, before the block woke up, I’d be touching up paint on the railings. At Green Russell, it happened when the concept was still under construction—at 5am, the Square so empty as to be eerie, and the snow gently forming dripping stalactites on hand-hewn brick overhead. It was stunning—and still is. Denver has changed enormously since Mizuna opened, but I imagine Steve Redzikowski in RiNo and Johnny Beurre Blanc out in Park Hill and Mary Nguyen in Uptown and Tommy Lee in the Highlands and Sean Kelly in LoHi—well, all of us, I imagine—have these moments of just being proud of what we do, proud of our businesses and our neighborhoods, moments we frame as mental postcards. We’re just proud to be in the thick of Denver’s history.”

Vesta

Sweet Potato Beignets | Photo by Morgan Carter

Josh Wolkon {aceeatserve.com; steubens.com; vestadenver.com}

Josh Wolkon has a knack for timing. Nearly 20 years ago, he first came onto the dining scene with his flagship restaurant Vesta (which dropped the infamous “Dipping Grill” this past year), in the then-unsightly and unrecognizable LoDo district. Standing strong nearly two decades later, it’s clear that not only does Vesta have staying power, but the establishment set the standard of fine dining in the district, causing a tidal wave of restaurants to follow. His next ventures introduced comfort food classics with Steuben’s, and Asian-inspired dishes alongside rousing games of ping-pong at Ace in a once dwindling Uptown district. Although these two had a hand in revitalizing the famed strip, Wolkon humbly chalks the success up to timing. “A lot of these areas went through years of neglect,” Wolkon explains. “I don’t want to take credit. I had perfect timing being a part of revitalizing the neighborhood, and took a risk to do something different.” In fact, looking back, Wolkon even courted his wife and business partner, Jen, just when the timing was perfect, when two worked side by side in Vesta years ago. It seems time—and culinary ingenuity—has always been on his side.

[Executive Chef Nicholas Kayser Debuts New Menu at Vesta]

Chef Lon Symensma

Chef Lon Symensma

Lon Symensma {cholon.com; cho77.com}

In 2010, following a lucrative cooking career in New York City, Iowa native Lon Symensma arrived in Denver. His mission? Open ChoLon, a restaurant that symbolized the foods he’d experienced during his numerous eating expeditions throughout Southeast Asia and China. By his own admission, it took some time for ChoLon to resonate with Denver diners, but Symensma, idolized for his signature soup dumplings, poetic plate artistry, and fearless flavor combinations, persevered, eventually making ChoLon one of the most sought-after reservations in the city. Along with ChoLon, Symensma owns Cho77, a captivating lyric to the street foods of Southeast Asia. His latest venture, Concourse, is now open in the Eastbridge Town Center Stapleton development and he plans to open a casual Asian concept in Avanti later this summer. As for additional future projects, Symensma’s head is spinning with concepts: “I want to do a Mediterranean restaurant that follows the same idea as ChoLon, but instead of Southeast Asia, I want this to represent Spain, Italy, France, Greece, and Northern Africa. I’ve also got a Latin concept in the works that focuses on Central and South American cooking, and I’m planning on doing an elevated Middle Eastern concept.”

[Concourse Takes Off in Stapleton]

Dana Rodriguez

Photo Credit: Work & Class

Dana Rodriguez {workandclassdenver.com}

Her mentor—Jennifer Jasinski—may be Denver’s heaviest hitter in the kitchen, but Dana Rodriguez, who hails from Chihuahua, Mexico and began her cooking pilgrimage in Denver under the tutelage of Chef Ben Davis, has written a success story for the ages. Her move to the Mile High City began in the dish-pit of Panzano, a stint that quickly morphed into a pastry chef position, which made sense, considering that Rodriguez—now the chef and co-owner of Work & Class and consulting co-chef of Que Bueno Suerte!—delved into the world of pastry when she lived in Mexico. When Davis exited Panzano, Jasinski took the reins, promoting Rodriguez to sous-chef. The fairy tale just got better: Rodriquez, who’s known around town as Loca (Spanish for “crazy”) moved with Jasinski when she opened Rioja. Rodriguez became part owner there while she continued her role as sous chef. And then? Jasinski named her executive chef of Bistro Vendôme. In early 2013, Rodriguez stepped out on her own to build and open Work & Class, a move that cemented her indelible mark on Denver’s dining scene. Just one month after her first anniversary at Work & Class, the James Beard Foundation announced that Rodriguez was a Best Chef: Southwest semifinalist. This is a woman who breaks glass ceilings.

[9 Things You Never Knew About Work & Class Chef Dana Rodriguez]

Kevin Taylor {ktrg.net}

If you’re a Denver native who’s been around long enough to witness the city’s monumental soar to culinary stardom, then you know the significance of chef and restaurateur Kevin Taylor, whose mark on the Mile High City’s food scene can’t be overstated. While Taylor had no wild-child desires of becoming a chef, a dish-duty grind at a local country club motivated him to explore a cooking career. And the rest, as they say, is history. His first restaurant—a brilliant concept called Zenith that generated gushing accolades from local and national food cognoscenti—fiercely demonstrated that boundaries are meant to be pushed, rules rejected, and palates provoked, elevating fine dining to new heights. That was 30 years ago. Today, Taylor, whose kingdom trumpets a full-scale catering company and four restaurants—Kevin Taylor’s at the Opera House, Limelight Supper Club & Lounge, Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, and Rouge in the Teller House in Central City—is continuing to build on his decades of success with the forthcoming Hickory & Ash, a 120-seat, wood-fired-inspired restaurant that he, along with his son, Ryan, will unveil in the spring of 2017 at Arista in Broomfield, an urbanized dining, shopping, and entertainment development anchored by the 1stBank Center.

basta

Photo courtesy of Basta

Kelly Whittaker {bastaboulder.com}

At Basta, it’s really what isn’t talked about that makes it special. They’ve never advertised the fact that they source their ingredients locally, or that they grow their own grain and have an in-house mill, or that they only have a wood-fired oven and no range. Instead, they let the ingredients, in their purest forms, speak for themselves. It’s in a funky location, so diners are primarily drawn in by the menu of simple combinations that translate to memorable dishes. Basta proselytizes disciplined simplicity, and we are converts. Inspired by Chef Kelly Whittaker’s time spent living outside of Naples, the menu doesn’t subscribe to a Northern or Southern Italian style; rather, it adheres to Basta’s way of doing things. To illustrate, the Farrotto (a risotto-style mushroom dish using farro in lieu of arborio rice) contains 10 ingredients and takes a number of steps to make, but, says Whittaker, “How we cook is our personal version of authenticity, based on the ingredients we have and use. I don’t want to explain how complicated a dish is. I just want people to enjoy it.”

Alex Seidel

Alex Seidel {fruitionrestaurant.com; mercantiledenver.com}

Fruition Farms is a project that made Chef Alex Seidel a Denver legend. The chef had already found success with his flagship restaurant, Fruition, when he put his plan of launching a true farm-to-table operation in motion. Today, the 10-acre farm has scaled back on its sheep-raising (the source of milk for housemade cheeses) to focus on expanding the yearly crop of fruits and veggies to be used at both Fruition and Seidel’s second restaurant, Mercantile. But the cheese has not been forgotten—in fact, it’s become a separate endeavor. What began as a “cheese-making adventure” just six years ago has blossomed into an award-winning creamery, offering five types of sheep’s milk cheeses. The cheeses include ricotta Cacio Pecora (farmstead cheese, a hard, aged type), Shepherd’s Halo (a soft bloomy-rind cheese), and this year, sheep’s milk feta. The cheeses (which make an appearance on the menus of Denver’s top restaurants, from Barolo to Table Six) are available for sale at upscale markets like Marczyk’s, The Truffle Table, Boulder’s Cured, and, of course, Mercantile. What’s next for Fruition Farms? Beyond expanding the produce program, the farm is experimenting with old Eastern European farming techniques that involve ongoing composting. Oh, and more award-winning cheeses, of course.