By Maya Silver | Editor
“We had to grow the corn, and then we had to dry the corn, and then we had to ground the corn, and then you make a freaking tortilla!” – Chef Dana Rodriguez
Connecting the dots between a farm girl in Chihuahua, Mexico, a dishwasher at Panzano, and the chef/co-owner of one of Denver’s hottest restaurants calls for more than just a brief bio. People talk about this or that chef who rose up the ranks all the time, but these are ranks of epic proportions. Here are nine things you need to know about Chef Dana Rodriguez to understand how she climbed her way to the helm of Work & Class.
1. She’s got a way with animals
From her days feeding animals on the farm, to her love of butchery, Rodriguez admits: “I love animals.” Breaking down fish and other animals is one of the greatest things her mentor, Chef Jen Jasinski, ever taught her. Jaskinski told her to “look at the bones so you know where you’re going.” In the chaos of opening night at rioja, Rodriguez remembers Jasinski looking over at her and making a motion with her right hand, and Rodriguez understood immediately that Jasinski needed her to break down a lamb.
2. It all began with Panzano or bust
Rodriguez never planned to move to the US, or to pursue a career in the restaurant industry. While visiting family in Denver, she and her cousin happened to stroll by Panzano, which was under construction and imminently opening at the time.
“I’m going to apply. If they hire me, I’ll stay here. If they don’t, I’ll go back to Mexico,” she told her cousin. Once the chef learned that Rodriguez knew the days of the week and numbers in English, she had herself a dishwashing job.
3. She knows how to move on up
If you made a timeline of Chef Rodriguez’s many moves and promotions after her entrée into the industry, the lines marking her milestones would be very close together. After just a couple weeks of dishwashing, Panzano Chef Ben Davis noticed how sharp Rodriguez was and begin to teach her things in the kitchen–sauces, stocks, and pasta–“learning how to make fresh pasta was the coolest thing!” Rodriguez raves.
Soon after, Chef Jennifer Jasinski moved into Panzano’s kitchen and took Rodriguez under her wing immediately. The fact that Jasinski spoke Spanish helped move along the learning process, and Rodriguez hopscotched her way from banquets, to pantry, to the pizza station, to pastry, to the line, until Jasinski offered her a sous chef position.
“I said no three times,” remembers Rodriguez, who was worried about the language barrier. “Eventually, one day, Jasinski said, ‘I’m not taking another no. You’re in.'”
4. You can call her “Loca”
When Rodriguez became sous chef, she was faced with a dual challenge. “There were a lot of guys on the line and some of them were Hispanic,” Rodriguez says, “and it’s hard for them to see a Hispanic girl tell them what to do.” Furthermore, her staff was always telling her they didn’t understand what she was saying. “It was getting to the point where I was like, you know what I’m talking about!”
So one day, she told one of the guys: “You know what? F*** you! You understand that?” And he responded: “Ooh, she’s loco!” And then they started calling her Loca.
Rodriguez was proud of herself, and noticed more respect after that departure from her usual kindness. “When you become a manager, you have to be a little more aggressive. You have to be stronger.”
5. A crazy Mexican girl in a French kitchen
When Rodriguez was at Panzano, she picked up second or third jobs to get as much experience as possible. She cooked at Appaloosa Grill to learn American, then at Kevin Taylor’s restaurants, Tamayo, and the Samba Room. Then she became well-versed in the Mediterranean as a partner with Jasinski at rioja.
And when the chef at Bistro Vendôme decided to move, she went straight to Jen and said, “I want that job.” She wanted to practice her French cooking. During her three years at Bistro Vendôme, she became close with the restaurant’s longtime dedicated servers and customers. Regulars would come in ask to speak to the chef, and when they would see it was Rodriguez preparing their Escargot et Soupe de Cresson, they would exclaim, “Oh, you’re not a French chef!” “No, it’s a crazy Mexican girl!” Rodriguez would say. “Surprise, surprise!”
6. The people in her past played into Work & Class
Rodriguez met Tony Maciag–one of her W&C partners–when she first began her career at Panzano. He was a bartender, and their paths crossed here and there over the years when he became a bartender at rioja. The two of them always casually chatted about opening their own spot one day–a taco stand, a food truck. Then, Maciag went on to become a manager at Jasinski and Beth Gruitch’s Euclid Hall. It was there that he met Delores Tronco, who was working at Euclid to get experience in the industry. Where Tony shined in the bar, and Rodriguez excelled in the kitchen, Tronco’s domain was operations.
“Luckily for me,” says Rodriguez, “they started dating!” And that welcomed “the brains of the operation,” as Rodriguez puts it, into the fold.
Rodriguez issued an open invitation to past colleagues to come work for her. She pulled two former coworkers from Panzano to become sous chefs: Vincente “Vinny” Sosa, who happens to be her fiancé, and Victor Mena. Her strong team with shared roots fosters understanding and makes Work & Class what it is. “The name of the restaurant can tell you who we are and what we do,” Rodriguez says. “We want to be affordable with really good quality food, and a little more funky and fun.”
7. Three things she misses about her homeland
A sense of freedom that comes with living in one’s own country (1). A culture that places a high premium on family–sticking together, taking care of one another (2). These are a few of the things that Rodriguez misses about Mexico. Another is the sense of appreciation that comes from growing and preparing your own food (3).
“When I worked on the farm, I appreciated everything,” Rodriguez says. “We had to grow the corn, and then we had to dry the corn, and then we had to ground the corn, and then you make a freaking tortilla! You work harder for every single thing.”
8. Her W&C menu pays homage to family heirlooms
The empanadas on the menu are the ones Rodriguez’s family cooked all the time at home. The meatballs are made using Dolores’s Italian father’s recipe–spiced up with chipotles. The Cochinita Pibil–a whole pork rubbed with achiote paste, covered in banana leaves, and braised overnight–is Vinny’s family’s recipe. And the Banana Cake of stacked Mexican cookies, bananas, and peanut butter was a traditional birthday dessert where Victor grew up.
9. At home, Vinny’s the executive chef
“I don’t cook much at home,” Rodriguez admits. And who can blame her? Vinny prepares really good Asian food–Rodriguez’s favorite. When it’s Rodriguez’s turn to cook for Vinny and her three kids, she’ll grab a couple of rotisserie chickens from W&C’s kitchen, bring them home, and announce, “Okay, dinner’s ready!”
A few times a year, however, she’ll make a very traditional Mexican dish, something she craves–pork chops with green chile, or a mole.
10. She’s got new dishes for you to try
Rodriguez just rolled out a new menu at Work & Class. If you haven’t been yet, here are a few new reasons to go:
- Creole Lamb Andouille Sausage: lamb and pork sausage with pickled cabbage and mezcal mustard
- Ginger-Glazed Snap Peas and Carrots
- Kale Orange Salad: tri-colored carrots, candied pecans, and goat cheese vinaigrette–get it in half or full size
- Fresh Berry Tart with citrus cream
- The Peanut Butter Mexican Banana Cake–inspired by Victor’s childhood birthdays and using peanut butter made by PB Love founder/a W&C server–with Mexican cookies, bananas, and chocolate ice cream.
For more about Chef Rodriguez, check out her picks for dining and drinking in Denver.