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Cattivella’s Elise Wiggins Has Big Plans for Brunch (and Beyond)

Brunch can be chaotic, but it’s no war zone. That’s where Wiggins is going next.

“I had one too many seltzers one night,” begins Elise Wiggins. While the chef and owner of Denver’s Cattivella had already captured our attention (and heart) with vivid descriptions of her upcoming brunch menu, we perked up even more at that. “I called my sister and I said, ‘Will you watch the dogs if I go over [to Ukraine] and fight?'” Wiggins won’t be taking up arms on the front lines of the resistance to the Russian invasion (unless you consider spoons and spatulas her weapons of choice). Instead, she hopes to head to the Ukraine-Poland border to volunteer for World Central Kitchen in its efforts to feed displaced Ukrainians.

Wiggins doesn’t plan to leave the U.S. until May. She’s gearing up to launch brunch service at Cattivella on April 16, and she’s obligated to cook at a few private events in the coming weeks. And she knows the situation in Ukraine is changing rapidly. “Lviv [Ukraine] is one of the cities we were going to be, and it just got bombed,” she explains. So for the moment, she’s hard at work getting brunch in Denver’s very much not war-torn Central Park Neighborhood up and running. And on Saturday, April 16, 10 percent of the restaurant’s total brunch sales will be donated to World Central Kitchen.

“I like my eggs for sure, but I don’t want to do what everyone’s doing,” Wiggins notes about brunch. So you won’t find dishes like eggs infierno, or eggs cooked in spicy tomato sauce, on Cattivella’s brunch spread. (“When everyone was doing that, I stopped doing it.”) Instead, you’ll see uovo e gnocchi al forno: gently poached eggs buried under a layer of gnocchi and spicy salumi, topped with pomodoro sauce, torn fresh basil, and smoked mozzarella. “We bake that, and it becomes this unctuous dish,” she enthuses. The kitchen will also be turning out five different omelets. For our money, the most enticing are the vegetarian primavera omelet and its mirror opposite, the cacciatore omelet. The primavera comes stuffed with baby spinach, fresh peas, and asparagus, plus Cotswold cheese (a dry, aged cheese studded with chives and onions) and fresh dill and mint. Wiggins’ cacciatore (meaning “hunter”) omelet contains three different proteins—rabbit confit, rotisserie wild boar, and wild venison—and ubriaco, a young, crumbly cheese with a deep burgundy rind from being soaked in red wine. The addition of tarragon brightens up what might be an otherwise gamy dish.

After brunch is up and running at her restaurant (it will be available Saturday and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.), Wiggins hopes to spend a month in Ukraine working with World Central Kitchen. The organization, founded by chef José Andrés, recruits chefs to cook meals for victims of natural disasters, the COVID pandemic, and humanitarian crises around the world. Chefs and others volunteers have been dispatched to locations in the U.S., South America, the Middle East, and Europe since its inception in 2010. Wiggins says she’ll do whatever is needed in Ukraine: “If they want me to be cooking, I will, but if they want me to schlep things, I will,” she says.

But just getting there is difficult. “It’s crazy to get a train ticket going in because people are trying to go get their family and friends [in Ukraine] and take them back,” she continues. “Do I fly into Vienna and buy an old motorcycle?”  

Wiggins remains determined. “I feel like the direction of where the world is going is horrific. I keep asking myself what if this happened to the U.S.? What if we begged the world to help us? Everyone I talk to says, ‘I feel so helpless.’ Most people have families or a loved one, but [Ukrainians] have families and kids and they are fighting for their freedom. If we can help and we’re able-bodied, why not?” 

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