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19 Denver Chefs Reveal Their Secret Food Indulgences

Guilty pleasures, from Peeps to fried chicken at Popeyes
November 12, 2015
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by Lori Midson

Cheetos and a double cheeseburger from Burger King, the buffet at Golden Corral and chicken from Popeyes, Raviolios and Peeps — these are just some of the admitted guilty pleasures of Denver's top chefs.Take a look through our slide show below to see what Jennifer Jasinski, Justin Brunson, Troy Guard, Dana Rodriguez, Frank Bonanno and 14 other culinary high achievers crave when they're off the clock.

Dana Rodriguez, executive chef of Work & Class

Indulgences: Ruffles cheddar cheese potato chips and a burger from my My Brother's Bar

"I love the Ruffles cheddar cheese potato chips with a can of jalapeño escabeche; it's just such an effin' good combination. I used to work at my parent's grocery store in Mexico, and every day I'd find an excuse to ask my parents to leave the store so my friend and I could sneak away and gorge on Ruffles. We'd kill two bags and one can of jalapeños every day. The Mexican version of the chips are available at the Mi Pueblo Markets in Denver, and I still go through one bag a week. My other guilty pleasure is a burger from My Brother's Bar. All of us industry people go there to celebrate parties, birthdays or just any occasion. They do an amazing job, and I'm glad someone is cooking for us after our shifts."

Enrique Socarras, executive chef of Revelry Kitchen

Indulgences: Burger King and El Taco de Mexico

"My most embarrassing and secret guilty pleasure is a disgustingly delicious double cheeseburger with extra pickles from Burger King, and my must-have weekly obsession is anything smothered with green chile from El Taco de Mexico. I get both sauces, extra onions and cilantro and a bottle of Mexi-Coke."

Alex Jun, chef de cuisine of The Nickel

Indulgences: An In-N-Out burger, a Neapolitan shake and fried chicken wings

"The double-double burger at In-N-Out makes me smile on the inside, and my inner child shed tears of joy. I can only indulge when I go home to San Francisco, and luckily my family understands that it's the first stop I have to make when I get home. The Neapolitan milkshake is the cherry on top. I also love any form of fried chicken wings; late-night Korean-style fried chicken wings after a night of drinking makes everything better. Making them in the restaurant is a struggle, and if you make a bowl for family meal, they're gone within minutes; make a snack bowl for the cooks, and they're gone in seconds. It’s like they all have this chicken-wing sixth sense. Also: chicken wings and champagne are a great combination. I've proven this theory many times."

Brandon Biederman, executive chef of Steuben's and Ace Eat Serve

Indulgences: Snickers bar, Gatorade, a Red Robin burger and a banh mi from Ba Le Sandwiches

“My current guilty food pleasures have to be my Thursday afternoon peanut butter Snickers bar and lime Gatorade from the 7-Eleven located next to the new Steuben's in Arvada; it's a quick lunch that tides me over during construction meetings. I wish my restaurant guilty pleasure was something more exotic but it's a split between a classic burger from Red Robin with my kids or a banh mi from Ba Le Sandwiches on my way to work in the morning."

Matt Vawter, chef de cuisine of Mercantile Dining & Provision

Indulgences: Chocolate and a burrito from Illegal Pete's

"Any sort of chocolate or chocolate bar. I especially like milk chocolate, but I'm a sucker for all of it. I almost never buy it, but I'm definitely the first in line when there's a bowl of holiday candy that someone brought to work — and obviously working in a kitchen, a little snack here and a little snack there from the pastry chefs means I get to indulge in really nice chocolate. After a night of service, and maybe a couple too many beers, I'll walk up the street to Illegal Pete's for a carnitas and green chile burrito with chips and queso. It always seems like a good idea around 2 AM, and it always tastes good that night, but I always feel guilty the next day knowing that I housed a burrito the size of a pillow and a bag of chips with a bowl of delicious cheese sauce."

Kevin Morrison, chef-owner of Pinche Tacos

Indulgences: Golden Corral and turkey nachos

"Golden Corral, or GC for the folks in the know. This place is my once-a-year treat. I feel like the GC management team is challenging me with its all-you-can-eat blowout, but I'm trying to get my money's worth here — right? — so if I can fit everything on the plate, we've got a winner. Plus, you know, wilted greens. They're still popular, right? Can't forget the bakery section; I ran a bakery for a couple of years so I know the commitment it takes to produce a good roll. All this on one plate. Caveat: I always skip the chocolate fountain. One time, I saw this kid trying to dip his housemade marshmallow into the chocolate goodness fountain. Kudos to that kid for his effort. Then, out of nowhere, that kid had the three fastest sneezes I've ever seen...directly into the chocolate fountain. No more chocolate fountain for me. At home, I'm all about the turkey nachos; there's nothing better than all processed food, plus a few spoonfuls of Pace salsa, on one plate during a snowy football Sunday."

Justin Brunson, executive chef of Old Major, Honor Society and Masterpiece Deli

 Indulgences: Ben & Jerry's ice cream and fried chicken from Cora Faye's

"I'm a sucker for ice cream — any ice cream — but I especially love Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia. I'll indulge while sitting on the couch, watching TV and totally zoning out. And the fried chicken at Cora Faye's is damn good. Walk into Old Major any day of the week and you'll find me and my entire staff munching away. It's a little embarrassing, but I literally eat it every day."

Jim Pittenger, chef-owner of Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs

Indulgences: Pudge Brothers pizza and FatBoy ice cream sandwiches

"I’ve been on the road for the last month, and I’ve eaten conch fritters in Key West, Cubanos in Miami, barbecued shrimp in New Orleans, ribs from Franklin’s in Austin and sourdough bread bowls filled with clam chowder in San Francisco, so right now, a guilty pleasure would be a bowl of oatmeal  and some whole wheat peanut butter toast. But under normal circumstances, a real guilty pleasure is a Pudge Brothers Pudgie B while watching Steel Dawn with Patrick Swayze. The Pudgie B is a salty, meaty, crusty pile of fat and calories that rival Dwayne Johnson on Cheat Day. Oh, and I'll follow it up with a pile of FatBoy ice cream sandwiches. They're the crappiest, cheapest, mostly chemically tasting ice cream sandwiches ever spewed out by a man-made machine…and I love them. A long time ago when I was a repo man, they saved me from a probable stroke and an almost certain doom, so they'll always have a place in my heart and my freezer."

Christopher Cina, director of culinary operations, Breckenridge-Wynkoop (Farm House at Breckenridge Brewery, Wynkoop Brewing and more)

Indulgences: Philly cheesesteak from Famous Philly Cheese Steak, Ruffles and French onion dip

"For the most part, my rice is brown, my breads are whole grain, my potatoes are sweet and sugar is a big no-no, but every once in a while I’ll treat myself to a cheesesteak and a TastyKake from Famous Philly Cheese Steak & Beer Garden. I'm from Philadelphia, so it's my duty to try as many cheesesteaks in Denver as I can, and these are my favorite, although Pat’s on Market Street comes in a close second. Growing up, my mom always made French onion dip from the dry mix packets, and I’d eat most of it by myself. Now, after a night in the kitchen or on a Sunday when the Eagles are playing, it’s a big bag of Ruffles potato chips and the French onion dip from Royal Crest. It's just as good as the dip I remember from my childhood, but this one is delivered to my house." 

Clint Wangsnes, chef-owner of Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery

Indulgences: Candy bars and a corned beer sandwich from New York Deli News or a Reuben from Masterpiece Deli

"I absolutely love the combination of frozen Kit Kat bars and Reese's peanut butter cups, and of course I like to eat them in order: Kit Kat bars first, followed with the peanut butter cup; the combined textures are amazing. I usually end up sneaking them after I put my kids to bed, because my kids now share the love and my wife frowns on it. My other guilty pleasure is a really good corned beef sandwich or Reuben. I love the corned beef at New York Deli News and have to say the Reuben at Masterpiece Delicatessen is pretty awesome too." 

Paul Reilly, chef-owner of Beast + Bottle

Indulgences: Pepperidge Farm mint Milano cookies and pork-belly bao buns at Bones

"I eat the Pepperidge Farms mint Milano cookies if my wife happens to pick up a bag at the store, which she doesn't do very often because I'll literally eat the whole thing with a tall glass of ice-cold whole milk. If I happen to get off early from work, I'll stop at Bones for bao buns and a glass of wine because it's directly on my way home from work, and I always love to say 'hi' to the Bonanno corner crew."

Max MacKissock, exec chef of Bar Dough

Indulgences: Kraft American cheese and chicken from Popeyes

"I don't have a ton of guilty food pleasures, mostly because my mom did a good job of raising me on the good stuff, but I absolutely love Kraft American cheese slices; I'll eat a whole package at a time. I still think it's the best cheese out there for burgers and a grilled cheese sandwich. I also live just a few blocks from a Popeyes, and there are days that I'm walking by, smell the chicken cooking and can't resist the urge to grab a five-piece and nail it all by myself."

Jamey Fader, culinary director of Big Red F restaurant group (Jax Fish House, Lola, Post Brewing Company and more)

Indulgences: Chili-cheese dogs and Reese's peanut butter cups

"Five years ago I adopted a lifestyle that's more conducive to being healthy. It's been seven years since I've had fast food, five years since I've had a soda and three years since I ingested just about anything that took even a quick lap in the fryer. However, two items that certainly don't fall within those lofty dietary parameters and provide me with security like a call from Mom are crappy chili-cheese dogs and Reese's peanut butter cups. And by 'crappy,' I mean low quality and built for mass consumption. When all seems dark and abysmal, nothing puts a smile on my face like a beater dog smothered with cheese and chili 'product' and served on a white bun that couldn't become stale if it tried. It's antithetical and makes me feel alive while reminding me of less hectic times, like ball games with my dad. As for the Reese's cups, we grew up with no sugar in our house, and no processed foods either, so that package, perfect in every way and glimmering like a beacon of hope in the 7-Eleven aisle, is an illicit treat that still makes me feel naughty and good all at the same time."

Troy Guard, executive chef of TAG Restaurant Group

Indulgences: Sea salt caramel popcorn from Whatever Pops Up and pizza from Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza

"I love the sea salt caramel popcorn from Whatever Pops Up on Larimer Square. They make the sickest popcorn I've ever had, with so many awesome crazy combinations and flavors. Grace, my daughter, and I can down a whole bag. My other guilty pleasure is the pizza from Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza. I love all their pies, but the Abruzzo is by far the best four-cheese pizza in the country. And then I get the tiramisu; damn, it's good. Everything here is is just so on point and the flavors are really decadent."

Aniedra Nichols, executive chef of Elway's Cherry Creek

Indulgences: Tater tot hot dish and bone marrow from Central Bistro and Bar

"This time of year my guilty pleasure is a tater tot hot dish, a comfort food that reminds me of visiting my grandparents in Minnesota. It's a simple casserole of ground beef, vegetables and cream of mushroom soup baked with tater tots — so nostalgic. When I go out, I'm after bone marrow, and if it's on the menu, I'm ordering it. I was recently blown away by the bone-marrow dish from my friends at Central. It was a jalapeño popper bone marrow served with a waffle and chipotle aïoli — and worthy of an expletive. So worthy, in fact, that I ordered two of them...back to back. It was so amazing that I'm planning to retell the experience for months to come."

Elise Wiggins, executive chef of Panzano

Indulgences: Cheetos and fried chicken from Tom's Home Cookin'

"When I'm driving on road trips, I love to eat crunchy Flamin' Hot Cheetos. I just love the crunch in tandem with the sharp fake cheddar flavor. I also love to lick my fingers to get all that tasty flavor off. For a restaurant pleasure, it’s Tom’s Fried Chicken in Five Points. We're all taught that you should take the skin off chicken to be healthy. Nope. Not only do they leave it on, but it's fabulously spiced in flour batter and then deep-fried to perfection. This is what Tom’s does every single time."

Jennifer Jasinski, chef/co-owner of Rioja, Bistro Vendome, Stoic & Genuine and Euclid Hall

Indulgences: Peeps and the brown butter budino from Bar Dough

"I'm obsessed with Peeps. I know, you can’t believe I like them but I really do, although they have to be fresh, not stale. When it comes to a guilty pleasure from a restaurant, it's any butterscotch dessert. I don’t usually eat dessert, choosing instead to save my calories for wine, but sometimes I just need some caramel or butterscotch. Max MacKissock and Blake Edmunds at Bar Dough make a brown butter budino that's awesome."

Frank Bonnano, chef-owner of Mizuna, Luca, Osteria Marco, Bones and more

Indulgences: Raviolios and anything -- and everything -- from Tom's Home Cookin'

"When I’m working a station on a weekend night, and the room is thumping, tickets keep clicking out, and I haven’t had a moment to breathe, let alone eat, nothing hits the spot like a can of Raviolios. There's just something about that mystery beef meat tucked into pillows of starch bobbing in that tomatolike sauce that's a throwback to a time before I thought or cared about ingredients, preparation or presentation. When I dine out, though, any pleasure is guilty. I always order too much, no matter where I go, and I never skimp on cheese, butter, sugar or salt. That being said, the guiltiest of all pleasures for me is eating at Tom’s Home Cookin' on a winter day. Fried chicken or fried catfish, mashed potatoes, banana pudding with vanilla wafers, peach cobbler, salty collard greens — I suppose I’m nearly at my happiest slipping through the slush and lugging one of those 10-pound to-go boxes out the door from Tom's."
 

Lon Symensama, chef of ChoLon, Cho77 and The Cooper Lounge

Indulgences: Nerds and macaroni 'n' cheese

"I really love the sweet and tart flavors in Nerds candy. I'm particularly addicted to the watermelon flavor, but I love all Nerds. Sour is my favorite flavor, and I generally think acid tends to be underused in food. On the total opposite end of the spectrum, I can't pass up a bowl of macaroni 'n' cheese. It's easily my favorite comfort food and has been ever since I was a kid. I don't care what kind it is; I'll order it at a restaurant, and I love making it at home."

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