5 Hot Chefs Pick Denver/Boulder Innovators

January 6, 2014
by Ruth Tobias

In a culinary context, innovation isn’t simply a matter of employing obscure ingredients in eye-popping ways via groundbreaking techniques (though that’s certainly all part of the fun). To really look forward, you also have to look back at who and what have come before you. And you have to look around - not only at the current dining scene you’re part of, but at the gaps it contains and, as the farm-to-table movement has shown us, the environment it impacts.

Indeed, while asking five chefs and restaurateurs who have changed (or are changing as we speak) the local status quo to name the colleagues they’d consider innovators in turn, we were struck by their emphasis on the big picture. For them, it’s clear, certain approaches to tradition can prove just as radical as trends, the finished product is inseparable from the raw material, and business savvy goes hand in hand with creativity behind the stove.

Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs: Jim Pittenger on Jensen Cummings, Frank Bonanno and Others

With a made-for-TV backstory (he grew up in Alaska and was once a repo man), a larger-than-life personality and a knack for the wacky, Jim Pittenger was bound to build a cult following on the back of a hot-dog cart. Now he has two, as well as a thriving brick-and-mortar joint in Ballpark, all of which have earned him coverage by Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern and countless other media figures over the years. Yet amid all the attention, he’s never himself lost focus on the sausages that generated it. From reindeer and rattlesnake to elk and boar, toppings like Malaysian curry jam and cactus or spinach and Parmesan, and specials inspired by beef Wellington or Thanksgiving turducken, Pittenger’s creations are simply inimitable, and everyone knows it.

In his own words: “There’s so much cool stuff going on Old Major; I just love Justin Brunson and what he’s doing. Everything’s from scratch and it’s all so good. I feel the same about Lon Symensma at ChoLon; his food is so technically correct. There may be some dishes that aren’t my cup of tea, but whatever he makes, he makes it better than anyone else - and it’s so pretty too.

I fell in love with Jensen Cummings [of Slotted Spoon Meatball Eatery, pictured below] the last year he was at Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar, during Restaurant Week. Restaurant owners kinda love Restaurant Week; chefs kinda hate it. But he was so brilliant - he did an Americana-style menu, but with proteins that nobody was used to: alligator baby-back ribs, buffalo-fried frog’s legs, stuff like that. People had no idea what they were in for; he was going to challenge them, and I just love that kind of mentality.

Then there’s Aaron Wagner of Elevation Gourmet; sure, it’s just ketchup he’s making, but he’s doing such a great grassroots campaign that we’re all going to be flying to Paris on the Elevation jet someday soon. Finally, Frank Bonanno just keeps coming with up new restaurants, and somehow he’s got different concepts for each of them. Of Denver’s iconic chefs, he’s up there.”

Two to try: Biker Jim's pheasant Cordon Bleu, ChoLon's signature Kaya toast with coconut jam and egg cloud

Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs: 2148 Larimer St.; 720-746-9355
ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro: 1555 Blake St., Suite 101; 303-353-5223

Crafted Concepts: Jennifer Jasinski on Jorel Pierce and Lance Hanson

Thanks to her James Beard Award and a stint on Top Chef Masters, the whole foodie nation got to know Jennifer Jasinski in 2013. But Denverites have had that pleasure for a decade. With her Crafted Concepts partner Beth Gruitch, she’s changed the face of dining on Larimer Square: Mediterranean flagship Rioja is as splashy a destination as ever; Bistro Vendôme remains the picture-perfect Parisian rendezvous; and for all its comforts, Euclid Hall has been pushing the boundaries of craft-beer-paired gastropub fare since day one. And next summer, the duo's Union Station project, Stoic & Genuine, will pile seafood galore on a populace that’s sorely underserved on that score (read more here). The thread that ties them all together is a culinary style that’s at once meticulous and vigorous, smart and sexy.

In her own words: “Well, he works for me, but I definitely think Jorel Pierce [pictured below] is an innovator. He’s always trying to look at things in a different way without worrying about whether people understand him or don’t understand him, and the results are unique yet delicious. Pad Thai pig ears are a really cool dish; everyone’s always blown away by that. I love how he juxtaposes hot and cold elements in the chips and dip with shaved duck breast. And just last week, he was like, ‘I’m going to get in a whole cow.’ Instead of cutting the ribs down, he did a 36-ounce tomahawk chop that stood a few inches high on the plate. He’s just really fun and playful.

Then there are people in our beverage industry, like Lance Hanson of CapRock Farm Bar. He makes really interesting spirits and he’s got a farm to grow everything he puts in his product; I really like where he’s going with that.”

Two to try: Euclid Hall's Pad Thai pig ears, CapRock's grappa cocktails

CapRock Farm Bar: 3350 Brighton Blvd.; 303-828-7887
Euclid Hall: 1317 14th St.; 303-595-4255

Frasca Food and Wine and Pizzeria Locale: Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson on Alex Seidel and Others

At risk of stating the obvious, no single restaurant has put Colorado on the national radar quite like Frasca. To suggest the Boulder destination is the be-all end-all of Fruilian cuisine and wine stateside wouldn’t be a stretch, and the star power it harnesses goes without saying - starting, of course, with its James Beard Award-winning owners, master sommelier Bobby Stuckey and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson. They also own Pizzeria Locale next door, celebrated in its own right for the true Neapolitan pies that emerge from its hand-built oven.

As for the several-month-old Denver branch of Locale, news broke only a few days ago that it was actually established in partnership with Steve Ells of Chipotle Mexican Grill in view of further expansion. And yet, through all the deal-making, Mackinnon-Patterson is what he always was: a master chef grounded in the rustic, even lusty cooking of the Italian regions that inspire him. 

In his own words: “I will preface this by saying that despite the fact that we’ve been here 10 years, I don’t get to enjoy socializing and eating out as much as I’d like. But I’d include Alex Seidel of Fruition [pictured below]. There probably isn’t anyone in the food business, whether it’s a chef or a restaurateur, who wouldn’t want to own a farm and figure out what that economic model is. It’s a whole other thing to actually do it, though. Just because chefs use vegetables doesn’t mean they can grow them or take care of them, let alone make cheese. He manages it while running a great restaurant. I also admire OAK at fourteenth’s Steve Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton for opening Acorn, the guys at The Kitchen for what they’re able to do, and Dave Query of the Big Red F group, who continues to conceptualize places that people want to go to.

In fact, I sometimes joke with Bobby that running Frasca feels like a hobby compared to opening other restaurants or other kinds of businesses. The new model of Locale has been challenging, but one of our biggest challenges has been making delicious wine in Italy and trying to sell it over here. That has nothing to do with the restaurant business.”

Two to try: Frasca’s raviolo, Fruition's pasta carbonara

Frasca Food and Wine: 1738 Pearl St., Boulder; 303-442-6966
Fruition Restaurant: 1313 E. 6th Ave.; 303-831-1962

Lower48 and Service Bar: Alex Figura on Steve Scott and Jonathan Power

It’s too early to gauge the impact Lower48 and Service Bar chef-partner Alex Figura is having on the Denver dining landscape, but our own first impression is that it will be major. On paper, what he’s doing isn’t revolutionary: his emphasis is on traditional foodways, featuring heirloom ingredients and from-scratch techniques (read more here). But on the plate, it’s revelatory, each composition more fascinatingly detailed than the last - be it a seemingly simple mini-veggie burger that arrives on a tiny, seeded, house-baked bagel or a downright painterly presentation of browned and bubbly stuffed savory pancakes (as pictured here). Figura is one to watch; all the better, then, that he’s leading an open kitchen with a chef’s counter.

In his own words: “The first person that comes to mind as an innovator is Steve Scott and his wife Catherine [pictured below] at Babettes Artisan Breads. Their slow-food approach, doing everything by hand on a small scale, may not sound innovative, but the product they turn out is unprecedented. They’re not trying to feed the masses; it’s quality over quantity. I had the opportunity to stage with them and watch how Steve takes this time; he doesn’t rush things and does everything correctly. His polenta bread is above and beyond, and of course the traditional sourdough is too.

When thinking of about places we like to go, The Populist just feels like the right place at the right time. Jonathan Power’s menu, with food priced in all different categories, and the setting make it is so much fun to be in. His dishes are always changing, but they’re always really tasty.”

Two to try: Lower48's chicken-liver pici, Babettes' volkornbrot

Babettes Artisan Breads: 3350 Brighton Blvd.; 303-993-8602 
Lower48: 2020 Lawrence St., Unit A; 303-942-0262

Old Major and Masterpiece Deli: Justin Brunson on Wayne Conwell and Jennifer Jasinski

On the list of chefs who’ve captured the zeitgeist of Denver dining, Justin Brunson commands a top slot. Having made house-butchered meats his stock in trade at Masterpiece Deli in LoHi, he went on to feature them at nearby Old Major in spring 2013 - and they in turn helped make the farm-to-fork eatery one of the year’s biggest openings, as word spread about its nose-to-tail plates and killer chops. But Brunson’s also a whiz with seafood, his fish charcuterie being a memorable case in point. And now, with the opening of a second Masterpiece in Uptown in December, his mark on the city is becoming indelible. Did we mention he’s a co-founder of the Denver Bacon Company? Yeah, that too.

In his own words: “Wayne Conwell at Sushi Sasa is always pushing the limits of sushi. Some of what he makes is traditional, but some of it’s totally off the wall. His foie gras with oysters - that’s a really cool, fun dish. And Jen Jasinski for sure. I just think she works hard to make the Denver food scene a better place to be. I’m really excited for her new seafood restaurant!”

Two to try: Masterpiece's seared ahi-tuna sandwich, Sushi Sasa's foie gras oysters

Masterpiece Deli: 1575 Central St., 303-561-3354; 1710 Sherman St., 303-832-6732
Sushi Sasa: 2401 15th St., #80; 303-433-7272

justin brunson
jennifer jasinski
jim pittenger
alex figura
lachlan mackinnon-patterson