8 Under-the-Radar Chefs to Know in Denver/Boulder

Keep an eye on these local kitchen talents
December 5, 2016
by Ruth Tobias

You know and love their food; their names and faces, not so much. But while these eight Denver and Boulder talents tend to keep their heads down, we think they’ve earned a little time in the spotlight. Get to know them below.

Courtesy Nicole Layog

Nicole Layog at Blueprint Bar
When we’re in the mood for great bar food, Blueprint has become our go-to. From Brussels sprout tabbouleh to calamari bruschetta to the house burger, Nicole Layog has the knack for coaxing unexpected flavors out of the simplest dishes — and she’s only just begun to cook. Though she grew up in Miami amid diverse culinary riches with a Puerto Rican mom, a Filipino dad and an Italian uncle (the family’s Christmas feast included lumpia, lechon and eggplant Parm), she didn’t enter a professional kitchen until a couple of years ago, after a decade spent in law enforcement as both a cop and a detective. With a colorful past like that, who knows what her future as a chef holds.
Signature dish: The ham and cheese croquettes are "near and dear to my heart,” Layog says, as an homage to her early immersion in Cuban culture in Miami (where “you could get them at a gas station"). Her curry-blackened carrots, by contrast, “came out of nowhere” during a brainstorm for a “heartier and more flavorful” vegetarian dish, she says.

450 E. 17th Ave., #110; 303-927-6804

Courtesy Island Peppapot

Paul March and Angela Smith, Island Peppapot and Healthful Juices Cafe
He’s from Jamaica, she’s from Louisiana; together, they’re the couple behind Island Peppapot, a regular fixture at Finn’s Manor. While Smith handles gumbo, mac 'n' cheese and other Southern dishes, March whips up the Caribbean classics he was raised on: “I’m from a family of 12 — I’m number 10. So my mom made sure we could all help cook. I started at eight or nine," he says. March returned to the kitchen while serving in the U.S. military, when “cooking for me was a very therapeutic thing." And now, the duo’s about to get a brick-and-mortar kitchen of their own: Healthful Juices is scheduled to open in January on Five Points Plaza, serving everything from Jamaican patties to jambalaya to Irish moss smoothies.
Signature dish: Jerk, of course. “It’s very versatile," March says. "You can serve it with pasta, with salad, with our famous rice and peas, with sandwiches." What's more, it "recaptures that feeling of eating on the island," even here in the mountains.


Photo by Kari Cummings

Joshua Bitz at Meadowlark Kitchen
A quintessential Colorado boy, Arvada-born Joshua Bitz started his culinary career in a Westminster kitchen when he was only 12 because “I wanted a snowboard, and my parents wouldn’t pay for it.” They signed an early work release instead, and he’s been cooking since then at every type of restaurant imaginable — from a sushi bar and a bakery to a sports bar and a French bistro, not to mention both iterations of The Squeaky Bean. No wonder, then, that he likes to “incorporate all different styles into each dish” at the cozy cult hit he owns in RiNo with Casey Karns. “There’s really intricate prep, but the menu doesn’t read that way," he explains. It’s a study in deceptive simplicity to be sure: Try the spectacular broccoli-cheese dip sometime and you’ll see what we mean.
Signature dish: The item listed simply as “wild mushrooms” is “my take on eggs Benedict,” says Bitz. We see it as a kaleidoscope of mushrooms in various forms (including breaded and fried), with crispy kale sprouts and a poached egg that you mix all together with curried hollandaise to spoon onto hunks of English muffin.

2705 Larimer St.; 303-953-1815

Courtesy TOKIO

Miki Hashimoto at TOKIO
As a young man in his native Tokyo, Miki Hashimoto had a dream. "One day I wanted to open up a classic hamburger restaurant, like a '50s-style diner," he says. Still, we’re glad he kept going with the food he knew best, learning to cook by helping his mother at home and working in his father’s soba noodle shop. And we’re not alone. For nearly 20 years, Hashimoto's sushi bar Japon was a Wash Park staple, and Prospect follow-up TOKIO has proven equally popular for ramen and charcoal-grilled meats, as well as sushi. Granted, because he’s not the attention-seeking sort, the chef-owner himself has never really been a household name — but his penchant for doing his thing quietly is all the more reason he deserves to be.
Signature dish: “It took me a long time to figure out,” says Hashimoto, but the addition of Honeycrisp or Fuji apples to the pork-and-chicken broth in his miso ramen gives it a touch of sweetness and complexity he’s especially proud of. The same diligence goes into his vegetarian “ramen air,” based on a creamy broth prepared with pumpkin, two types of potato and soy milk.

2907 Huron St.; 720-639-2911

Photo by Mona Esposito

Salvatore Proia at PMG
Owner-sommelier Emily Gold’s original vision for this exquisite yet low-key little wine bar in Boulder didn’t even include a full kitchen. But Salvatore Proia’s vibrant, sophisticated Mediterranean plates complement the mostly old-world wine list so well, it’s now hard to imagine the place without one. Certainly Proia seems at home here, following a stint with Andrew Tarlow at Roman’s in Brooklyn, where it’s all about “starting with good things,” he says. “Then you just slow down and pay attention to the dish, making sure you’re with it all the way. That’s what I’m trying to do here” — right down to milling his own flour from heirloom grains.
Signature dish: It’s not always on the menu, but “sardines escabeche is really fun,” he says. “We get sardines from Cape Cod and you build your own little toasts.” Another recurring favorite: tagliatelle or orecchiette with ragu featuring the braised shoulder of lamb raised “just up the street.”

2018 10th St., Boulder; 303-786-8585

Courtesy Departure Denver

Erin Koroll at Departure Restaurant + Lounge
Let’s face it, a celeb chef can cast a long shadow — but the good ones make room for their protégées to shine. Case in point: Gregory Gourdet’s pastry sous-chef Erin Koroll. If this is the first you’ve heard of her, we guarantee it won’t be the last. A Colorado native, the former river guide fell in love with baking up in Leadville and began traveling to learn her craft. After a tour of Japan, she says, “I weaseled my way in” to a job at the original Departure in Portland, Oregon, where she was inspired by Gourdet’s approach to Asian cooking. “I love fresh, spicy, herbaceous things. It was right up my alley."
Signature dish: For winter, she’s fond of — and we’re crazy about — the citrus mousse. Misted with lemongrass tableside, it’s a cool, colorful confection that accents bright kalamansi with basil and cilantro.

249 Columbine St.; 720-772-5020

Courtesy The ART Hotel

Chris Jakubiec at FIRE
As a child in Connecticut, Chris Jakubiec’s favorite after-school activity was watching cooking shows on PBS. By high school, he was making dishes like lobster ravioli alongside his mother, herself a chef and caterer. His career has followed an upward trajectory ever since, benefiting from stints with the likes of Alain Ducasse, Jean-Michel Lorain and his mentor, Damon Gordon, in not only classical French but also Japanese, Brazilian and vegan kitchens. He made his own name as the exec chef of the historic Jefferson Hotel in Washington, DC, and its celebrated restaurant Plume. Denver needs to know it scored a coup when the ART Hotel scooped him up in 2015. 
Signature dish: Right now, Jakubiec’s jazzed about his Duroc pork cheeks, which he marinates in red wine and aromatics for 24 hours before braising and serving them glazed with Sichuan pepper–roasted sweet potatoes, crispy baby kale sprouts and sweet-and-sour black bean sauce. But, he says, “I do love revisiting the American classics as well” — take the salmon Newburg we got such a kick out of last summer. 

1201 Broadway; 720-709-4431

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