5 Minutes with Frank Bonanno of Bonanno Concepts

By Ruth Tobias  |  March 14, 2014
Credit: Rachel Nobrega

This is the fifth installment of our Q&A series with Denver's six James Beard semifinalists. See also: interviews with Alex SeidelJeff Osaka, Sean Kenyon and Jorel Pierce and stay tuned for further coverage.

With 10 restaurants and bars to his name, Frank Bonanno has got to be the hardest-working chef in Colorado. He’s put his stamp on everything from contemporary fine-dining destinations (Mizuna) and craft-cocktail lounges (Green Russell) to modern-Asian noodle shops (Bones), barbecue joints (Russell’s Smokehouse) and neighborhood bars (Vesper Lounge). And the chef shows no signs of slowing down: Highlands Square deli Salt & Grinder is well on its way. How does he do it all? We asked; he explained.

You’ve been nominated so many times; is the recognition still meaningful to you?
I think this is the 11th time: four as Best Chef Southwest, seven as Outstanding Restaurateur. I can’t even keep track anymore, so I don’t think about it much. I was on vacation with my kids the first time I got the Restaurateur nomination and I remember being so excited - but at this point, [wife-partner] Jacqueline is more excited than I am. Now that Jen [Jasinski] has won, maybe Colorado will start getting more recognition. But I’m in the toughest category ever. You’re going up against massive names.

And yet you continue to be a contender. Are there particular dishes or professional traits you’d point to that show what you’re all about as a restaurateur?
You’re talking about, like, 287 dishes! This is boring, but I would say that the pappardelle Bolognese at Luca d’Italia is one of the best in the country. And when Salt & Grinder opens, I will serve sandwiches to make New Yorkers proud. Look, we opened four or five of our restaurants without investors in one of the biggest depressions in the country. We’ve never really duplicated a concept, and that’s what makes us so unique. But I wouldn’t be able to do anything without Jacqueline or my staff. If I won, it would be my name but it would be every bit their award.

Still, you’re in one kitchen or another all the time, even now. How do you keep up?
I got a new hip recently and that has helped a tremendous amount! Right now I’m in Vegas with our CEO, and we’re eating for research as much as we can. We had two breakfasts and we’re on our way to Carnegie Deli for sandwiches. Besides that, I’m invigorated by the young people around me. Coaching my staff into being successful, that’s the best part. I want to hire people who can make something better than I do, to live it and breathe it. Even if the chefs are coming up with things that I may not like personally, I’ll let them try it, because I trust them: “I love to say ‘I told you so,’ and I don’t think it’s going to work, but go for it.” I’m still inspired by that process. And I’m inspired by the other nominees, who are a constant reminder that you have to stay relevant.

Just for fun, name one dish people would be surprised to hear you love.
Probably the dish I make most for my family is perciatelli with garlic butter, arugula and really good, true Parmigiano-Reggiano. Simple as it is, I could eat that every day. And we do seem to eat it about three times a week. The kids love it because it’s almost like buttered noodles. And I’m still a kid at heart too.

For a full list of venues, visit Bonanno Concepts