2017 Colorado Rising Stars: Why They Shine

2017 Colorado Rising Stars: Why They Shine

Denver is a Millennial town poised to make a major impact as it rapidly matures and owns its potential. The groundwork has been laid by such heavyweights as Dave Query, Frank Bonanno, Justin Cucci, Troy Guard, Jen Jasinski, Justin Brunson, and Alex Seidel, who have built powerhouse restaurant groups, trained a generation of young Colorado chefs, and inspired the current explosion of chef-driven restaurants. 

As young people pour into Denver-Boulder for tech jobs, sunshine, mountains, marijuana, a low cost of living, and relatively high wages, a united hospitality community is there to welcome them. Denver and Boulder are friendly cities, and chefs are no exception. They love their shared spaces and are filling them—from Avanti and Denver Central Market to Stanley Market (home to two of our Rising Stars), Union Station (home to two more Rising Stars), and the new Dairy Block. 

In Denver, you can’t throw a coaster without hitting a bartender. Major New York players like Dead Rabbit and PDT are moving to town. The team from San Francisco’s Trick Dog recently took over Williams & Graham—home to Rising Star Bartender Nicole Laurita. A beverage bastion, the area is also as strong of a coffee market as we’ve seen, and, of course, from Aspen to the Rockies to the Speer in Denver, wine and beer are on point in Colorado.

StarChefs met with more than 120 industry professionals from the greater Denver-Boulder area to the mountains, and we learned a few things about folks from the Centennial State. They take pride in their corn and peaches, their state flag, and in their united push to make their home one of the country’s preeminent food destinations.

Here’s StarChefs first-ever class of Colorado Rising Stars and why they shine.      


Chef: Samuel Charles and Marcus Eng, The Way Back

There is no cooking in bags at The Way Back. A roast chicken gets roasted, period. Samuel Charles and Marcus Eng believe in technique and practice, and they’re training the next generation of chefs how to cook. Ninety-five percent of their product is American, they’re avid foragers, and all their (minimal) waste goes to local micro-farms in the form of compost. All their veg tops are transformed into a bowl of creamed greens that make you want to do backflips after slapping your grandma. It’s all in service of flavor—as with their peach-pineapple-tomatillo-tomato salad reinforced with peach reduction, ground cherries, garlic chips, and oregano. Their sustainability ethos extends seamlessly to the bar, and into the future, as they hope to one day affect what’s on the menu in public schools and hospitals—where people need to be nourished most. With their vision and commitment, Charles and Eng are creating the new norm. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Roasted Half Chicken, Creamed Greens, and Roasted Carrots
  • Ravioli: Lemon, Ricotta, and Poppy Seeds
Chef: Alex Figura and Spencer White, Dio Mio

In a city dominated by Italian restaurants, Dio Mio is doing something different with pasta and the way it's served. Alex Figura and Spencer White’s restaurant is a casual, counter-service spot with next level, flavor-forward, globally influenced pastas—think squid ink pasta with kimchi, and sunchoke-ricotta mezzluna with clementines. Cocktails are mixed to order and wine comes to guests in juice glasses after they’ve had a seat. All the excellence involved in fine dining (and none of the pomp and prices) arrives in a bowl full of comfort and surprises. As the industry figures out how to cater to an ever-more casual yet demanding audience, Figura and White have created a format that satisfies that and chefs' desire to express themselves.         
Dishes that clinched it:

  • Smoked Brisket Caramelle, Parsnip-Brown Butter, Pickled Mustard Seeds, and Pink Peppercorns
  • Stuffed Mezzaluna, Sunchoke Ricotta, Clementine, and Sunchoke Chips
Chef: Max MacKissock, Bar Dough

Already beloved for his work at The Squeaky Bean, Max MacKissock didn’t have a whole lot to prove with his next venture. Nevertheless, MacKissock decided to push himself and Denver’s entire dining culture forward with Bar Dough—a sleek, modern, reinterpretation of the pizzeria. Centered around a wood-fired oven, Bar Dough is a Denver dining destination, where guests can sit down to a plate of meatballs and a margarita or sophisticated small plates accompanied by amaro or a bubbling, belly-warming pizza. Having recently returned from travels in South America and Mexico, MacKissock has a Latin-inspired concept in the works, Señor Bear, which will give Denver more of what it wants: Max MacKissock.      

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Wood Oven-roasted Carrots, Farro, Chickpeas, Carrot, Cumin Vinaigrette, and Pine Nuts
  • Sunflower Seed Risotto: Saffron, Garlic, Sunflower Seed Soffrito, Honey Yogurt, and Grana Padano
Chef: Jorel Pierce, Euclid Hall

Jorel Pierce is an omelet filled with ham, onion, and green pepper. Pierce is Confluence Park. He is legalized marijuana. It’s hard to imagine Denver without Pierce. Requiring very little sleep and possessing endless reserves of energy, he seemingly vanishes then rematerializes as he makes the rounds from Rioja to Euclid Hall to Stoic & Genuine. Pierce’s vigor is funneled into his army of Crafted Concepts cooks and an inventive, intricate charcuterie program. It also fuels his imagination from which refined riffs on chips and dip and tuna melts emerge. When tapas bar Ultreia opens, it will be his second restaurant in Union Station, a landmark that has come to symbolize the progress and future of Denver dining—just like Pierce.   

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Chips and Dip: Smoked Duck Breast, Duck Confit, Lemon Goat Cheese, Oolong Tea, Chips, and Dill
  • Sausage Plate: Leberkäse, Short Rib Kielbasa, Cheddar Hopwurst, Boudin Noir, Red Cabbage, and House Mustard
Chef: Cindhura Reddy, Spuntino

In a flameless kitchen, the fire must come from within. That’s no problem for Cindhura Reddy in her petite electric kitchen at Spuntino. Reddy has passion and warmth for days—some innate, some gleamed from Indian-born parents, and the remainder picked up from Michael Solomonov and from her travels in Southeast Asia and Europe. Once she hit Italy, all the groundwork had been laid for the ignition of a lifelong love affair. Showing an effortless mastery of the rustic trinity (technique, flavor, simplicity), Reddy’s food shoots straight to the heart. And personal flourishes—think Elk tartare loaded with ginger and garlic or saffron cavatelli with quick-cured braised lamb and chile threads—make Reddy a standout chef, cooking at the intersection of time, place, and tradition.   

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Elk Taratre, Preserved Lemon Aioli, Parsley, Ginger-Garlic Shallot, Olive Oil, Lemon, Black Salt, and House Ciabatta. 
  • Saffron-infused Cavatelli, Braised Lamb Shank, Garlic Breadcrumbs, and Chile Threads
Chef: Matt Vawter, Mercantile

If Union Station has become the heart and soul of the restaurant industry in Denver, then Mercantile is the pulse, which makes Matt Vawter its lifeblood. Mercantile is a behemoth—an all-day, everyday café, bar, dining room, chef’s counter, and retail operation all in one. Vawter leads a brigade of more than 20 cooks, meaning the industry’s future is getting trained in his kitchen, just as Vawter is feeding most of Denver (and its visitors) as they stream through Union Station by the thousands. From laminated dough to banh mi to arancini to foie gras, he moves with ease from casual to fine-dining mode and from French pastry to refined Italian classics. Vawter has his hand in every detail while leading one of the city’s largest, strongest culinary teams.    

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Arrancini, Mushrooms, Cauliflower Puree, Seared Caulflower, and Hazelnut Vinaigrette
  • Sweet Breads, Octopus, Castlevetrano Olive Vinaigrette, Barley, Carrot, and Celery
Community: Kelly Whitaker, Basta

Community, agriculture, and activism come together at Kelly Whitaker’s Basta. Whitaker is a chef embracing change as represented on his menu (that ranges from lasagna to kampachi with black garlic and sesame) and by his work on a local, statewide, national, and international level. Whitaker has both a traditional Austrian mill and a state of the art prototype designed for restaurants, and he’s one of five American chefs picked to test it. Whitaker founded the Noble Grain Alliance and is a recognized leader within the Chefs Collaborative and Slow Food. He’s also a proponent and orginal member of the Good Food 100. Ultimately, there’s no need to proselytize, because one bite of Basta’s wood-fired piada bread makes converts of a us all. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Piada Bread, Burrata, House Allium Butter, and Sea Salt
  • Farrotto Piccolo, Maitake Mushroom, Ricotta Salata, and Chive

Pastry Chef: Alberto Hernandez, Frasca Food & Wine

Alberto Hernandez is an ambidextrous pastry chef. He moves effortlessly back and forth between two important kinds of delicious: straight-up delicious and unusual delicious. With a deft hand he takes a tiramisu—exhausted from being trotted out to guests for decades—and jolts it back to straight-up delicious life. Gone are lady fingers (in favor of phyllo) and in comes maraschino gel and candied orange, honoring tiramisu’s essence but adding spring to its step. Unusual is tangy buffalo yogurt panna cotta with sweet-astringent quince tea. It’s a dessert you won’t have anywhere else. At the helm of pastry at both Frasca and Pizzeria Locale, Hernandez is poised to influence pastry chefs in an evolving market. Whether straight-up or unusual, his desserts are always lush and decadent, ending with a finger-swipe across the plate to get every last bit of delicious.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Tiramisu: Italian Meringue, Hazelnut Cremuex, Marscapone, Roasted White Chocolate, Maraschino Gel, Candied Orange Peel, and Coffee Crumble
  • Panna Cotta, Quince Tea, Buffalo Yogurt, Juniper, Citrus Tuile, Satsuma Sorbet, and Brulee Grapefruit
Pastry Chef: Gonzo Jimenez and David Lewis, Miette et Chocolat

Gonzo Jimenez and David Lewis are bringing world-class, show stopping chocolate sculpting to Colorado, with vibrancy, artistry, and a modern edge. The pastry chefs and chocolatiers are also making room for contemporary, French-style pastry. Within their small atelier and store at Stanley Market in Aurora, Jimenez and Lewis have developed a business model wherein they source roasted beans to process into a house chocolate onsite. The duo comes from the world of competitive pastry, and their aim is nothing short of making Miette the name for chocolates and confections in the region. From colorful, unusually flavored bon bons and decadent bars to beautifully composed tarts and showpieces, they’re setting a new standard for retail pastry in Colorado.        

Pastries that clinched it:

  • Nutella Eclair
  • Bon Bons
Artisan: Spencer Bowie, Sienna Trapp-Bowie, and Aldo Ramirez Carrasco, Fortuna Chocolate

Fortuna makes what one may call turning point chocolate: Once you’ve tasted it, you’ll measure all other chocolate against it. Artisans and entrepreneurs Spencer Bowie, Aldo Ramirez Carrasco, and Sienna Trapp-Bowie have a signature production method that includes roasting single origin cacao in three batches—light, medium, and dark—and blending them together for complexity achieved through synergy. They’re also reserving a handful of each blend to one day tell the entirety of the Fortuna story. With their business model that includes reforesting land and restoring cacao farming communities, and a focus on wholesale to restaurants, they’re not only making it a better world to eat chocolate, they’re making a better world in which to live.  

Chocolates that clinched it:

  • 68% Huehuetan Estate Triple Roast
  • Sipping Chocolate
Artisan: Zach Coleman, TRVE Brewing Company

If Zach Coleman drives north from Denver for about two hours, he can stand in the barley fields that provide the malt for his beer. Because it's important to Coleman to take back the supply chain, he supports maltsters that have been screwed over by big beer and pays smaller farmers a premium to grow a product that has character. TRVE brew has a sense of place, and it’s pushing craft brew boundaries. A style blasphemer, Coleman’s “clean” beers are produced at TRVE’s brewpub, but at his separate 7,000-square-foot Acid Temple, he experiments with mixed-culture and spontaneous beers. Coleman spent two years creating his house bacteria-yeast blend, building it up from zero, and now it will evolve overtime and develop a house character. Inspired by great Belgian brewing traditions, Coleman’s goal is modest: to have the best brewery in Colorado.         

Beers that clinched it:

  • Hellion American Table Beer
  • Burning off Impurities Amber Ale 
Artisan: Josh Gertzen and Gerry Kim, Frozen Matter

The romantic notion of the modern artisan often leaves out the grittier, sweatier side of creating an exceptional product—like ice cream. It’s fun, it’s nostalgic, it’s universally loved! But to make exceptional scoops requires a level of fanaticism, obsession, and attention to detail that’s borderline maniacal. Frozen Matter founders Gerry Kim and Josh Gertzen know this because they live it every day. They custom-design and painstakingly test their ice cream bases to accommodate mix-ins—we’re talking hand-massaged rose petals and Kewpie (yes, mayo, for their elote flavor!). They also installed a state-licensed dairy within their parlor to ensure quality and lay the groundwork for future growth. It’s a methodology and passion that produces the finest ice creams in Denver and sets Gertzen and Kim apart in the swirl of American ice cream makers. 

Ice Creams that clinched it:

  • Stroopwaffle Ice Cream Sandwich
  • Corn-Bay Ice Cream, Blueberry Compote, Dehydrated Corn, Bay Leaf-Infused Olive Oil, Smoked Maldon, and Raicilla Shot
Artisan: Patrick Kerzetski, Pizzeria Locale

So you think you love pizza? Pizzaiolo Patrick Kerzetski thinks that’s cute. Kerzetski embraces ’za on a whole other level, in all its varied challenges and many glories. From ratios and formulas to flour types, weather, and even when to cut a pie fresh out of a 1,000°F wood-fired oven, Kerzetski nerds-out on every point in the journey from yeast to fresh sauce and bubbling rounds of cheese. As executive chef of Pizzeria Locale, he’s at the helm of a restaurant that rivals its sister-neighbor Frasca as a dining destination. If you want to open a pizzeria, up your pizza game, or just have a damn good slice, you owe Kerzetski a visit—follow the Missy Elliot tunes emanating from the back and the sweet smell of fermentation.  

Pizzas that clinched it:

  • Pizza Margherita
  • Cavolini: Smoked Scamorza, Brussels Sprouts, ‘Nduja, Egg Yolk, and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Artisan: Kevin Nealon, Huckleberry

Kevin Nealon is bridging (one day slamming shut!) the gap between Folgers and the good stuff by helping consumers understand why they should pay more for coffee. Nealon lived in Guatemala for a stretch; it’s where he learned to roast and first met coffee growing families. Through Huckleberry, he’s making a permanent impact on those communities by helping them build single-farmer, micro-lot programs for which they can fetch higher prices, and he’s banding together with other buyers to create more demand. He has his eye on Burundi and Rwanda next, because coffee is relatively new there and has the largest potential to make an impact on people’s lives. We’ll drink to that—preferably a delicious washed/natural Sidama blend from Beriti, Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia; the light roast allows a profile reminiscent of Earl Grey to step forward.  

Coffees that clinched it:

  • Don Pedro, Pedro Trejo, Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, Washed 
  • Beriti, Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia, Washed/Natural Blend
Artisan: Nate Singer, Blackbelly Market

If unfurled, Charcutier Nate Singer’s intern wait-list would be as long as cow, from nose to tail. His knowledge of butchery is matched only by his passion. But curing meats is a convenient sideline. Singer is in the business of sustaining ranching communities. He isn’t buying the “prime” of a herd. He’s buying the herd, knowing that ranchers have invested the same time, money, and resources in each animal. Singer calls his Blackbelly shop an “education station.” A full apprenticeship takes three years, but there’s an open-door policy for local chefs. With transparency and sustainability at heart, Singer has no plans to expand outside Colorado. If you want to learn or get a taste of Blacklbelly’s exquisite meats, you’ve got to come to Boulder.
Charcuterie that clinched it:

  • Venison Salami 
  • Mountain Coppa 
Sommelier: Chris Dunaway, The Little Nell

Since The Little Nell opened in 1989, 10 Master Sommeliers have passed through its cellars. When Chris Dunaway sits for the master exam in 2018, that number will likely grow. Under the direction of Carlton McCoy, Dunaway leads a team of 12 and acts as a vino mentor to staff (40 of whom have some level of wine certification). And with staff changes occurring seasonally, Dunaway embraces the challenge of regularly training a new crew from around the country and world. On the floor, Dunaway relishes finding where the highest quality expression of a region intersects with affordability, as when uncorking a 2008 De Forville Barbaresco for a decadent squab-truffle tortellini. With ease, integrity, and practicality, Dunaway is continuing an American wine legacy.    

Pairings that clinched it:

  • Moreau Naudet, Gran Cru Chablis, Valmur, 2013 paired with Pacific Razor Clams
  • Tempranillo, Gran Reserva 904, La Rioja Alta, Rioja, Spain, 2005 paired with Rack of Lamb, Brussels Sprouts, Scallion, and Ginger
Sommelier: Carlin Karr, Frasca Food & Wine

Carlin Karr has style. Her modus operandi is no nonsense and laid back. For many visitors, a meal at Frasca Food & Wine is a long-awaited introduction to restaurants in the region, making Karr the tip of the spear for Colorado dining. Though her wine knowledge is vast, she approaches pairings with a sense of wonder. Uncorking a bottle of 2014 Pierre Gonon St. Joseph Syrah, in all its bright violet-y glory, can make her giddy. That energy is an important tool because it’s contagious. Carr is a teacher and mentor to a slew of young wine professionals at Frasca, where half the staff is certified. And with Masters as her own mentors, the coveted pin, no doubt, will someday soon rest on her lapel.     

Pairings that clinched it:

  • Nebbiolo, Cerretta, Giancomo Conterno, Piedmont, Italy, 2009 with Agnolotti del Plin: Pork, Beef, Proscuitto, Sage, and Summer Truffle 
  • Friulano, Vigna Del Rolat, Dario Raccaro, Friuli, Italy, 2015 OR Red Blend, Collio Rosso, Borgo del Tiglio, Friuli, Italy, 2009 with Braised Pork Shoulder, Red Cabbage, Potato, Hazelnut, Apple, and Horseradish  
Bartender: Austin Carson, Mizuna

The cocktail list at Mizuna is what happens when a bartender doesn’t so much come up through the ranks as establish order on his own, questioning everything and exploring the craft on his terms. It’s the imprint of Austin Carson. Carson’s back bar is his medium, not his inspiration. Having come to the bar from the wine world with Mizuna’s kitchen crew as sidekicks, he’s a fearless, meticulous, exuberant experimenter with a clear but unconventional culinary voice. Carson has dropped egg whites (for the most part) in favor of vegan aquafaba. His Pujol-inspired barrel-aged Manhattan Madre is replenished nightly and will evolve over years. As Bonanno group wine director and Mizuna bartender, Carson represents the growing reach, influence, and creative potential of the contemporary beverage professional.     

Drinks that clinched it:

  • Manhattan Madre: Russel's Rye, Pune e Mes, Maraschino, Absinthe, Orange Bitters, and Angostura Bitters
  • Ghostwriter: Cimarrón Blanco Tequila, Roasted Beet-Candy Corn Syrup, Lime Juice, and Mezcal
Bartender: Nicole Laurita, Williams & Graham

At 23, Nicole Laurita walked into a bar and took one sip of a Blood & Sand. Four years later, she emerged as head bartender of that bar and the bar next door. Laurita runs the show at Williams & Graham and the more casual Occidental. Starting from porter, she learned to balance her bartender’s-choice personality with the rigors of mixing at a world-class bar. A Scotch lover and rum proponent, Laurita mixes booze-y drinks with bold flavors, such as her tiki Blackstrap Bootstraps with Blackstrap rum, Gran Classico, pineapple, and port or the Vulcan Nerve Pinch made with bell pepper and rosemary. When she was hired, the staff was mostly men. Today, Laurita's staff of 19 is about half women. She’s not only part of a change, she's leading and inspiring it. 

Drinks that clinched it:

  • Serenity Now: Cocoa Nib-infused Mezcal, Liquor 43, Averna, Heering Coffee Liqueur, and Xocolatl Mole Bitters
  • Vulcan Nerve Pinch: St. George Green Chile Vodka, Lime Juice, Simple Syrup, Rosemary Tincture, Green Bell Pepper Juice, and Rosemary
Restaurateurs: Steven Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton , Acorn

He came up through the storied kitchens of Le Cirque and Jean-Georges, but rather than running his group on the old-school model, Steve Redzikowski’s management style is based on mutual respect. He and partner Bryan Dayton stand shoulder to shoulder with their 150 employees on the floor, behind the bar, and on the line. Full-time employees have health insurance; managers are salaried and their phone bills are covered. Line cooks get a $75 stipend to dine out as long as they write a report. If you want to stage, Dayton and Redzikowski will cover the appropriate costs. The Oak-Acorn-Brider group isn’t growing for the sake of it. It’s growing because Redzikowski and Dayton are dedicated to developing and creating opportunity for their staff, who just so happen to serve some of the best food in the region.  

  • Palisades Peaches, Tomatoes, Basil, Fried Bread, Kalamata Olive Caramel, and Mozzarella
  • Roasted Sweet Potato and Avocado Salad