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I want people's eyes to roll into the back of their heads when they eat my food," says Elise Wiggins, the über-talented executive chef of Panzano, a Northern Italian restaurant in the Hotel Monaco. Food, like sex, should always be sensual, she explains. The lovely Louisiana native would put her hands in different foods to familiarize herself with textures, and always knew that she'd like to be a chef. "Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to cook," says Wiggins, who cooked in kitchens throughout South America, Mexico and the South and ended up in Colorado because of intuition. "I had this calling at a young age that I wanted to cook in Colorado. This is where I want to live and die. My soul is here."
And so are her cattle. Wiggins recently partnered exclusively with John and Debbie Medved, who raise certified Black Angus steers and Scottish Highlands cattle at their Bear Mountain Ranch in Genesee. Wiggins is now buying entire steers from the ranch for Panzano, with the intent of utilizing as much of the steer, from nose to tail, as possible. "I'm a country girl, and when I was growing up, we'd break down the whole animal," says Wiggins. "We didn't waste much of anything."
And that seems to be Wiggins's motto: Waste not, want not. I recently sat down with the Panzano chef over coffee and telling tarot-card readings to talk about her new beef partnership with the Medveds, her aversion to yelling and throwing plates in the kitchen, her disdain for bulls' testicles and her admiration for Julia Child.
Six words to describe your food: Big, bold, umami, multi-layered, texturally complex.
Ten words to describe you: Naughty, energetic, loyal, passionate, creative, adventurous, competitive, driven, playful and direct.
Culinary inspirations: Julia Child. I didn't watch Sesame Street as a child; I watched Julia Child cook. She was so much fun — she took the stuffiness out of cooking. I want to be her...
Proudest moment as a chef: I was a line cook at a Dallas restaurant called Grotto when, for the first time since I'd been cooking, I cooked something — a duck sausage that we stuffed — that was totally mine, and the customers loved it. Not long after that night, we put that dish on the menu. It was such a feel-good moment for me, with lots of oohs and aahs.
Favorite ingredient: Pesto. It goes with everything — steaks, pasta, eggs, seafood, you name it. Right now at the restaurant I'm doing a bisteca with pesto and arugula salad, and it's the number-one best-seller on the menu. It's so light and refreshing that it can take something heavy like a steak and make it lighter. I don't know why pesto isn't the next condiment...like ranch.
Favorite Colorado product: My beef. It's raised for me organically in the foothills on a ranch with 600 acres of open field. They feed on Colorado alfalfa hay — the Cadillac of all feed — finished with corn, and the beef has a shocking amount of marbling and tastes fabulous.
Most overrated ingredient: Filet mignon. It's the most expensive cut of meat — all because of demand — and yet it doesn't have any fat, so it doesn't have any flavor. It's just soft...and that's it. Customers will sometimes ask for it, but I refuse to have it my menu. That's where I draw the line.
Most undervalued ingredient: Outside skirt steak. It's got so much marbling, and it's not only tender, juicy and full of fatty flavor, but you can cook it until it's completely done and it will still taste great — plus it's cheap.
Best food city in America: Yikes. That's hard, but I love Atlanta because of the farm mecca that surrounds it — and because of the long growing season, chefs can get whatever fruit and vegetables they want. It's a great place for livestock, too. Then there's Seattle, where you can catch your fish right out of the water and have it on your plate that same day. The fish tastes just like ocean, and it's all right there in front of you. There's no shelf life.
Favorite music to cook by: Billie Holiday. She's sultry and romantic, which is usually how I feel when I'm cooking.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: My staff can't come in with an attitude. If they're the least bit pissy, I won't let them on the line; they can either go home or check it. I'm really lucky, though, because the crew that I have is so congenial. We have an open kitchen at Panzano, and I insist that it be a happy place to cook — that you must be in a happy place emotionally. I also tell everyone that I want them fat, which is why each person at every station has a spoon so they can taste the food. I can seriously turn into the devil if my crew isn't trying the food while they're cooking. I'm a Nazi about that. And If I catch someone trying to pass something over me — and then call them on it — their eyes turn into puppy eyes. I always tell my staff: Don't make my head pop off and land in Mississippi.