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Best Chef: A nostalgic look back at our Best of Denver chef winners

Westword's 2011 Best Rising Star Chef Samir Mohammad, now at Lala's Pizzeria + Wine Bar.
Westword's 2011 Best Rising Star Chef Samir Mohammad, now at Lala's Pizzeria + Wine Bar.
Lori Midson

In just a few short hours, the Best of Denver 2013 will start hitting the street -- and the web. This year's edition is packed with more than 400 winners (we're still counting). One of the most anticipated categories in our Food & Drink section is also one of the the most coveted: Best Chef. In advance of this year's unveiling, here's a look back at some of our winners in various chef categories. And here's a hint about who might be our pick for this year's Best Chef: He's one of the kitchen magicians already ballyhooed below.

See also:

- Best New Restaurant: Our ten winners over the past decade

- Denver's ten best new restaurants of 2012

- Denver's ten best new bars of 2012

Samir Mohammad

Then: The Village Cork

Now: Lala's Wine Bar + Pizzeria

Won: Best Rising Star Chef - 2012

Forget Smashburger and Chipotle. Samir Mohammad, the chef of Village Cork, is the best thing to emerge in Denver in years. Long before he could drive, the Miami-born kitchen king, who was raised in New Mexico, was blistering his hands cooking red and green chile, flipping burgers and tossing pizzas, shaping a culinary career that would ultimately lead him to Denver -- and to his own unassailable brand of globe-trotting cuisine, which he shares with enamored diners who drop their jaws in awe at each plate. His kitchen might be limited in equipment, but there's no end to his mad talent and chutzpah.

Lon Symensma, exec chef and co-owner of ChoLon.
Lon Symensma, exec chef and co-owner of ChoLon.

Lon Symensma

Then and now: ChoLon Modern American Bistro

Won: Best Chef - 2012

One hit restaurant won't be enough for Lon Symensma, whose prominence in Denver's culinary scene has risen like the perfect soufflé. But until the culinary luminary unleashes a spinoff to ChoLon, his Asian-influenced restaurant downtown, we'll continue to curtsy and bow at his feet for gracing our city with a remarkably refined restaurant and a menu that displays his pivotal role in influencing how we eat. Focused, provocative and ambitious, Symensma's beautifully presented dishes run wild -- as does his imagination -- and the results are nothing short of stunning. Open your mouth and you'll understand why there's a continued clamor for his food...and more of his restaurants.

Jeff Osaka, chef-owner of twelve.
Jeff Osaka, chef-owner of twelve.
Mark Manger

Jeff Osaka

Then and now: twelve

Won: Best Chef-Inspired Restaurant - 2012

It's the blind leading the blind, those people who shun Jeff Osaka's twelve because they make the mistake of assuming it resides in a so-called "sketchy" neighborhood. It doesn't. And frankly, we'd go to far worse areas just for the chance to eat a meal from the likes of Osaka. He's a serious culinary craftsman whose commitment to cooking -- and to his fellow chefs -- is unmatched, as is his food, a deft marriage of comfort and current. Add in the fact that he offers a creative, affordable prix fixe menu, and you have one of the most satisfying restaurant experiences in the city...in any neighborhood.

Max McKissock, chef and co-owner of the Squeaky Bean.
Max McKissock, chef and co-owner of the Squeaky Bean.
Lori Midson

Max MacKissock

Then and now: Squeaky Bean

Won: Best Chef - 2011

The Squeaky Bean may very well be Denver's most wickedly irreverent restaurant, which is just one of the reasons it's such an alluring escape when you need a mood-lifter that's legal. Owner and head bean-counter Johnny Ballen has a wonderfully warped mind that's resulted in the erection of a Farrah Fawcett shrine, a bingo billboard and the flight of helium-filled balloons through the room, ensuring that no one walks out in a cloud of bitterness. But while all of those things add to the Bean's magnetism, it's executive chef Max MacKissock's sensational cooking that really seals the deal. A healthy dose of playfulness -- and provocation -- prevails in everything he touches, from his modernized TV dinners and duo of grilled quail squatting on a Coors Light can to his Italian wedding soup, prepared so brilliantly that you want to weep. And then there's the profoundly innovative -- and completely refashioned -- "green chile" lofted with foie gras and downplayed with Fritos. MacKissock isn't afraid to drop culinary bombshells, and his risk-taking tendencies thus far have resulted in enthusiastic reviews from foodniks near and far. Few chefs understand exactly what it takes to make a palate soar like MacKissock does, and for everything he does, and everything he will do, we give thanks.

Jorel Pierce, chef de cuisine of Euclid Hall.
Jorel Pierce, chef de cuisine of Euclid Hall.
Lori Midson

Jorel Pierce

Then and now: Euclid Hall

Won: Best Rising Star Chef - 2011

Jorel Pierce worked the line at Rioja for nearly four years under chef Jennifer Jasinski (who owns Rioja, Euclid Hall and Bistro Vendôme with business partner Beth Gruitch) before taking his maverick prowess to Euclid Hall, where he now mans the kitchen. Pierce is confident, brilliantly innovative and, at 26, one of the city's youngest kitchen kingpins to pioneer a line that turns out what may very well be the most ambitiously executed menu in Denver. His board, a witty, pithy digest of under-represented foodstuffs -- blood sausage, for instance -- dazzles, as does he. "This is my life, this is what I do, and I take it very, very seriously," Pierce says of his craft -- a craft that's just beginning to shape a very bright future.

Frank Bonanno, owner and exec chef of Bonanno Concepts.
Frank Bonanno, owner and exec chef of Bonanno Concepts.
Lori Midson

Frank Bonanno

Then: Mizuna, Luca D'Italia and Osteria Marco

Now: All of the above, plus Bones, Vesper Lounge, Green Russell, Russell's Smokehouse, Lou's Food Bar and Wednesday's Pie

Won: Best Chef - 2005, 2008 and 2009

Frank Bonanno envisioned Mizuna a neighborhood fine-dining restaurant before that trend became de rigueur in every neighborhood in town. Then came Luca d'Italia, a great little Italian restaurant that hit before this city got overrun with great little Italian restaurants, back in the day (not so long ago) when the city really was a red-sauce wasteland. There were a couple of missteps along the way (Milagro, Harry's), but Bonanno came back strong with Osteria Marco in Larimer Square, a beautiful, honest and low-to-the-ground osteria offering (more or less) pig, pig, pig and wine. And now he has Bones -- the noodle bar that's not really a noodle bar, the Asian restaurant that ain't Asian. There are a lot of people on the restaurant scene who don't love Bonanno, who are annoyed by his pride, his ego and the fact that he doesn't keep his mouth shut when he sees something being done wrong. Thing is, those are exactly the reasons that we like the guy. Because he reminds us of a chef -- a loud-mouthed, occasionally crazy, always commanding sonofabitch who can back up every quirk and tirade because not only does he already operate three of the best restaurants in the city, but now, officially, the Best New Restaurant in Denver for 2009.

Rebecca Weitzman, former chef of Cafe Star.
Rebecca Weitzman, former chef of Cafe Star.
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Rebecca Weitzman

Then: Cafe Star (RIP)

Now: Clarkson Restaurant, New York City

Won: Best Chef - 2006

Rebecca Weitzman is a natural, a smart, hardworking chef who runs the kitchen at Cafe Star, one of the best houses in the city. She wrote (and continues to refine) a menu that took the overused, overworked, insipid and childish notion of comfort food, knocked the dust off and -- with a rigorous application of skill and intelligence to a style of cooking that generally showcases neither -- made magic. She's trained a crack crew of cooks who will someday take all they've learned from her and use it in their own houses to bolster the ranks of big-hatted white-jackets in town. And through it all, Weitzman has consistently performed at a level higher than that to which most chefs aspire, and definitely higher than many will ever achieve. Her food is nearly flawless, her vision pure, her talents formidable. Weitzman is the best.

Sean Kelly, chef of all trades.
Sean Kelly, chef of all trades.
Lori Midson

Who: Sean Kelly

Then: Clair de Lune (RIP)

Now: LoHi SteakBar

Won: Best Chef - 2004

Sean Kelly's restaurant, Clair de Lune, is almost beyond categorizing. Although it's very small -- Kelly can seat a maximum of twenty people in the dining room and three at the bar -- it's huge in terms of its importance in the interlocking mesh of Denver's food scene. It's not known for a particular dish, because they're all so good and because they change week to week and often day to day. Although technically it's a Mediterranean restaurant, because that's the broad area of the world from which Kelly draws his inspiration, that label doesn't do Clair de Lune justice, either. The menu, though compact, is impossible to pigeonhole into some imposed classification. But whatever his restaurant may be, one thing's indisputable: Sean Kelly is the best chef in Denver. Which also means the best owner, best cook and best manager. He has the best kitchen at the warm and frantic center of the best house in Denver; the best tables, attended to by the best staff, with the best food in the city. Kelly's our man, our chef. He's simply Denver's best.

Radek Cerny, chef-owner of L'Atelier in Boulder.
Radek Cerny, chef-owner of L'Atelier in Boulder.
Photo taken by Chris Davies.

Who: Radek Cerny

Then and now: L'Atelier

Won: Best Rebirth of a Chef - 2004

A year ago, Radek Cerny -- formerly of Papillon (now Indigo), formerly of Radex (now Opal), formerly of Le Chantecler (still Le Chantecler, only better) -- looked like he might be down for the count. One by one, he'd closed the crown jewels of his restaurant empire. Among local foodies, the opinion was that it was about time: Cerny's cooking had become increasingly derivative and copycat, his name synonymous with certain (mostly potato-related) excesses that were more recognizable on the plate than his touch was in the kitchen. But then came L'Atelier -- The Artistry of Radek Cerny -- and all that speculation went straight out the window. This was Radek re-energized. Radek times ten. Like an aging prizefighter getting his second wind, he came out swinging with a new restaurant that wasn't just great for Denver, but great on a national scale. Every smart, innovative, bizarre thing Cerny had ever done in his entire career was crammed into this single expression of his unique vision, then doodled with sauce, stood on its ear and lit on fire. This workshop became a brilliant showcase for the skills that Cerny had always had, but that had gotten buried beneath the name and the reputation. L'Atelier is a fabulous house -- a chef's kitchen operating in constant tribute to the man whose name it bears. Welcome back, Radek. We didn't know how much we missed you till you were gone.

For more from our Best of Denver issue, take a look at this year's Food & Drink winners.