Chef and Tell with Jennifer Jasinski from Rioja and Bistro Vendome
Unless you've been in self-imposed isolation or mandatory lockdown, you've no doubt heard the news: Jennifer Jasinski, executive chef/co-owner of Rioja and Bistro Vendôme, is just months away from opening Euclid Hall Bar and Kitchen, an American tavern that she describes as a "lively place where people can come and drink a few beers and nosh, maybe eat some bone marrow, some great bread, definitely crudo and a really great cheese plate, and, hell, maybe even some fried pigs' ears."
Oh, and another thing? "It'll be open late," she promises. It might even become a chef hangout -- Denver's own Blue Ribbon -- which should appease every cooker in this city who's bitched about Denver's dearth of after-dark joints conducive to good grubbing, guzzling and huddling. "I want it to be fun, playful and interactive," says Jasinski, pausing just long enough to make one more declaration: "I'd love for this to be the most successful tavern in the world."
From another mouth, those words might make eyes roll. But coming from Jasinski, who's no stranger to success -- she worked with Wolfgang Puck for eleven years and has racked up a platter of accolades for her superb talents here in Denver -- that kind of ambition and drive for perfection is just part of her daily routine. After all, we're talking about someone who doesn't have one person on her line at Rioja who isn't trained to do at least three jobs, sometimes more. "One reason why we're so consistent is that I really try to teach my staff how to do everything; everyone is cross-trained, which means that there are always at least three cooks that know how to do each station -- pantry, grill, sauté, pasta and oven," explains Jasinski before switching the subject back to the menu she's developing for Euclid Hall.
"I want to do lots of pickled items, cool po'boys, homemade fresh mustards and lots of in-house sausages -- weisswurst, veal sausage, schnitzel and maybe a fresh andouille," she says. "We really want to have whole carcasses and use everything we possibly can; it's important to know how to utilize everything -- whole pigs, whole lambs, whole fish," she insists, adding that the restaurant's beer selection will be another big draw. "We'll have lots and lots and lots of beer."
With any luck, you'll be sipping one of those brews while leafing through The Perfect Bite, Jasinki's soon-to-be-released cookbook, a 200-page compendium of 86 recipes, all of which are culled from the menus at Rioja. "I've wanted to do a cookbook for a long time, so when the opportunity came up, I started creating in my head, went through all my favorite recipes from the past five years and asked the staff to pick their favorites," explains Jasinski, suddenly breaking into a wide smile. "Not only did I write a book, but every recipe is accompanied by a gorgeous photo. My grandmother would have appreciated that."
Six words to describe your food: Direct, focused, technique-driven, seasonal and flavorful.
Ten words to describe you: Driven, intense, focused, emotional, teacher, leader, gregarious, honest, creative and genuine.
Culinary inspirations: Wolfgang Puck. I worked for him for eleven years, and he never ceased to amaze me. He was such a hard worker and such a great leader; he always let his staff shine. He taught people to think creatively, and I loved how he was a whole restaurateur, not just a chef. I'd like to think that I'm a lot like that. He taught me a ton of skills: how to make risotto, sausages, sauces, how to butcher fish -- pretty much everything. My grandmother was amazing, too. She was a great entertainer who loved to have dinner parties; food was always a very social occasion for her. Her attention to detail was incredible, and she always focused on the whole picture, which rubbed off on me. I'm always inspired by the seasons. When I see something that looks beautiful, I want it. Right now, at Rioja, I'm using these beautiful organic rainbow carrots -- purple, red, white, orange and yellow. They're sweet, like candy.
Proudest moment as a chef: When Wolfgang Puck came into Rioja in 2005 to have dinner, we all sat around the table, and I could just see how proud he was of what I'd achieved. He has these little looks, and I just know what they mean. A month later, he invited me to a City Meals on Wheels event in New York City, where each founding chef -- he was a founding chef -- invited the chef they thought was a rising star. I was really honored, considering he picked me when he could have picked anyone. He did a little foreword in my cookbook, too, which should be out sooner rather than later. I hope...
Favorite ingredient: Preserved lemon is something I can't do without; it adds so much depth and variance to a dish. I love lemons in general, but with preserved lemons, you get the zing of the lemon without the tartness.
Best recent food find: A year ago, we had fun playing with black garlic, and right now I'm really into those rainbow carrots from Grower's Organic.
Most overrated ingredient: Beef tenderloin. It has no fat, and since the muscle hardly gets used, it doesn't have a lot of flavor, either.
Most undervalued ingredient: I love the bitterness and pungency of rapini. It's so awesome braised, because it really balances heavy or rich ingredients.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Arugula grown in our yard. My boyfriend, Max, and I grow as much arugula as we can, and I just can't get enough of it, especially when it's sprinkled on pasta or a salad; it's so peppery and crisp. We also get produce from Aspen Moon farms and Green Earth Farm. Both grow Bordeaux red-stemmed spinach, which is awesome. I love it.
One food you detest: Green peppers. They're unripe and gassy -- and they're not allowed in my restaurant.
One food you can't live without: Butter. It adds so much to everything. The fresh brioche that we make at Rioja is oh, so buttery. I love the way butter smooths things out that are a little off and the way it emulsifies into a sauce. My love of butter goes deep. Nothing takes the place of butter.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: We do a lot of things really well, but I'm not sure we have the best of anything. We've got awesome sushi and awesome Mexican food and awesome young restaurateurs building restaurants and doing their own thing, and as we continue to grow, I think we'll carve out a niche; I'm just not sure what it'll be. Still, we have a lot of incredible restaurant choices, which is very cool.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Late-night dining. I would love to have a place to go for good food after work -- something thoughtful and chef-driven, like Blue Ribbon in New York. Maybe our new restaurant, Euclid Hall, will be that place.
Weirdest customer request: We get so many. When someone asks me to cut their food for them, it seems a bit weird, but I do it anyway. One night we had a big group of businessmen in from -- I don't remember where -- and one of the guys asked if we could get him a wedge salad from the Capital Grille. We obviously said no. I think I was a bit offended.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Don't be afraid of salt and pepper. Well-seasoned food can be the difference between good and great.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: Alex Seidel and Paul Attardi have created an exceptional dining experience at Fruition, and even if they're not there, it's still wonderful. At Olivea, John Broening and Yasmin's [Lozada-Hissom] cuisine of well-thought-out Mediterranean-style dishes is always a delight. It's one of our favorite places, and John's boudin blanc is to die for. And I love Table 6. Aaron Forman is such a wonderful host; his wines are thoughtful, the food rocks, and the atmosphere is fun.
What's next for you? Sometime this summer, we're opening Euclid Hall Bar and Kitchen, which is going to be a fun tavern food concept that's well done and well thought out. It's going to be about whole-animal butchery, which is a challenge for us, but we really want to create our menu around this thought. Along with my business partner, Beth, we're trying to do something really different -- something that no one else is doing in Denver. Let's see what happens.
To read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Jennifer Jasinski, click here.
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