Chef Elise Wiggins wants you to feel good about food
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.
Favorite New York restaurant: I could go on and on about my favorite New York restaurants...but I love the straightforward and classic approach to food at the Spotted Pig. And I love the rustic Italian food at Babbo, which has got to be one of the only restaurants where you can serve calf's-brains ravioli and actually make money from it. Gramercy Tavern is consistently really fantastic, too, with an almost infallible, tried-and-true technique. If you order a steak at a certain temp at Gramercy Tavern, that's how you're going to get it every time.
One food you detest: Bulls' balls. I don't like the taste at all. Maybe that's why I'm a lesbian.
One food you can't live without: Louisiana hot-pepper sauce. I'll put it on pizza, eggs and on a lot of comfort foods, like red beans and rice. You can make the worst thing in the world palatable with pepper sauce.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: It was 2001, and I was the executive chef at Palio, a four-diamond Westin resort restaurant in Puerto Rico. The chefs were assigned uniforms consisting of black jackets and polyester pants — pants that no one had told me needed to get stitched again because they were so cheap that they'd unravel after a couple of washings. So one day I'm leaning forward while talking to my cooks through the pass-out line with my legs spread and my butt facing the dining rooms and servers stations, and I keep overhearing the male servers saying, "Mira! Mira!" which means, "Look! Look!" But every time I'd turn around, they'd quickly turn away and act like nothing had happened. Finally, a female manager from another restaurant whispered in my ear, "Nice ass!" I thought she was joking and shrugged it off, but she said, "No, no, your pants are split and you can see everything!" I jolted upright, threw my hands around to my backside and completely felt everything exposed from the top of my belt loop to the very middle of my crotch where the seams are sewn together. The kicker was that I wasn't wearing underwear. It's hysterical when I think about it now, but when it happened, I was mortified and wanted to crawl into a hole.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Creative gluten-free dishes. Celiac disease and wheat allergies are on the rise, and more and more people are being diagnosed every day. Wheat's in so many things — ice cream, Tabasco, soy sauce, Twizzlers — and we're putting way too much of it into our bodies, and our bodies are starting to reject it.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Use of products that have pesticides and hormones, and genetically modified foods.
Denver has the best: Ethnic food. I really love Denver's authentic little pockets of ethnic restaurants. Sahara, El Taco de Mexico and Little India's are some of my favorites.
Denver has the worst: Cajun French. I'm not talking about places like Bayou Bob's or Lucile's (love their biscuits, though), but about refined Cajun/Creole food — that collection of old and different cultures that are fused together.
Favorite cookbooks: Pork and Sons, by Stéphane Reynaud; Bones: Recipes, History and Lore, a cookbook by Jennifer Mclagan that uses alternative parts of the animal that most people have never even thought to use; The Splendid Table, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, because all the recipes have a history behind them and the Italians are wonderful storytellers; and Raw Food: Real World, a cookbook by Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis that teaches you how to get full nutrition with full flavors from raw foods. It's also a book that really challenges me to use different techniques at the restaurant.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? I'd love to do a show that's a cross between The Great Race and Top Chef. Chefs would be dropped off in one country with a limited amount of money and have to travel to another country to cook the ultimate meal, while collecting exotic ingredients along the way that they'd also have to transport to their final destination. No travel by car or plane would be allowed, so the chefs would have to get to each country by motorcycles or rail or kayaks — all without letting their food perish. They'd have 48 hours to accomplish this, and that would include the time it takes to prepare the final meal. The other kicker is that each contest would utilize a different cooking method.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Chapulines in Oaxaca. They're fried grasshoppers, and I've got this mental block when it comes to eating bugs. It grosses me out, but I'll try anything once.
Current Denver culinary genius: There's such diversity here that I could give you a litany of people who deserve props, even though guests tell me all the time that we haven't been given enough credit for our culinary talent. I honestly can't name just one or two chefs, because there are so many. I will say, though, that John Imbergamo, who does our PR, is amazing. The man is like an octopus; he has his hands in everything. He's so deeply connected and never betrays a confidence, which is something I really respect. He's a superstar.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Anchovies, peppers and pepperoni.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Crispy housemade pancetta and Fontina cheese.
After-work hangout: My home. I pull fifteen-hour days, plus I work at a lot of fundraisers, and the last thing I want to do at the end of a long day is stay out late and feel lousy in the morning. I'll watch CNN for a little bit, talk to my girlfriend, read a bit and go to bed.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: Potager. It's perfectly executed food with minimal manipulation. Chef Terri Ripetto perfectly pairs ingredients and then lets them speak for themselves.
Favorite celebrity chef: Julia Child. I know she's gone, but she was the best — so funny, entertaining and informative. There will never be another chef as good as she was.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: Giada De Laurentiis. I get it. I know that guys love her. And I like boobs and all, but that's all they show when she cooks. It drives me nuts.
Hardest lesson you've learned: You can't lead a team by force. When I was coming up through the ranks and cooking with Germans and Italians screaming at me and throwing plates, I realized that they were using fear to try and get the best out of me, but instead I was always nervous and would screw up even worse; I'd never get optimum results. I demand perfection, but I never yell, because yelling doesn't motivate people. I want my team to succeed, and I believe in pushing people, but instead of using force and yelling, I always ask, "Where's your love? That's not enough love."
What's next for you? Win the lottery and open my own restaurant. At some point, I'd really like to do an upscale Louisiana, Southern-style place with things like tasso and boudin blanc.
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