Dana Rodriguez, who's spearheaded the kitchen at Bistro Vendome for just over two years, may be one of the most unheralded chefs in Denver, but that's about to change: In late July, she'll leave that kitchen behind to become the executive chef-partner of Work & Class, a new restaurant that will open in the fall at 2500 Larimer Street.
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Rodriguez, who was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and grew up on a farm, has spent more than a decade working with Jennifer Jasinski, who owns Bistro Vendome, Euclid Hall and Rioja. The two met at Panzano, where Jasinski was cooking prior to opening Rioja, the restaurant where she spends most of her time, and while Rodriguez and Jasinski were behind the line, Tony Maciag was behind the bar. He and Rodriguez became fast friends, and during their time together at Panzano -- now in the expert hands of Elise Wiggins -- they often talked about collaborating on their own restaurant, and earlier this year, Maciag, along with his wife, Delores Tronco, who pioneered the Justice League of Street Food, announced that they were opening Work & Class.
"Fourteen years ago, when we were at Panzano, Tony and I talked about our dream of opening our own restaurant, but at the time, we were both a little inexperienced and didn't have a lot of money, but that dream is becoming a reality," says Rodriguez, whose last night at Bistro Vendome is July 31.
And while Rodriguez hails Jasinski as her mentor, she admits that the opportunity to own her own kitchen was just too lucrative to pass up. "Jen taught me everything. I owe pretty much everything to her, and she gave me amazing opportunities to grow, for which I'm eternally thankful, but I've been doing fine dining for quite a while, and the truth is that I identify with working-class people, and this new opportunity gives me a chance to cook my own food -- food that's in my soul and food that I grew up eating with my family around the table," says Rodriguez.
The Work & Class concept, she adds, is rooted in rotisserie cooking and, she says, "steeped in Hispanic flavors with Southern influences." Her menu, which will trumpet housemade tortillas, biscuits and breads (including gluten-free), is a shrine to braising, smoking and grilling. "Tony has some awesome recipes that he brought from Detroit, including 'City' chicken -- breaded and pan-fried pork and veal cubes on a stick -- and we'll also do roasted chickens, smoked brisket, braised goat and lamb, some grilled fish and cochinita pibil, a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatán Península. It's super-delicious, flavorful food made with lots of love, but it's not fancy," she notes.
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And while Rodriguez admits that a change of scenery -- and her ability to "do my food and my flavors" -- is largely what motivated her to leave Jasinski's kingdom behind, the parting, she says, is bittersweet. "I'm so fucking excited about this -- and to share my ideas with guests and show them that I'm capable of doing my own thing -- but it's very scary to leave Jen and this company, especially since I've learned so much from her."
But like Jasinski, Rodriguez will now have her own stage -- a twelve-foot open kitchen, in which to showcase her own style of food in what she describes as a "very cool, casual and fun concept."
Word has it, too, that Rodriguez's green chile, which will be a side dish on her menu, is unassailable. "The difference between mine and a lot of other green chile, is that I roast all of my chiles and vegetables," she says. "It's my childhood green chile, and it's so, so good, and I'm excited to share it with people."