Chef Elise Wiggins has been behind the burners at Panzano in the Hotel Monaco for the past twelve years, but now she's ready to embark on a new chapter. The chef's last day at Panzano was yesterday, May 12, and she's in the final stages of launching something new on her own. Although she can't yet reveal all the details, she says it will be "exciting Italian" and that she will be the full owner. "I'm really, really excited — I'm hovering instead of walking," she adds.
Wiggins moved to Denver in 2004 expressly to work at Panzano and has become one of the leading chefs in the city's culinary boom, embracing whole-animal butchery and local sourcing years before those became de rigueur in Colorado kitchens, and earning our Best Italian Restaurant award multiple times, most recently in 2015. She says she owes the success of the restaurant to the entire team surrounding her: "We had the most amazing team, and many of our employees were in the kitchen for the entire twelve years...in the front of the house, too," she says.
"We won so many awards," she continues. "Panzano is seventeen-years-old and a hotel restaurant. We're an old dog in a new scene, but we managed to compete."
Wiggins kept the menu innovative at Panzano by visiting Italy regularly, often more than once a year, and bringing in guest chefs from top restaurants in Italy and the U.S. Under her leadership, several other chefs have garnered attention, including Kira Moritz, who now helms Steel Magnolia's in Valdosta, Georgia; pastry chef Amy Sayles, who now runs her own catering company; chef Zurisadai Resendiz, who was named to Zagat's 2015 "30 Under 30" list; and pastry chef Gabriela Navas, who was named a rising star by the Denver Post earlier this year.
Most of Wiggins's career has centered on Italian cuisine. She came to Colorado from Memphis, and before that worked at an AAA four-diamond Italian eatery in Puerto Rico.
Although her work at Panzano is done, Wiggins isn't slowing down before she launches her own project. "I've been burning the candle at both ends for the past year," she notes. And she'll be filling what little spare time she has with private dinners and cooking demos at the Union Station farmers' market this summer.
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The Kimpton Group, which owns the Hotel Monaco and Panzano, released the following statement:
While we are truly sorry to see chef Elise Wiggins go after an incredible twelve years at Panzano, we are also excited for her as she starts her next chapter. She has gained broad recognition through accolades like Zagat’s Best Restaurant Award and Four Diamonds by AAA six years in a row and significantly elevated the dining experience in this city.
We are launching a nationwide search for a new executive chef and look forward to continuing to serve our customers in true Panzano style — bringing a little bit of Italy to Denver with our outstanding contemporary Northern Italian Cuisine, award winning wine list and the service that makes us a true standout in the community.”