It's a roster that includes some of the biggest and boldest names in Denver's culinary landscape: Matt Selby, Sean Yontz, Ian Kleinman, Kevin Morrison and Jorel Pierce. Those are the five chefs that Leigh Sullivan, president of Leigh Sullivan Enterprises, has chosen to round out this year's FIVE, a jackpot of local kitchen wizards who band together and cook at various events throughout Colorado, including the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, and at the James Beard House in New York, every September.
See also: - Six kick-ass Denver chefs, a stellar mixologist and one meaty sausage slinger: Foodography from the James Beard House dinner in New York - Start spreading the news: The Denver FIVE bring their Mile High culinary magic to the James Beard House in New York - Restaurateur Leigh Sullivan on the making, evolution and success of the Denver chef clan known as The Five
This is the sixth year of FIVE, the brainchild of Sullivan, a former restaurateur, who, along with her ex-husband, Troy Guard, opened TAG and TAG RAW BAR on Larimer Square and several more (now-closed) restaurants, including Nine75, Ocean and Emogene.
Sullivan, who says she "hatched" the Five concept after watching five chefs in the kitchen of Vesta Dipping Grill bantering about food, has always maintained that the Denver dining scene is better -- much better -- than many people perceive, and it's that drive, she says, to solidify Denver as a formidable restaurant landscape, that continues to motivate her. "I'm a lifelong restaurateur and restaurant guru, and I've traveled and dined at restaurants all around the world, but the fact of the matter is that I've had much better meals in Denver than in San Francisco, New York, and even Paris, and when I conceived FIVE, it was, first and foremost, because I wanted to showcase all of the amazing talent that we have in this city," she explains. And she admits, too, that she wanted to give Guard, to whom she was married for several years -- the two formed Sullivan Restaurant Group together -- an opportunity to strut his own culinary flair in a city where he was a relative unknown.
"Troy moved here from New York -- he was an outsider -- and I wanted him to be accepted into the Denver chef community. I wanted him to have a platform to showcase his talent and play in the same arena as the other great chefs in Denver," she says. Since the first crop of FIVE chefs -- Guard was in that first group -- Sullivan has worked closely with dozens more -- thirty to be exact.
FIVE, she says, contrary to what some may claim, is not an "elitist fraternity of chefs." The night she had dinner at Vesta and witnessed the chefs in the kitchen having a "bro moment and completely bonding over food," she reiterates, was a "magical aha! moment that simply made me realize that I wanted to do something that would show all of those other cities that Denver's chef community is doing amazing things in this city -- and Goddammit, we're right up there with the best of them."
And this year's platoon, she says, are "chefs who have really, really shaped my dining experiences in Denver."
Each year, Sullivan includes an alum of FIVE, in this case, Selby, the chef/partner and general manager of Corner House, to be the mentor. "It's important to me to include an original alum -- a chef on hand who's been through it so they can lend their experience and knowledge to the new chefs," she explains.
Yontz, the exec chef of El Diablo, says Sullivan, "came on the Denver scene and really made a difference. I'm completely, totally in love with his style of cuisine; he's one of the most amazing, talented chefs in Denver, and he has real star power." Sullivan describes Morrison, the chef-owner of Pinche Tacos, as the "sleeper of the group." Morrison, of course, in renowned for his killer tacos, but, points out Sullivan, he's also a "superstar Italian chef." This is a guy, she adds that "makes me school-girl giddy -- I can't wait to see what Kevin can do."
Sullivan also landed Kleinman, the founder of the Inventing Room -- and one of the most innovative chefs in Denver, who's known far and wide for his molecular marvels. "The guy is such a kitchen magician and his talents are limitless, plus he's so genuine and smart," says Sullivan, noting, too, that's she's "never tapped into that molecular realm."
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And then there's Pierce, the 28-year-old chef de cuisine at Euclid Hall, whom Sullivan calls the "young gun." He's "just so damn smart, and he challenges me, more so than any other chef who's been a member of FIVE," she admits. "That guy has asked more questions and done more due diligence than any chef I've worked with, and I think we can all expect great things from him." The FIVE also includes a sixth star: wine and cocktail genius, Jonathan Greschler, the wine director of Old Major, opening in the spring.
"Every single one of these guys goes back to what's make me tick, and they've all contributed so much to the success of the Colorado culinary scene. The fifth year was a milestone for me and the FIVE team, but this year is looking better than ever," says Sullivan.
The FIVE will host dinners and events throughout Denver over the course of this year, cook at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, June 14-16, and then swagger their culinary prowess at the James Beard House on Thursday, September 12. And if you want to go, you'd better by your seat now: the dinner is nearly sold out. To purchase tickets, go to denverfive.com