Cafe Society

Jen Jasinski's James Beard win felt like a lifetime achievement -- although her career is cooking

Prince Harry might have stopped by The Market on Monday, but the real royalty was right down the street, at Rioja. Just a week before, Jennifer Jasinski, the chef who opened that Larimer Square restaurant with business partner Beth Gruitch almost a decade ago, was named Best Chef Southwest at the James Beard Foundation Awards -- the first Denver chef to win the honor.

See also: - Jen Jasinski and Frasca Food and Wine win James Beard awards - Chef and Tell with Jennifer Jasinski of Rioja and Bistro Vendome - Jorel Pierce a semi-finalist for James Beard rising star; four more chefs make the cut

"In retrospect, it felt like a lifetime-achievement award, it was so long in the making," Jasinski says. "It felt good to get recognition from my peers." Even though her seat in row J at Avery Fisher Hall in New York for the awards ceremony on May 6 seemed like something of an omen, the win still came as a big surprise, since this region is usually won by chefs from Santa Fe or Houston or Aspen or, in a pinch, Boulder. (Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson of Frasca Food and Wine was named Best Chef Southwest in 2008; Frasca won for Outstanding Wine Program this year.)

The win came as such a big surprise, in fact, that Jasinski started her acceptance speech with this: "Holy crap!"

(At the time the awards announcement was made in New York, a crew from Rioja was serving up Jasinski's signature pea risotto at Women Cook, a benefit for Work Options for Women -- and the exclamations of excitement over Jasinski's win were just as effusive...and perhaps a tad more profane.)

And while Jasinski, who's been in Denver for thirteen years (after eleven years with Wolfgang Puck, she became chef at Panzano, in the Hotel Monaco, before deciding to try her own place) didn't get to thank everyone she would have liked to acknowledge, her acceptance speech still came across as genuine and heartfelt. Much like her food at Rioja, where she continues to have both hands in the kitchen, even though she and Gruitch now also own Bistro Vendôme and Euclid Hall, and even though "I am trying to give my guys more responsibility," Jasinski says.

Those guys are up to the challenge: Chef Jorel Pierce has made a name for himself at Euclid Hall -- he was a semi-finalist in the Beard Rising Star category -- and chef Dana Rodriguez has done the same at Bistro Vendôme; she worked with Jasinski at Panzano, then moved with her to Rioja.

Still, even with those class acts in the kitchen, there are always unexpected problems in the restaurant business -- including a cook who broke a collarbone while Jasinski was out of town, so on her first day back in Denver, she was in Rioja's kitchen again, shucking peas and firing up the burners. "We're in the weeds," she says. "That's my glamorous life."

And while the Beard award might have felt like a lifetime achievement honor, Jasinski is far from done. "Beth and I want to do another restaurant," she admits. It probably won't be in Larimer Square, home to their trio of lauded, chef-driven spots; they have ideas of what they'd like to do, but are keeping quiet on any other details.

Besides, they still have work to do with their current restaurants, keeping them fresh as the restaurant business evolves. "We want to keep the ones we have great," Jasinski says. "Beth and I will have meetings: How do we stay on top of our game?" For starters, they keep putting any money they make back into the restaurants; Jasinski says she hasn't taken a raise in ten years. And she's not giving herself a bonus for winning the Beard, either.

Holy crap!

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly PBS12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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