Five women strong. That's the overriding sentiment behind the FIVE class of 2014: Nadine Donovan (Old Major), Aniedra Nichols (Elway's Cherry Creek), Carrie Shores (Table 6), Elise Wiggins (Panzano) and Jenna Johansen (Epicurean Group), all of whom have been tapped as the chefs who will lead PR consultant Leigh Sullivan's brigade of kitchen magicians in 2014.
FIVE, now in its seventh year, is Sullivan's self-described "passion project," and it's the first time in its seven-year history that an all-woman group has been chosen to represent Denver in a multitude of culinary events that span from Aspen to New York City, where the FIVE gather in the kitchen of the James Beard House in September to cook for the culinary cognoscenti.
"I'm super-excited to work with all these amazing, strong females, and I'm even more excited to see what they have up their sleeves," says Sullivan, whose own pillar of strength was shattered late last year when Jeff Parr, her friend and business partner in Leigh Sullivan Enterprise -- and an integral part of FIVE -- suddenly passed away in his sleep on December 21. "With the continuation of FIVE, we're keeping Jeff's legacy going, and we're planning to give away scholarships in his name to honor that legacy," says Sullivan.
And the females of FIVE -- some of whom worked closely with Parr -- will be right behind her. Nichols, for example, who has been in the kitchen of Elway's for several years, alongside chef Tyler Wiard, an original member of FIVE, spent a lot of her spare time cooking with Wiard at several FIVE events. "Aniedra was essentially a part of FIVE for the first five years, always helping out Tyler, and it just made sense to have her be a part of this all-female group, plus she's just awesome," says Sullivan
Wiggins, notes Sullivan, was also a favorite chef of Parr. "Elise was his girl," she says. "He loved her, and so do I. She's a total badass, and I'm so impressed by her food and the way she takes command and can handle any situation. She's completely blows me away"
Sullivan first met Shores, who was recently named the executive chef of Table 6, when former exec chef Scott Parker departed to oversee the line at Session Kitchen, at Pablo's Coffee, where Sullivan says they completely hit it off. "It just felt right, and she's worked really, really hard to get where she's at, and I really respect that. She's fierce," notes Sullivan.
And despite her petite frame, so is Donovan, the pastry chef of Old Major, who will be the designated pastry chef of FIVE. "She's young and fearless," observes Sullivan, "and I've never had anything but spectacular desserts at Old Major, plus I just really like her demeanor."
Johansen, the innovation chef of Epicurean Catering -- and a member of FIVE in its fifth year -- is back this year as FIVE's alum. "She's strong and opinionated, and man, can she cook her ass off," Sullivan notes. "And she's just a really good person," she adds.
And this year's troop of chefs, continues Sullivan, really is all about girl power. In previous years, she's always had a designated male beverage team, including Acorn and Oak at Fourteenth's Bryan Dayton, to command the wine and cocktail side of FIVE, but this year, the "men have taken a backseat," she says. Nonetheless, Steven Waters and Sullivan's fiancee, Travis Plakke, both of whom have been involved in FIVE in the past, will be at the disposal of the women chefs, if only to ensure that the beverage program is solid.
"It's a new year with a lot of changes, and I'm super-psyched about that," says Sullivan. "It's an awesome collaboration of old and new faces, and everyone is as passionate about this as I am. It's going to be a great year for FIVE."
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The first FIVE at FIVE dinner will take place at Panzano on Monday, April 21, and throughout the year, each chef will host an event at her respective restaurant. Seats to the Panzano dinner will go on sale in late March. And mark your calendars, too, for the FIVE James Beard dinner in New York, which is scheduled for September 17.