Chef Patrick Kelly puts his formidable training to work at Panzano.
Chef Patrick Kelly puts his formidable training to work at Panzano.
Chad Chisholm

Panzano Chef Patrick Kelly on Hotel Hospitality and the Rise of Denver

When Elise Wiggins stepped away from the burners at Panzano — the acclaimed restaurant in the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Denver that she’d overseen for twelve years after taking over for Jennifer Jasinski — the search was on for a chef who could build on her legacy. Enter heavy hitter Patrick Kelly, whose credentials include running the kitchen at some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area: La Folie, Angele and the group that encompasses Gitane, Claudine and Cafe Claude. Kelly met his wife, fellow chef Bridget Batson, at La Folie, and a couple of years ago the two began exploring the possibility of relocating to Denver. When Kelly heard about the job at Panzano, he went for it — and the couple landed here earlier this year.

Kelly rolled out a new menu at Panzano in October. We recently chatted with him about his new culinary home, about how hotel restaurants benefit from a refined sense of hospitality, and what it means to master a cuisine.

Westword: You’ve amassed a pretty impressive résumé in this industry. How did you get started?

Patrick Kelly: I was born in Nebraska, and I went to school in Cheyenne, [where] my father stumbled across the pizzeria L’Osteria Mondello, which is owned by Sicilian immigrants. They were opening a new location with a dining room attached, and I signed on as a busboy. I fell in love with this industry early on. If I wasn’t playing sports, I was working someplace. When I went to school at the University of Wyoming, I started working at Altitude Chophouse. The kitchen manager had Charlie Trotter cookbooks. I opened those cookbooks, and they literally changed my life — I didn’t know you could do that. The creative aspects flipped my lid. So I went to the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park.

And then you went on to put together a pretty star-studded résumé, including stints at Spiaggia in Chicago, Redd in Yountville and La Folie in San Francisco. What brought you back to Denver?

My wife and I knew we wanted to come to Denver. We’ve been trying to get back here for a couple of years, and we’ve been watching it from afar on the blogs. I’ve been watching how quickly restaurants are opening up, of all types and concepts. Everything is really fun. It’s a market-driven restaurant scene, despite being in a desert. I see modern plate-ups. It’s rising, and it’s going to be in the national spotlight shortly, like L.A., Austin and Nashville. In the next couple of years, there’s going to be a lot of focus on what’s happening in Denver. This job came open, and I applied fifteen minutes after it went online. It was an exhaustive interview process — there were like twelve interviews and twelve tastings — but now we’re here, and I can’t wait to get out and eat.

As someone fresh out of a high-stakes restaurant scene, what do you think needs to happen in Denver to continue that upward trajectory?

We’re never going to be jet-set like Chicago and New York, but here, everyone’s interest in diversity and level of expectations are growing. People have been exposed to different types of cuisine and techniques. Slow Food coming to Denver will bring a lot of attention. [Slow Food International is hosting its annual Slow Food Nations festival here July 14-16, 2017.] It’s about staying the course, and visitors and tourists begin to realize this is not a cowtown. It’s a grown-up city; we’re on our way. Those of us who are driven to maintain integrity are only going to help everyone.

In recent years, you’ve worked in high-end French kitchens. Talk to me a little about shifting into Italian at Panzano.

I started with Italian: I started in classic red sauce done at a very high level. Then I went to Spiaggia. There’s always been a strong pasta presence on my menu. I like learning different techniques and pushing myself. The beauty of Italian is that it’s the same as French in its essence — these are country cuisines that are built around warmth of the soul. It’s just good food. There’s a little more of a rustic element to our food, but a lot of the technique, and building sauces, translates directly over.

You’re taking the reins from Elise Wiggins, a formidable presence in this dining scene who presided over this kitchen for a long time. How are you building on what she did?

I’m following in enormous shoes, and that’s not something I take lightly. But I’m aware that I need to speak with my own voice. We’re keeping a lot of the classics at lunch so people know what to expect when they walk in. Dinner, we’re integrating a few more structural changes, especially for appetizers. I have a wonderful sous-chef who is very well trained, and a staff whose enthusiasm is strong.

Can you list a few highlights on the new menu?

The sformato, which is a Parmigiano-reggiano custard. It’s luxurious, and lighter than you’d expect. I’m working on an artichoke salad, playing with different textures and flavors of artichokes. In the pasta, the doppio ravioli [with braised lamb and Calabrian chile] is my favorite. The pasta tasting menu is really fun. Entree-wise, our duck breast is some of the best in the country. Black cod is one of my favorite fishes. That dish is inspired by cioppino and minestrone, which are nice winter dishes.

You were working in a hotel restaurant just prior to coming out here, and now you’re in a hotel restaurant in Denver. Hotel restaurants have come a long way over the past couple of decades. Tell me about your experience working in them.

Lumache pasta with scallop crudo, parsley pesto and Burgundy truffle at Panzano.
Lumache pasta with scallop crudo, parsley pesto and Burgundy truffle at Panzano.
Mark Antonation

I love hotel life — you have a lot more resources to pull off of. The difference between a freestanding restaurant and a hotel restaurant is that there are so many pieces in a hotel restaurant. I like that challenge. Hotel life has also given me a very holistic approach to hospitality. Hotel life is about going the extra mile for a guest who needs a gluten-free muffin in the morning. If you don’t have one, you’re going to the store. You surround yourself with a different attitude. Kimpton is an amazing place to work. I’m surrounded by people with genuine warmth.

Tell me a little more about your hospitality philosophy.

Service is an act; hospitality is a mindset. People aren’t born hospitable, but we as chefs, or front-of-the-house staff, are prone to the thrill of making someone’s day. I remember this moment, working as a busboy back in Cheyenne: One of the priests from my local parish hated his lamb chops, so I went out of my way to make his day better, and I was hooked at that moment. It’s easy to lose sight of what it means to take care of people, but when you have that interaction, it makes all the hard work worth it.

What are you interested in learning from here?

I just read Marc Vetri’s Mastering Pasta. It’s humbling to read a book by a master of his craft. Our doppio ravioli has his name attached for a reason. I never let myself get satisfied. Little things that you can pick up on and run with make this job fun. One of the things I love about this profession is that the learning is never over. I learn something new every day.

What does it mean to be a master?

The irony is that masters would tell you they’re not masters. When I worked for Roland [Passot, at La Folie], I thought I was pretty hot stuff when I started. But he said, “Your duck sauce is doo-doo” — and then made [a sauce] in front of me. Masters come from generations of learning upon each other. It’s the pursuit.

Panzano is located at 909 17th Street. The restaurant is open from 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6:30 a.m-11 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m-1 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 303-296-3525 or go to panzano-denver.com.

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