The signature signs of a city that's on the culinary fast track reside in its willingness to take aggressive risks, push infinite boundaries and continually adapt to a fickle dining public whose expectations are always on the upswing. Denver is that city -- a major metropolis that refuses to slow down, unleashing triumphant restaurants, watering holes and breweries commanded by innovative masterminds, the likes of which have resulted in a James Beard Award-winning chef, nationally crowned cocktail champions and Einsteins of beer.
See also: Welcome to Westword's 19th annual DISH
As a prelude to the September 22 DISH, Westword's annual celebration of the Denver dining scene, we picked the brains of nearly fifty Denver chefs, all of whom weighed in on Denver's current culinary landscape and the trends that have made their mark this past year. But that's not all we wanted to know: We also wondered which ingredient best personified their personalities and what ritual was an integral part of their daily routine.
Herewith the dish from Wayne Conwell, Gerard Strong, Iain Chisholm and Sheila Lucero; watch for more installments over the next several days, and don't miss part one, part two, part three, part four, part five and part six of our DISH chef series.
Wayne Conwell Sushi Sasa See also: 100 Favorite Dishes: Foie gras oysters from Sushi Sasa
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? I wish people could automatically sense exactly how shy I am outside of Sasa. At the restaurant, I'm in my element, but that's not always the case on the streets. Imagine how amazing it would be if everyone else broke the ice for you and you could have conversations with new acquaintances that felt like the conversations you have with your childhood friends.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? My average day is nonstop, and I hold a lot of stress in my head, neck and shoulders, so I make it a point to set aside at least fifteen minutes in a quiet place to lie down, elevate my feet and meditate. I use the time to brainstorm recipes, work on business-related strategies and solutions, block out everything and relax, or fade out and nap. It's a make-it-or-break-it part of my workweek.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Oh, I've definitely given this question a lot of consideration over the years with my overactive imagination. Plainly put, nothing beats telepathic mind control. But since I truly believe that absolute power corrupts absolutely and I would likely be dead within a year, for the sake of discussion, I'll pick telekinesis. Imagine the ability to cook solo and multitask experimental recipes effortlessly like conducting a symphony. The only restriction I'd attach, just to make things fair, would be that I could only control objects at my current personal skill level, so I'd still need to practice the good, old-fashioned hard way from time to time to improve my technical skills.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? The amazing array of local and around-the-world ingredients that are so readily available. Chefs are now using the sickest stuff right here in Denver like it's commonplace. This is especially true with produce. We owe much thanks to both local farmers and DIA.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene: Me! If I throw my own name out, I expect you all to hold me accountable and force me to raise the bar and give even more of myself to advance my food and my team.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Konbu seaweed is something that I have been playing around with for years. I have found some super cool things you can do with it in the kitchen and special properties it lends to many areas of cuisine. It is conservative, traditional, and experimental all at the same time. It holds secrets that once revealed become your own.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? The Denver culinary climate is flourishing and juvenile in a fun and jovial sense. There are tons of restaurants working hard to nail down their own personal identities. At the same time the level of investment needed to open a restaurant now has made the Denver dining scene upscale.
Gerard Strong Central Bistro & Bar See also: Gerard Strong, exec chef of Central Bistro & Bar, on nearly hurling in Vietnam
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? I was in a band when I was younger and had a record contract.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? It's essential that I eat breakfast and have coffee every morning. Without my most important meal of the day I get cranky and angry.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? The ability to teleport and be in two places at once, which would double my productivity and keep my wife happy, too.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? It's been exciting to see how engaged and aware Denver diners have become in the last few years. Our clientele at Central Bistro has become more sophisticated and their expectations keep increasing, which continues to keep me motivated in the kitchen.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? I'm most excited to see how Alex Seidel's new project turns out in Union Station, and I'm also really pumped to see what Bryan Dayton and his team do with the Acorn project in River North, especially since I just recently had a great dinner at Oak at Fourteenth for my wife's birthday.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? A Jimmy Nardello chile, because it's a bright red pepper that looks very spicy but when you take a bite, you actually find that it's very sweet and light. It's a misunderstood pepper.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? It's competitive and constantly changing with all the new places that are opening. It's been great living in a city that's undergone so amazing changes in the short three years I've lived here.
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? That while being a chef is one of the many interests in my life, it doesn't define my entire life. I like to create in general, whether it's music, carpentry or food. I get just as much enjoyment out of welding a table as putting food on it. People have preconceptions that all chefs are neurotics who only think about food, only eat a certain caliber of food, and only derive pleasure from food - and, yes, there are plenty of chefs like that -- but I consider myself a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Cooking represents something very important to me, but not everything.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Two walks with my dog every day. She has a lot of down time while I'm at the restaurant, sometimes for sixteen hours a day, so I make sure to give her a few miles when I'm home.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Mind control. All the problems of the world could be solved if everybody just saw things my way.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? I like that so many chefs are doing everything in-house, which is why cooking evolved as an art form, plus it gives us a chance to make every element of a meal special. And I'm happy to see so many local chefs training their staff to do everything properly in-house, too. It's creating a new generation of chefs who will continue to expand on what they're learning, which means that Denver should be in for a treat for years to come.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? Honestly, I'm a bit of a hermit and don't get outside the restaurant enough to really know a lot of people. That said, I'm watching everybody who's opening up shop at The Source. It sounds like such a cool concept, and I'm pumped to see what it brings to Denver.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? The potato: It's humble, tenacious and substantial.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? It's blowing the F up. People are going out on a limb with new concepts -- and they're great concepts. The thing that makes it possible is that people in Denver are so supportive of start-ups and a hungry public fosters growth.
Sheila Lucero Jax Fish House See also: Chef and Tell with Sheila Lucero from Jax Fish House
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? I love surprise parties.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Coffee, preferably from Crema Coffee House.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I'd love to have cloning abilities.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? The noticeable dedication of taking care of the guest and getting to know who's in your house. I'm hoping that this isn't a trend, but something that we just do. I know it's the hospitality business, but I see Denver really running with the reason why we do this: to makes our guests happy.
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SHOW ME HOW
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? I love the dynamic kitchen trio at Beast & Bottle. I know that it's Paul's shop, but you can just tell when you're there that everyone is really excited about what they're doing - and they're doing it well. And it's obvious that they're having a blast.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Fish sauce, specifically Red Boat fish sauce. It's subtle, funky and kind of complex.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? Growing faster than we can staff our restaurants. It seems like everyone is hurting for good, solid peeps. I'm hoping that it will balance out soon.